South African PhilanthroFacts 2 – When we give, who is it who gets?

The picture above was taken by Carmel Loggenberg/EWN, published at

Blog by Gabrielle Ritchie 16 March 2015

What prompts us to give? Five motivators to giving money to social causes:

Summer at the Cape Peninsula in South Africa is always a time for truly wicked bushfires.  The combination of dry weather and outrageously strong winds is a recipe for disaster.  Summer 2015 has been no different.  Huge fires that last for days are, thankfully, quite rare, and so it seems that this summer was to be Cape Town’s first real “big fire” season in quite a few years.  Bush firefighting is a massive community endeavour, heavily reliant on volunteer firefighters, drivers, food donations, co-ordination, evacuation assistance and so on.  The recent Cape Town fire (which started 1st March) used more than 400 firefighters, burned for 5 days, turned to charcoal more than 5,500 hectares of land – and at many points seemed unstoppable, with huge flames and the front line spreading for kilometres.  On the 4th day of the fire, a local radio station hosted a fundraising phone-a-thon for one of the volunteer firefighting services, and raised – in the space of about 12 hours – approximately 14x their original target.  Corporates and individuals called in, pledging their financial support to the firefighting non-profit.  It was a truly spectacular fundraising success.  To the volunteer organisation’s enormous credit, their social media campaign was impeccable all the way through the 5-day fire.  It was textbook campaign excellence and the phone-a-thon results reflected this clearly.

Along with this fundraising success came the very necessary questions from concerned members of the public and social media commentators.  These questions focused on how non-profit causes are promoted; who decides on which causes are provided with media platforms for fundraising; whose lives and homes are privileged for fundraising, while others’ are deemed unimportant; does money always go to the already-resourced organisations; what about the hundreds of people routinely losing everything to shack fires that break out in squatter communities?

These are just some of the questions that put the notion of “fundraising success” under a social justice lens, and which invite scrutiny and interrogation of the politics of public fundraising appeals.  I have had many discussions, arguments and debates since the fires about the profiling of some causes above others, and about the role of activists and organisations in shaping public understanding about social issues. While those discussions are far-reaching and complex, the key question remains about how individuals make decisions about what they are going to give their hard-earned cash to.

Below are listed the five top reasons, in my opinion, why people give:

  1. Passion – what is in our hearts. Often this isn’t something we can account for or necessarily explain at first, but when it connects, you feel it. As per the recent Cape Town example, if we care about the environment in general, and the Table Mountain National Park in particular (which was spectacularly affected in the fires), then supporting a volunteer firefighting organisation is a “no-brainer”.
  2. Values – and the ability to identify with a cause. The issues or causes that connect with our values are those most likely to catch our attention and hook us in. So if we value grit, determination and perseverance, for example, then again the “Cape Town Fires” cause is an obvious one to support because of the sheer scale and duration of the firefighting effort.
  3. Urgency – this is often a key reason, where crisis can play an important role in getting involved in supporting an issue or cause. If it is apparent that your giving, right at the moment, is going to make a difference, if your immediate action is going to make an immediate and visible difference, then this is often what will pull individuals towards getting involved through funding support. We like to see how our contribution is making a difference.
  4. Availability of information – it is much easier to give to a cause when we know the the current state of play of a cause, and what kind of support is required – with clear and easy-to-access information on the different ways in which we can help or the different kinds of support we can provide. With social media, most people expect to be able to access immediate and up-to-date information. Not being able to do so is likely to lose an organisation its support quite quickly. The Cape Town fires are a really excellent example of up-to-the-minute communications – at any given point those with access to facebook and twitter were able to get information not only on the status of the fires, but on what particular help and support was required at any given time at any given fire station. Good, timeous communication is the key to any cause attracting support.
  5. Easy processes for giving – linked directly to the point above, the easier it is to help and support and contribute and donate, the more likely people are to do it. Social media provided an incredible platform for sharing information about the fires and how to support. Drop-off points for material donations were clearly advertised, specific calls were made about what to donate and where to take it, and banking details were repeatedly made available online on facebook pages.

There are a number of other motivators for giving:

  1. Low-risk causes – If a cause is low-risk, and there is unlikely to be some kind of negative social impact on oneself in being associated with a particular issue. For examples, children and animals are very popular to support because they are what we call “soft issues”.
  2. A public face – If there is a public figure, or a face, or a character that fronts a cause, and if people are able to identify with that figure
  3. Telling a good story – If there is a particular story associated with a cause, and people can relate to the story.

Gabrielle Ritchie on Cape Talk Radio and Radio 702, in discussion with Bruce Whitfield about what motivates people to give


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