Is donor fatigue hitting Minnesota charities?

The Greater Twin Cities United Way says it is $1.5 million short of its goal this year. If the current pace continues, this will be the first time in four years that the United Way misses its goal. United Way President Lauren Segal says the shortfall in 2001 was a direct result of the terror attacks.

Now, she sees something else.

"There's been a very significant number of quiet lay-offs, some not so quiet, but a lot of quiet workforce reductions and efficiencies that have led to, as we added it up, several thousand jobs, if not more, that are no longer in existence in our community," she said.

...the way that donor fatigue has typically been used, to be focused on donors being fatigued about giving for the crisis and then not wanting to give to other charities, we don't think that there's a lot of support for that type of behavior

Ninety-three percent of the money that United Way raises comes through the workplace. Fewer jobs means less money.

The United Way isn't the only big charity in the Twin Cities worried about missing its goal. The Red Cross has issued an urgent appeal for donations. Officials there say donations are off $2 million. Red Cross CEO Jan McDaniel says she's not sure why donations are down.

"I'm at a loss to speculate on what the actual problem could be. Every once in a while we talk about donor fatigue. Maybe last year was such a year of giving because of the hurricanes and the tsunami, maybe people just got tapped out," she said.

But philanthropy experts say "donor fatigue" doesn't really exist. Patrick Rooney, research director at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University says a number of factors may be at work.

"There may be the possibility of donor fatigue in a cumulative sense if more non-profits are out fundraising and doing campaigns and so on. But the way that donor fatigue has typically been used, to be focused on donors being fatigued about giving for the crisis and then not wanting to give to other charities, we don't think that there's a lot of support for that type of behavior," he said.

According to the Center on Philanthropy, Americans gave a total of $260 billion to all charities in 2005. That included more than $7 billion for major natural disasters such as the tsunami that hit in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina.

There are about a million non-profit organizations in the United States. And that may be part of the problem, says Todd Cohen, editor and publisher of the North Carolina-based on-line magazine Philanthropy Journal. Cohen says potential donors have to sort through the clutter of so many organizations vying for their dollars.

"Non-profits are competing for funding and for support, not only among one another, but they're simply just competing for the attention of donors, whose attention is also focused on all kinds of things: their personal lives and their families and their jobs and television and mass media and commercial advertising. So a big challenge for non-profits everywhere is to tell their story clearly, to engage potential supporters, donors and volunteers, and do that in the most effective way that's going to result in the support that they need," he said.

Like the United Way and Red Cross, the Salvation Army is also running behind on its goal. Kettle donations are off four percent from last year and the organization is only half-way to its goal. Annette Bauer, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota-North Dakota chapter, says donors may be suffering from information overload.

"I believe people will give once they understand what it is you want them to do. It's trying to cut through all of the information they get and say, 'If you will make this donation, this is what I want to do with it. Does that appeal to you? Do you believe that's an important aspect of the community?'" she said.

The Salvation Army, like other charitable organizations, is hoping that Minnesotans continue to live up to their reputation for being generous.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.