Fundraising campaigns have always relied on momentum. Non-profit organisations rely on appeals for donations in all the media available to them.

Crises and Other Reasons why we Donate

Media reports influence donation behaviour. A look beyond our borders reveals similarities and differences.

One day! That’s how long it takes for Swiss Soli­da­rity to react to a disas­ter and orga­nise a coll­ec­tion. ‘First off, we check whether the affec­ted coun­try needs – and, cruci­ally, accepts – inter­na­tio­nal aid,’ says Fabian Emmen­eg­ger, media spokesper­son for Swiss Soli­da­rity. Another prere­qui­site is for seve­ral of Swiss Solidarity’s 26 Swiss part­ner orga­ni­sa­ti­ons to be present on the ground; this is neces­sary in order to provide the desi­red quality of assistance.

In 2023, this was also the case for the huma­ni­ta­rian crisis in the Middle East in addi­tion to the earth­qua­kes in Turkey, Syria, Morocco and Afghanistan.

Getting a natio­nal day of soli­da­rity up and running takes a little longer. Around 300 volun­teers ensure that coll­ec­tion centres are set up in Zurich, Geneva, Lugano and Chur within seven to ten days. Swiss Solidarity’s fund­rai­sing campaigns are depen­dent on the support of SRG (Swiss Broad­cas­ting Corpo­ra­tion) and other private media outlets: media report­ing plays a key role, along­side how people in Switz­er­land are affec­ted. Fabian Emmen­eg­ger says: ‘In gene­ral, we have found that the nature of the disas­ter, Swiss people’s emotio­nal connec­tion to the issue and the geogra­phi­cal proxi­mity, too, are decisive factors in the volume of dona­ti­ons received.’

The soli­da­rity reflex

Swiss Soli­da­rity enjoys a special status among fund­rai­sing orga­ni­sa­ti­ons. It has a very focu­sed approach and has a strong public presence after major disas­ters. ‘Swiss Soli­da­rity is often seen as a Swiss “soli­da­rity reflex”,’ says Fabian Emmen­eg­ger. When the asso­cia­tion calls for dona­ti­ons, this often trig­gers great waves of soli­da­rity. He cites the start of the war in Ukraine as one of the latest examp­les. Accor­ding to the Swiss Soli­da­rity Baro­me­ter, soli­da­rity among Swiss citi­zens in gene­ral has also increased over the past two years.

Above all, they show soli­da­rity with people in need, with these imme­diate issues holding grea­ter sway with certain groups of the popu­la­tion than animals or the envi­ron­ment. The baro­me­ter also notes a clear prefe­rence for aid in a person’s own region.

There has been little change in the issues in ques­tion; dona­tion statis­tics are very stable across the market as a whole. ‘Over the last five years, nature conser­va­tion, envi­ron­men­tal protec­tion and animal welfare, people with disa­bi­li­ties, and social and emer­gency aid have always been the four most important causes for dona­ting to chari­ties,’ says Roger Tinner, Mana­ging Direc­tor of Swissfundraising. 

Major crises abroad lead to an increase in dona­ti­ons owing to the media spot­light on them. Howe­ver, it is not possi­ble to make any defi­ni­tive state­ments about the split between Switz­er­land and abroad, as many NPOs are active both in Switz­er­land and other count­ries, he points out.

Diffe­rent count­ries, diffe­rent issues

It is a diffe­rent situa­tion outside Switzerland’s borders. ‘For the first time, “health and medi­cal rese­arch” has lost its lead in the ranking of issues for which the French are plan­ning to donate,’ says Yaële Afer­iat, Direc­tor of the Asso­cia­tion Fran­çaise des Fund­rai­sers. Instead, ‘help for people in need’ takes the top spot, with 38 per cent wanting to donate in support of this issue. 

Animal protec­tion comes in third place. Yaële Afer­iat says: ‘It’s a remar­kable increase. This issue has been of such high importance for the second year in a row and has reached an unpre­ce­den­ted peak of 38 per cent, parti­cu­larly among high-income donors.’ Emer­gency situa­tions such as natu­ral disas­ters, conflicts and huma­ni­ta­rian crises, on the other hand, have slip­ped to sixth place, having ranked third two years ago when the war in Ukraine started.

By contrast, the 2023 German Dona­tion Moni­tor shows that the topic of ‘imme­diate and emer­gency aid in (civil) war and disas­ter areas’ is prac­ti­cally on a par with support for child­ren and young people, which tops the list.

Claire Stan­ley, Direc­tor of Policy and Commu­ni­ca­ti­ons at the Char­te­red Insti­tute of Fund­rai­sing in the UK, talks less about a shift in issues. Instead, she belie­ves it is incre­asingly crucial to reach target groups with the right topics. ‘It’s never been more important to reach the right support­ers with the right ques­ti­ons,’ she says.

‘By iden­ti­fy­ing the diffe­rent moti­va­tions that cause someone to support a charity, fund­rai­sers can explore new and exci­ting ways to inspire people to donate – and offer them a great expe­ri­ence in the process.’ She also finds that more and more young donors are beco­ming active in phil­an­thropy, with issues such as envi­ron­men­tal protec­tion and social justice important to them. The crisis of the rising cost of living has gained in importance throug­hout society and is also reflec­ted in phil­an­thropy. ‘The afflu­ent popu­la­tion in the UK respon­ded with a considera­ble increase in large dona­ti­ons in the first quar­ter of 2023,’ says Claire Stan­ley. ‘In recent years, we have seen phil­an­thro­pists working to ensure that chari­ties and the commu­ni­ties they support can over­come this crisis.’

apisu­isse, Pro Natura, FREETHEBEES and Bienen­Schweiz use conti­nuous commu­ni­ca­tion to reach their donors and achieve their desi­red outcome.

War and disasters

Roger Tinner also notes that crises and disas­ters have a major impact on how people donate: ‘Of course, the reasons for dona­ting are complex and indi­vi­dual, but crisis situa­tions always show that people are willing to support others – even if their own posi­tion is less secure than it would be in normal times.’ Trends in dona­tion volu­mes have reflec­ted this deve­lo­p­ment in recent years: in Switz­er­land, dona­ti­ons have doubled over the past 20 years. Accor­ding to Zewo’s dona­tion statis­tics, 2020, the year of the pande­mic, saw the 2 billion Swiss franc mark be excee­ded for the first time, while the war in Ukraine set a new record of 2.5 billion Swiss francs in 2022. ‘These events defi­ni­tely influen­ced dona­tion beha­viour, with soli­da­rity not only taking the form of mone­tary dona­ti­ons, but also, to an extre­mely large extent, direct aid,’ says Roger Tinner. ‘Many people crea­ted space in their homes for refu­gees from Ukraine or travel­led to Ukraine them­sel­ves with dona­ted goods.’

The volume is falling for 2023, but the fore­cast still predicts 2.2 billion Swiss francs in dona­ti­ons. At 720 million Swiss francs, dona­ti­ons from private house­holds remain at a high level. Accor­ding to the 2023 Zewo dona­tion report, 80 per cent of Swiss house­holds donate an average of 400 Swiss francs.

It is not possi­ble to draw a direct compa­ri­son between the figu­res from diffe­rent count­ries owing to the diffe­rent data available and the legal frame­work. Nevert­hel­ess, the figu­res still give a sense of the situation. 

Dona­ting more

The French popu­la­tion is also giving more. Accor­ding to the ‘La Géné­ro­sité des Fran­çais’ study by Recher­ches & Soli­da­ri­tés, tax-deduc­ti­ble dona­ti­ons grew drama­ti­cally from 2.2 billion euros in 2013 to 3.0 billion euros in 2022. Signi­fi­cant increa­ses were seen in 2020 and 2022, in parti­cu­lar. The average amount dona­ted has also risen to 605 euros. Accor­ding to the Baromètre de la Soli­da­rité, published in April 2024, 51 per cent of French people made at least one dona­tion in 2023, one per cent more than in the previous year. Even among house­holds with an annual income of less than 15,000 euros, the figure is 43 per cent. As the gene­ral situa­tion is curr­ently viewed as being more stable than it was a year ago, the propor­tion of donors who want to donate more this year has risen to 28 per cent. For 2022, Recher­ches & Soli­da­ri­tés esti­ma­ted the total volume of dona­ti­ons from private indi­vi­du­als, inclu­ding unde­clared dona­ti­ons, at around 5.4 to 5.6 billion euros. In its ‘Bilanz des Helfens’ over­view of chari­ta­ble support for 2023, Deut­scher Spen­den­rat e.V. (German Dona­ti­ons Coun­cil) reports a decline in dona­ti­ons from private indi­vi­du­als to around 5 billion euros. The level has retur­ned to normal after two excep­tio­nally good years. Mean­while, the UK Giving Report expects dona­ti­ons to increase from 12.7 billion pounds in the previous year to 13.9 billion pounds in 2023. Major donors, above all, are respon­si­ble for this trend: there is no increase in the number of donors overall.

After death

Claire Stan­ley sees a lot of poten­tial in wealt­hier indi­vi­du­als, in parti­cu­lar. She even belie­ves that 3.4 billion pounds of unused capi­tal is being lost. Refer­ring to data from Onward’s ‘Giving Back Better’ report, she calcu­la­tes that the 10 per cent with the highest inco­mes donate, propor­tio­nally, only half as much as the 10 per cent with the lowest incomes.

Lucinda Frostick, Direc­tor of Remem­ber A Charity, also points to lega­cies as a source of income for NPOs. These are beco­ming incre­asingly important: NPOs curr­ently raise 4 billion pounds a year through lega­cies. Ten years ago, this figure was 2.6 billion pounds. ‘It is predic­ted that bequests will bring in 10 billion pounds annu­ally by 2050,’ she says. Bequests now account for about 30 per cent of the income gene­ra­ted by the UK’s leading charities. 

The situa­tion is diffe­rent for Swiss Soli­da­rity. A smal­ler propor­tion of its dona­ti­ons comes from lega­cies, although this varies greatly. By compa­ri­son, dona­ti­ons from compa­nies and grant giving foun­da­ti­ons follo­wing major disas­ters are more signi­fi­cant – and some­ti­mes amount to very large sums indeed. ‘Swiss Soli­da­rity typi­cally recei­ves around a third of all its dona­ti­ons from major private and insti­tu­tio­nal donors,’ says Fabian Emmen­eg­ger. Roger Tinner also notes that corpo­rate giving has increased signi­fi­cantly, parti­cu­larly in times of crisis. ‘Corpo­rate social respon­si­bi­lity has become part of many compa­nies’ day-to-day acti­vi­ties and moti­va­tes them to support NPOs finan­ci­ally – and, of course, to act sustain­ably in envi­ron­men­tal, social and econo­mic terms.’ By contrast, other forms of dona­tion such as payroll giving, i.e. direct dona­ti­ons of part of a person’s salary, play a margi­nal role. This is most likely to occur at multi­na­tio­nal corpo­ra­ti­ons. Roger Tinner: ‘Commu­nity dona­ti­ons are proba­bly not that important a form of dona­tion, either – unless you include centu­ries-old forms of commu­nity dona­ti­ons, such as Sunday dona­ti­ons in church.’

Reverse decis­ion-making

Various Swiss cities are home to forms of coll­ec­tive dona­tion. Members of dona­tion parlia­ments jointly decide on how dona­ti­ons are to be allo­ca­ted, with the first of its kind, loca­ted in Zurich, support­ing social and cultu­ral projects since 2006. The Swiss Phil­an­thropy Foun­da­tion goes a step further. In a new project, the largest umbrella foun­da­tion in western Switz­er­land is test­ing out devol­ving grant decis­i­ons to beneficiaries.

‘For us, it’s important to promote new ideas in phil­an­thropy in order to streng­then foun­da­ti­ons’ impact,’ says Sabrina Grassi, Mana­ging Direc­tor of the Swiss Phil­an­thropy Foun­da­tion. In the Demaim­pact project, a group of ten young people between the ages of 18 and 30 decide on how dona­ti­ons are to be allo­ca­ted. The idea was that it is not the donors, the funders or the boards of trus­tees who call the shots, but repre­sen­ta­ti­ves of the commu­nity who bene­fit from the funds.

‘We want to see what happens when we trust them, how they make decis­i­ons, and how they orga­nise them­sel­ves, too,’ says Sabrina Grassi. The project will also provide insights into how the model can be repli­ca­ted with other groups of bene­fi­ci­a­ries such as older people, people with migra­tion back­grounds or people with disa­bi­li­ties. ‘We taught them the basics of phil­an­thropy in an initial work­shop,’ she explains. After all, the funds are to be used for chari­ta­ble purpo­ses. The project is desi­gned as a three-year labo­ra­tory, with a new commit­tee of ten young people formed each year. A signi­fi­cant amount of money was needed so that the decis­i­ons would have an impact. ‘That’s why we’ve teamed up with the Oak Foun­da­tion, the Hans Wils­dorf Foun­da­tion and a philanthropist,’ she says, enab­ling them to provide 400,000 Swiss francs per annum. The grant guide­lines stipu­late that the stee­ring commit­tee should use the funds for chari­ta­ble projects that bene­fit young people in Switzerland.

The parti­ci­pa­tory method used by the consul­ting firm commis­sio­ned, WISE Phil­an­thropy Advi­sors, enables young people to take full control of the decis­ion-making and selec­tion process for projects.‘To achieve this, we also had to adapt to the young people’s avai­la­bi­lity and provide them with the tools they needed from the off.’ They had full atten­dance for the first group. ‘Ever­y­thing went as plan­ned,’ says Sabrina Grassi, satis­fied with the outcome of the first round. ‘The first group reached a mutual agree­ment on the projects that should receive funding,’ she says. They star­ted by looking for projects. ‘The young people took a very profes­sio­nal approach to defi­ning and imple­men­ting the selec­tion crite­ria that they had jointly set out when the calls for projects were published.’ And she’s parti­cu­larly plea­sed by the fact that ‘their decis­i­ons were not signi­fi­cantly diffe­rent from what we would have gone for as a foun­da­tion.’ The group confirmed the rele­vance of the issues affec­ting young people: mental health, the tran­si­tion from school to work and the envi­ron­ment, with these three themes appearing syste­ma­ti­cally in the chal­lenges iden­ti­fied by the young people in both Demaim­pact groups. The second round is curr­ently underway.

The bene­fit of trust

In most cases, the reci­pi­ents of dona­ti­ons are not invol­ved in the decis­ion to donate, which makes trust all the more important. The findings of the dona­tion and image baro­me­ter in Switz­er­land show that trust in non-profit orga­ni­sa­ti­ons is very high – both in prin­ci­ple and also in rela­tion to indi­vi­dual NPOs. ‘In my view, this has to do with the high level of trans­pa­rency that Zewo impo­ses on accre­di­ted orga­ni­sa­ti­ons, and which many non-Zewo aid orga­ni­sa­ti­ons also main­tain,’ says Roger Tinner. He notes that trans­pa­rency is a high prio­rity for donors in the middle and youn­ger gene­ra­ti­ons. ‘Addi­tio­nally, it is very important to them that they feel close to, or even asso­cia­ted with, the charity and its purpo­ses,’ he says. The fact that member­ship of an orga­ni­sa­tion is still the most common trig­ger for dona­ti­ons shows that commu­nity thin­king is important for both NPOs and donors alike.

Swiss Soli­da­rity laun­ched its appeal on the radio almost 80 years ago.

Looking for new channels

Howe­ver, finding the right chan­nels for commu­ni­ca­ting with their donors is a chall­enge today. Roger Tinner: ‘Medium-sized and small orga­ni­sa­ti­ons in parti­cu­lar face major chal­lenges, and are some­ti­mes over­whel­med, in terms of fund­rai­sing – even when making this choice.’ The evol­ving media land­scape and the multi­pli­city of commu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels are also chan­ging Swiss Solidarity’s work. In the past, it enga­ged a great deal with radio and tele­vi­sion. ‘Over the past few years, Swiss Soli­da­rity has had to adapt to these chan­ges in media consump­tion and actively estab­lish cont­acts with new commu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels both within and outside SRG,’ says Fabian Emmen­eg­ger. ‘The SRG Media Year­book shows that more than 40 per cent of the Swiss popu­la­tion no longer consume news; it is very diffi­cult to reach these people via tradi­tio­nal media chan­nels.’ Swiss Soli­da­rity was laun­ched on the radio: in 1946, it used the song ‘Y’a du bonheur pour tout le monde’ to roll out its first fund­rai­ser for child­ren affec­ted by war. At that time, it was still coll­ec­ting dona­ted goods. Soon, it had its own radio show. It worked in line with the prin­ci­ple that those who were best at fulfil­ling one wish were allo­wed to deter­mine the next one – ther­eby crea­ting a chain of solidarity.

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