Few Christians name a faith-based organization as their favorite charity…American donors are taken with massive non-profits…and more we learned from asking Americans about their favorite charity.

If you could only support one charitable organization, which one would it be?

Consumer insights company Grey Matter Research and research panel Opinions4Good (Op4G) asked 1,000 American donors this question, then researched every organization mentioned as a favorite: their size, primary cause, overhead ratio, theater of operations, and whether the organization is faith-based. Donors were told to exclude local churches and places of worship from their answers.

The study found quite a number of surprising facts about the charities Americans favor. For one thing, although there are many large and well-known organizations, just twenty separate brands account for most-favored status for over half of all American donors (54%). In fact, just five major brands account for 36% of all donors’ favorite organizations:

  • ALSAC/St. Jude
  • American Cancer Society
  • American Red Cross
  • The Salvation Army

These are not by any means America’s largest charities, but the five most likely to be named as the very favorites by American donors.

A key conclusion of the research is that Americans tend to favor very large charities. The average total income of the 289 different organizations donors name in the study is $1.1 billion (according to their most recently available IRS Form 990). And although mathematical averages can be skewed upward by a small number of very large organizations, even the median figure is quite high, at $399 million. Just 5% of donors have a favorite charity with under $5 million of income; only 23% name one with under $50 million in income.

One advantage small organizations have is that they tend to attract larger donors. Among donors who gave under $100 during the 12 months preceding the study, only 20% have a favorite charity with income under $50 million, compared to 47% who have a favorite with a total income of $1 billion or more. This ratio starts to equalize as donors give more, finally reaching 29% favoring small charities and 35% very large charities among donors giving $2,000 or more in the past year.

A third major discovery of the study is that religious people rarely favor religious organizations. The proportion who name a favorite organization that is faith-based is only:

  • 18% among donors who self-identify as Christian
  • 8% among those who self-identify as some other religion
  • 19% among Protestants
  • 16% among Roman Catholics
  • 18% among those who attend worship services at least once a month
  • 23% among those who attend Protestant worship services at least once a month

The vast majority of all donors who identify with and regularly participate in religious faith do not have a faith-based organizations as their favorite charity.

Not only that, but organizations for which religion itself is the primary cause (e.g. spreading their religious faith or strengthening the faith of believers, such as a teaching ministry or missionary organization) are the favorites for only 2% of donors who regularly attend religious services.

So what do donors favor instead? By far the number one cause among all donors is specific diseases (24%), followed by international relief and development (14%), animal welfare (13%), and community development (10%).

The research also found that although a majority of donors state a preference for giving “here at home” rather than overseas, 60% name a favorite that operates globally, compared to 22% working just within the United States and only 16% working locally or regionally.

Ron Sellers, president of Grey Matter Research, notes that donors often prefer one thing but then donate in a way that contradicts their preferences. “When donors are directly asked, about half say they prefer supporting smaller organizations and two-thirds want to help ‘here at home,’” Sellers noted. “But then their favorite charities are heavily weighted toward large organizations and those operating globally. It’s a testament to so many of these favored organizations that they have garnered a high level of preference even though they don’t represent the ‘ideal’ organization for many donors.”

Sellers explained that there are many lessons to be learned from the study. “Faith-based organizations need to start asking themselves why so many people of faith are not putting their contributions where their hearts supposedly are. Small organizations need to consider whether their resources are best used trying to build a file of small, mass market donors or going after a more select group of larger donors. And everyone needs to take a look at the few brands that are tremendously strong and dig into what they have done to reach that brand strength and create preference among so many donors.”

The full study examines these donor perceptions more in-depth, with considerable detail. Please e-mail ron@greymatterresearch.com for a free copy of the full report.

About Grey Matter Research:
Grey Matter Research is a marketing research and consumer insights company located in Phoenix, Arizona. Grey Matter has extensive experience in research related to non-profit organizations, with numerous donor-supported organizations (along with for-profit companies) as clients. Grey Matter works directly with donor-supported organizations and in partnership with the fundraising, branding, and marketing services agencies that support them.

About Op4G:
Philanthropic online market research panel Op4G invites its panel members to participate in paid online research surveys, and then requires they donate a portion of their incentives – at least 25% and up to 100% – back to one of its 400-plus member non-profit organizations. Op4G’s unique approach to recruiting yields a highly engaged group of quality people who, as respondents, are dedicated to helping market research clients fulfill information needs. Since beginning client delivery in June 2011, panel members have donated over $425,000 to Op4G’s growing number of non-profit partners. Op4G is headquartered in Portsmouth, NH and operates globally.


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