The Humanist Dilemma: Do Microdonations to Charities and Political Causes Amount to Much?

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Nickel and Dimed Out: Since before the last presidential election, I have been getting emails asking me to sign various petitions. At first I signed them all. Inevitably, my signature would trigger a follow-up email thanking me and asking for some minimal donation—sometimes weird amounts like $2.37, although lately they mostly seem to be $3. I have pretty consistently ignored those requests for money (I give much more substantial donations to several organizations, including AHA), and I have even been backing off on signing every petition. I’ve heard that these one-click petitions don’t carry much weight, that it’s much more effective to call legislators or, better still, write actual snail-mail letters (and bury the recipients in physical volume). But I don’t have time or energy to do all that, and I’ve calculated that if I gave to each worthy cause that asked me for $3, I’d probably be on the hook for more than $30/day, which would add up really fast.

My question is: How much impact do these email petitions have? And do those $3 donations really go to anything beyond supporting the people sending out the email blasts?

I really want to make a difference, but I’m not sure this is the way.

—Trying to Make My Opinion (and Dollars) Count


Dear Count,

I often ask myself the same questions, as I click on a gazillion petitions but ignore their requests for money (like you, I have my favorite organizations that I give to regularly, and more generously).

According to the Washington Post, online petitions may not affect the legislators who are their recipients as much as they mobilize awareness and action among those who receive them, respond to them, and forward them to others. The New York Times essentially agrees, but adds that politicians do pay attention to public opinion, however it is delivered, so we shouldn’t accept the assertion that people in power don’t care about one-click petitions.

Similarly, AHA Executive Director Roy Speckhardt outlines the relative effectiveness of various approaches to influencing politicians in Chapter 10, “Becoming an Activist,” of his book, Creating Change through Humanism. He says although petitions aren’t terribly effective versus other more personal approaches like calling, they are tallied and considered if the organization collecting them takes the correct steps. He adds, “The AHA is one of the more efficient and capable nonprofits, so donating to it is a very good way to see one’s humanist values furthered through print, online communication, local group outreach, legal and legislative advocacy. Email blasts are an inexpensive fundraising tool, even if they don’t typically raise big money. So they can be worth responding to if they are going to an already effective organization such as the AHA.”

As for micro donations, sometimes that approach can be quite powerful. For example, the Bernie Sanders campaign raised a substantial amount of money from many supporters who each gave relatively small donations (reportedly an average of $27 apiece). Not only did that give the campaign a nice war chest, it also constituted bragging rights underscoring how many individuals supported the candidate enough to send him whatever they could afford, versus opponents who collected a few mega donations from a handful of billionaires.

But the increasing proliferation of emails asking for negligible sums has me, like you, feeling skeptical. I wonder if they are all the same organization under different banners—and if they really are distinct entities, how many of them are legit. One service that helps donors check out the quality of organizations asking for money is Charity Navigator. Although political organizations are not eligible for tax deductions, some of the advice Charity Navigator gives about evaluating worthy causes would also apply to political email solicitations. For example, rather than hit “Donate” and give your credit card info to whoever sent your email address a few sentences you agree with, check out their website and online stories about them to make sure they are worthy.

If you don’t have the time or energy to do due diligence for small donations, don’t make the donations. People who work at genuine non-profits tell me gifts under a certain threshold, such as $25, can cost the organization more in paperwork and reporting than they clear. So it’s better to save up your dollars until you can make more sizable contributions to specific groups you respect.

No matter what you support and how you support it, please always do your best to make informed choices. Give to organizations that use the money for their stated cause and not just to pay their staff handsomely or that are get-rich-quick scams. And beware of aiding organizations that have nice-sounding names that may not be at all what you had in mind (such as the abhorrent Citizens United, which I am forever mixing up with my beloved Americans United).

Another way to make a difference, without petitions or donations, is simply to make your views known to the people you encounter in your orbit. As Greta Christina articulates, people are influenced by what those around them say and do. Simply stating your opinion or position (e.g., “I give as much as I possibly can to Planned Parenthood,” or “I’m sending messages of appreciation to the brave Republicans who oppose Repeal and Replace”) may have a much greater impact than any number of petitions or donations—at no cost to you beyond a few words pronounced with conviction.