Holding the Line vs. Piling On: A Surprising Look at the "Trump Effect" on Giving

How has Donald Trump’s unexpected ascendancy to the White House affected the world of giving? It’s still early, of course, to make definitive judgments. But in addition to anecdotal evidence that many funders have changed some of their priorities or practices in response to Trump—as we report regularly—more data has become available on the dimensions of what's been called a "Trump effect" on philanthropy.

Earlier this spring, the Center for Effective Philanthropy published a report, Shifting Winds, based on a survey of 162 foundation CEOs, finding that almost three-quarters of foundations "are making, or planning to make, some change in their work as a result of the election of Donald J. Trump."

Two surveys conducted by PMX Agency and National Research Group—one immediately after Trump’s inauguration, the other at the 100-day mark—also shed light on the extent of a "Trump effect" on giving—in this case, individual donors. The findings suggest a number of new patterns, and some of them are quite surprising.

The most noteworthy, the pollsters found, is that Democrats and Republicans alike are expressing a renewed interest in charitable giving—but for quite different reasons. Democrats, in large part, hope to offset Trump’s expected blow to their liberal agenda, especially on public health and social welfare issues. Republicans, meanwhile, are eager to capitalize on the White House’s anticipated backing for their favorite religious and defense-related causes.  

Simply put, Democratic givers hope to hold the line, if they can, while Republican donors are anxious to pile on.  

In terms of their stated intentions, the two parties seem fairly well matched. Democrats in 2017 expect to make charitable donations at a level 24 percent higher than they did in 2016, compared to 19 percent higher among Republicans. But there is also an important demographic component to these results. Younger donors—those under 35 years of age, and smaller donors who contribute in amounts of $100 or less—are expressing the greatest passion and enthusiasm for higher levels of philanthropy in the Trump era. Smaller donors are 112 percent more likely to increase their charitable donations in 2017 compared to 2016. By contrast, those that contributed $500 or more in 2016 are just 14 percent more likely to donate more—an eight-to-one difference.

And not surprisingly, smaller and younger donors are also far more likely to rely on information from social media to guide their charitable choices than older and larger donors are.  The latter group continues to rely heavily on information obtained from friends and family, and the very oldest donors are still highly receptive to direct mail, pollsters found.

One big surprise in the study is that Democrats appear to be somewhat less likely to contribute to women’s causes in the coming year than the previous one. The study sponsors speculated that an upsurge of women’s protests early in the Trump administration might be cooling some women on the need to raise their donations to pro-women charities; they may prefer direct action instead. It could also be that women are still trying to sort out where Trump actually stands on some women’s issues, given his opposition to abortion but his oft-stated support for women’s health and reproductive services generally.

In a number of other areas, neither Democrats nor Republicans overall seem especially eager to increase or decrease their past charitable contribution levels.

The study also found that charity patterns under Trump are in flux. Donors appear to be shifting their perception of Trump as his emerging policy agenda and priorities begin to crystallize. Overall, the partisan divide is narrowing—not widening—since the initial shock and awe over Trump’s dramatic victory last November.

"The lessening of the divide is driven by the liberal donors, not movement toward the middle from both sides,” PMX Vice President Bethany Maki told Inside Philanthropy. Democrats are beginning to perceive a “more diversified threat,” which is prompting them to embrace a wider range of “urgent issues,” she says.

PMX and the National Research group conducted their study among respondents 18 years of age and older who made at least one charitable donation in the past year. A total of 1,000 respondents—600 in the first wave, 400 in the second—were contacted at random and surveyed online.