The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 24, 2017

Can Red Nose Day catch on in the United States?

May 25, 2017

If you’ve seen a bunch of people walking around with red noses recently, chances are, it’s not because there’s a clown convention nearby (unless you live near here). They are more likely honoring Red Nose Day (RND), a global fundraising event taking place today in the United States.

Launched in the United Kingdom in 1988 by the charity Comic Relief, RND encourages people to get together to do something silly to raise money and awareness for the fight against child poverty. Since then, the biennial event, which features a celebrity-packed telethon, has raised more than £1 billion and has installed itself at the heart of British charitable culture.

In 2015, Red Nose Day launched in the United States with a televised event headlined by Jack Black. The campaign raised $21 million, a significant sum, but well short of the $122 million that RND raised in the United Kingdom that year.

The following year, US Red Nose Day brought in $31.5 million. We’ll soon see if that growth continues, but we shouldn’t judge RND based on dollars alone. Its long-term success hinges on several factors pointing to key, broader dynamics within the charitable sector.

’Tis the season?

Charitable giving is not distributed uniformly throughout the calendar. We tend to give—and give more—as the year closes.

The seasonal imbalance is especially pronounced with digital giving. According to the Network for Good Digital Giving Index, nearly a third of all online giving occurs in December, and 11 percent in the last three days of the year.

There are obvious reasons for this concentration, including holiday spirit and end-of-the-year tax planning considerations. But from a managerial perspective, it’s better for nonprofits to receive charitable donations more evenly throughout the year.

Evidence shows that #GivingTuesday (held since 2012 on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving) helped draw some giving from December to November, and recently, several localities, such as Alexandria, Virginia, and Silicon Valley, have held spring giving days, claiming relatively uncrowded calendar territory.

Red Nose Day is clearly hoping to do the same on a national level, and in the process, is testing the elasticity of America’s seasonal charitable biases.

The macro power of micro-philanthropy

Red Nose Day supporters can purchase red clown noses at Walgreens and Duane Reade for a dollar, with half the proceeds going to the Red Nose Day Fund. This type of charitable giving—“point of sale” donations—has brought in more than $3.88 billion over the last three decades.

Such purchases are an excellent example of “micro-philanthropy,” small donations made by a wide class of potential givers. As one of its most high-profile exercises, RND presents an opportunity to explore the benefits and drawbacks.

As Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign appreciated with regard to political donations, small gifts, when combined, can result in a large sum. The charitable model also has precedents in the mass campaigns of the early 20th century to promote medical research, such as the March of Dimes.

But micro-philanthropy runs against the grain of a key fundraising trend—the increased reliance of nonprofit institutions, such as colleges and universities, on a small number of large donations for their charitable revenue. It can be understood as a reaction against such inequities within the charitable sector, suggesting an intrinsic value to citizens engaging in philanthropy and expressing themselves through their charitable choices.

Achieving wide-scale engagement is the goal, though this raises the question of the proper threshold for participation. How “micro” can we get without cheapening charitable action? Does a Facebook click count?

More instrumentally, micro-philanthropy also promotes the small donation as a means of raising awareness for a cause and of investing in individuals’ long-term charitable identities and inclinations. Millennials, who now represent approximately 11 percent of total charitable giving, are an especially attractive target for this approach.

The small initial “buy-in” allows RND organizers to cast a wide net, though donor retention remains a challenge. According to a recent survey, only 45 percent of donors who gave in 2015 gave to the same organization in 2016. Whether RND can retain its givers, and whether they will increase their giving over time, bears watching closely in the years to come.

Respecting national cultures of giving

Whenever a philanthropic practice is imported from one locale to another, it’s worth thinking about the distinctive giving cultures that must sustain the model. In this case, we should consider how the conditions that fostered the growth of RND in the United Kingdom might differ from those in the United States.

In the United Kingdom, RND benefited from the legitimizing and unifying status of the BBC. There is no analogue platform in the United States, not even NBC (despite its name), which will air special programs based around RND on May 25, including the third annual telethon.

Especially without the benefit of a national broadcaster’s imprimatur, the appeal of these televised charity events is in question. Ironically, the first American RND special aired just weeks after the Muscular Dystrophy Association canceled its own iconic telethon, long hosted by Jerry Lewis, citing “the new realities of television viewing and philanthropic giving.”

These realities have led RND’s organizers to develop a revised telethon model in which television viewership is amplified and refracted through social media. US Comic Relief is making a big push to drive donations through Facebook’s giving tools, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has offered a $1 million match of RND donations made on Facebook. This approach will likely lead to a more decentralized model of content production, which carries its own risks and rewards.

It’s also likely that Americans will engage that content in different ways than British RND supporters. As one of the savviest commentators on British philanthropy, Rhodri Davies, explained to me in an email, one reason for RND’s UK popularity was the general British discomfort with talking about money and charity. Silliness, giving to charity “as just a bit of fun,” helped lessen that discomfort.

Americans have no such issues talking about charity or money and so the relationship between philanthropy and comedy provides a different service, one that should be clearer in the years to come. In fact, RND’s development in the United States and ultimate divergence from the UK model will provide a fascinating opportunity to study these two nations’ respective giving cultures.

New York Red Bull players Alex Muyl and Connor Lade celebrate 'Red Nose Day' with kids at the school yard of PS 154 in Brooklyn on May 26. 2016. Photo by Sam Aronov/Shutterstock.

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