The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 15, 2016

Human services organizations lag in fundraising, but they’re gaining ground

August 15, 2016

When people think about the nonprofit sector, they’re often thinking about human services organizations (HSOs): food banks, homeless shelters, youth services, sports organizations, and family and legal services. In 2013, HSOs constituted the largest percentage of all public charities (35.5 percent), but they received just 11.7 percent of all charitable contributions.

While some well-known HSOs are large and well funded, most fly below the radar, delivering needed services in individual communities. And most, regardless of size, don’t have a sense of how their peers are performing or know how to find reliable data on fundraising to benchmark their performance. In other subsectors, such as health care and education, data and research on giving are relatively easy to find, but there is no obvious analogue for HSOs, the unsung heroes of service provision in many communities.

But while HSOs might lag behind other organizations in fundraising, a new look at data shows they are gaining ground.

Where to find fundraising data

Until recently, the nonprofit sector lacked a national dataset to create fundraising benchmarks or to compare organizations across or within subsectors. But the Growth in Giving (GiG) Initiative—which includes the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the Urban Institute’s Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy, and DonorPerfect, and a number of other fundraising software firms—created a database that will help advance research, education, and public understanding of philanthropy.

The GiG Initiative’s unique data-collection process allows donor software firms to contribute data on individual gift transactions without jeopardizing the confidentiality of any contributors or organizations. Since 2012, software vendors have contributed data—including, when available, historical data from the past 10 years—from over 6,000 client organizations.

The GiG database contains more than 109 million gift transactions, including over 22 million donations to HSOs, providing dozens of key metrics of fundraising performance and descriptive information about subsectors and locations for many nonprofit organizations.

What the data tell us about HSOs

Now the initiative, in partnership with the Giving USA Foundation, has used data from the GiG database to produce a Spotlight report on fundraising within HSOs. These analyses show that since 2009, HSOs have nearly caught up with other types of nonprofits in fundraising productivity. 

Giving to HSOs increased at a slightly faster rate than contributions to non-HSOs (58.1 percent versus 48.7 percent) from 2009 to 2015, which encompasses the recovery from the Great Recession. More strikingly, the average amount contributed per donor grew 70.7 percent for HSOs compared with 18.9 percent for non-HSO nonprofits over the same timeframe. 

The Spotlight report features a number of statistics widely used by professional fundraisers to compare HSOs and other nonprofits, including contributions per donor, donors per organization, donor retention, donor acquisition, and timing of contributions. The report also describes how HSOs have nearly caught up with other types of nonprofits in fundraising productivity and how HSOs can use their own data to learn how to thrive and grow.

The new Spotlight report provides a first look at the possibilities for actionable research that the GiG database provides. With access to these data, HSOs and other organizations can take steps to increase their funding, operate more effectively, and ultimately make a difference in more people’s lives.

Kim Oborn, assistant food bank manager, collects food items for a client at Douglas/Elbert Task Force on July 20, 2016, in Castle Rock, Colorado. Photo by Anya Semenoff/The Denver Post via Getty Images

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