Most Americans don’t think nonprofits are making much of an impact, according to recent IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy survey

by Shari Finnell, editor/writer, Not-for-profit News

Now, more than ever, nonprofit organizations have comprehensive insights about how the American public perceives them, thanks to a poll recently conducted by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

And the results point to a need for nonprofit leaders to do a better job of conveying the story of their impact and educating the public about nonprofits overall, according to Una Osili, associate dean for research and international programs at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

The new report, What Americans Think About and Nonprofits, revealed the following perceptions among the 1,334 adults who were interviewed for an average of about 17 minutes each. 

  • 80 percent of survey respondents said that in-kind, charitable, and direct person-to-person giving were very or somewhat important.
  • However, nearly 30 percent of respondents said that they believe nonprofits are on the wrong track; 17.6 percent said they are moving in the right direction; while 52.5 percent responded that they didn’t know. When the unsure responses were removed from the analysis, nearly 63 percent indicated that nonprofits were on the wrong track.
  • About 30 percent believe charities contribute a lot to society.
  • Only 5 percent said that they think they or someone in their immediate family has been helped by a nonprofit organization — a low rate, according to the report, considering that one out of every 11 Americans work for a charitable organization.

Osili noted that the survey also revealed that many people do not seem to grasp the definition of a nonprofit organization, especially when so few believe they have been helped by the industry.

“Even when people think about services that they received, they don’t always know that those come from nonprofits,” said Osili, noting that many survey respondents did not seem to understand that colleges, hospitals, cultural organizations, religious congregations, or groups that participate in advocacy drives related to the environment and civil rights can all be part of the nonprofit sector.

“There is a big information gap,” Osili said. “The nonprofit sector is a mix. Some nonprofit organizations, like many hospitals, actually have a fee-for-service model but people may not think of them that way.”

The survey respondents seemed to readily acknowledge their lack of knowledge about the industry. For example, when asked what they know about philanthropy, about two-thirds categorized themselves as “novices.”

However, according to the survey results, Americans seemed to have a better grasp of the work performed by certain groups, such as community foundations.

“Community foundations stood out because they are in close proximity,” Osili said. “People seem to understand what they do because they’re supporting their communities. These groups have more visibility.”

Other survey findings included the following:

  • 39 percent said they trusted nonprofit organizations completely or very much. The level of trust in nonprofit organizations varied depending upon the type. For example, 36 percent trust religious institutions; 31 percent trust community foundations; 23 percent trust secular nonprofits; and 20 percent said they trust private foundations. 
  • 14.3 percent said they had a great deal of confidence that nonprofit organizations could “solve societal or global problems, now and in the future.” That compared to 12.6 percent for religious organizations; 7.2 percent for state and local governments; 6.5 percent for the President/federal executive branch; 5.8 percent for Supreme Court, federal judiciary; 3.4 percent for Congress/federal legislative branch; and 3.3 percent for large corporations.  

Increasing awareness about nonprofits

The report by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy comes amid increasing concerns about the overall health of nonprofits.

In the report’s introduction, the researchers noted that they initiated the research during a time that the public’s perception of nonprofits have diminished. “Despite philanthropy’s long, deep traditions and importance to many Americans, recent data trends have surfaced that have rekindled concerns about the health of the sector,” the report authors noted. “Two such challenges are the declining number of donors and the general decline in trust in all institutions.”

Osili said nonprofits have an opportunity to increase awareness about their programs and impact without investing a significant amount of funds. “All organizations can do a better job of telling their stories, especially how they’re making a difference in the community,” she said. “It’s important not to assume that everyone understands this.”

She noted that nonprofit organizations can increase their storytelling efforts on social media and websites, and encourage employees, volunteers, community members, and board members to share the posts.

“Use the resources you do have,” Osili said. “It doesn’t always involve hiring a marketing firm or PR firm. Your website and social media can be powerful ways of communicating. During the pandemic, we saw even small organizations doing a good job of mobilizing support, recruiting volunteers, and getting their donors involved.”

Nonprofits also can develop creative collaborations and partnerships to enhance awareness about their efforts, Osili said. Instead of soliciting a cash donation from a corporate partner, consider asking for in-kind support for a marketing and PR strategy, she said.

“Make sure you get your message out, sharing the stories about how you’re making a difference because ultimately that is what makes for a vibrant and thriving nonprofit sector,” she said. “It can help in building trust in the sector.”

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