Smoke and mirrors

Greg Thomson

November 29, 2017  

I have had enough of the “double your impact with a matching gift” mumbo-jumbo!  Yesterday, Giving Tuesday, I received three emails within half an hour all claiming that if I donate today, my impact will be doubled.  This is nonsense.

The claim is that the charity has found one donor who is willing to give them up to $10,000 (or $25,000, or whatever) on the stipulation that other donors will also donate, matching their gift.  Wait, no, I’ve got that backwards. Or do I? The claim they told ME was that if I donate today, another donor will donate the same amount (up to $10,000…or whatever), thus doubling the impact of MY donation.

This is the first problem with this mumbo-jumbo. Who is getting the doubling effect?  Are we both magically getting the doubling and it’s turning into four times the donation?  No, that wouldn’t work, but maybe it’s worth a try for some charity!

One of the emails actually mentioned the name of a business that had promised the matching gift – so I guess the offer to them was not only that others would donate too, but the business would get advertising for their donation…but I digress.

Another issue with these claims is understanding the counterfactual – what would have happened otherwise. Whenever charities report on the outcomes they achieve, it is important to know what would have happened without the charity’s involvement so that donors can understand the difference made by the charitable program.

In each of the emails sent to me, it is clear that the matching donor has set a threshold that they are willing to donate up to. It’s certainly possible that these are stretch goals – the charity may not reach the matching level; however, the initial donor is willing to donate (likely has in their giving budget) the matching level. Even if nobody donated to the matching program, it is highly likely that the original donor would donate most, if not all, of their designated funds to either the charity involved or to another charity.

So, while any individual donor’s donation appears to be “doubled”, the counterfactual is that the matching donor’s funds would, in most cases, have gone to that, or another charity.  There is very little additional funding coming in due to the claimed matching.

While each of these previous arguments are, to me at least, good reasons to not put much stock in “matching” gifts as a reason to give, the final argument is really the only one that matters. There is no increase in the impact of YOUR donation because someone else also donated to a charity.

This is like saying that you can get twice the taste sensation out of your ice cream cone because someone else also bought one. Somehow their taste sensation gets transferred to you so you get twice as much and they get…what?  If you are getting twice the impact on your dollar, what is the original donor getting?  Apparently nothing – not one sweet taste of butter pecan. Your donation dollar helps provide some change and the original donor’s donation provides the same amount. You can’t be greedy and claim their portion too.

The latest gift catalogue put out by Plan Canada is falling all over itself to double, triple, or even multiply your impact by 8 times. They’re not fooling me with this gobbledy-gook! I hope others will also see the horrible flaws in this attempt to show “impact” and we can get on with discussing the actual (no multiplier needed) impact of our donations.

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