Folk Magic for Non-Profit Donors


The Enchanted Garden by Julie Geiger (2013) CC BY SA 2.0, on Flickr

This week, in the wake of #Giving Tuesday, my inbox and social media feeds have been inundated by year-end requests for assistance.

As a donor, I can intellectually appreciate that my donation will go to (for example) paying staff members, purchasing art supplies or feeding hungry animals. But I don’t donate my limited charitable dollars out of a sense of rational duty. I do it for emotional reasons. And not even entirely noble ones.

In contrast to the year-end ask, my emotional giving is triggered in response to stochastic events. It is easy to feel small and powerless when scary, crazy things happen in the world, or when powerful people take infuriating actions that could hurt others.

These are where folk-magic encounters the modern non-profit, the fundraising equivalent of Grandma’s practice of tying a red ribbon around the rear-view mirror to shield me and my car from malign influences. It’s for when thoughts and prayers are not enough. To manifest your heartfelt intention (kavannah) in the world (“Please fix this problem, because it makes me angry/scared/sad,”) you need an offering, some sacrifice on the part of the petitioner to show seriousness.

It could be an action like writing a letter, posting a petition on social media or calling a congress critter. But most often for me, it’s a targeted donation amount in a multiple of $18. (For more on this practice: check out  History of Giving Money Gifts in Multiples of 18 from Jewish Boston). As long as we’re doing magic here, we’re going to stick with some powerful numbers.

For example: Last year, then-EPA Chief Scott Pruitt was attempting to roll back pollution regulations (and purchasing very important pants) In response, I sent an $18 to an environmental litigation organization with the heartfelt intention, “Please use this money to sue the pants off of Scott Pruitt.”

Not long after, Mega Donor Mike Bloomberg endowed a $6 million center at NYC Law to help state attorneys general to sue the federal government. It was an emotionally-satisfying (albeit, irrational) conclusion to think that my little bit of intention sent into the Universe had finally connected with some real heft.

Some donations invoking magic are of the wildfire, hurricane and earthquake relief variety. After the 2011 Japan Earthquake, the Japan Society in New York City started to receive many small donations to go towards relief, but was puzzled by those that arrived $18 increments. (Power of magic numbers). While the pragmatic end of such generosity is that people get fed, and housed and cared for, the immediate relief goes to the moved/shaken/discomforted donor who regains a measure of “control” in the face of chaos and suffering.

These magical donations can be in the wake of smaller tragedies, such as the death of a community member or illness of a loved one. An event-triggered donation can also be a fervent wish of a blessing and abundance (a contribution to a crowd-sourced project or a beloved alumni organization.) Not only does the recipient organization or individual acquire the practical value of money, the gift contains the moral (and magical) support of the heartfelt intention.

I’m not quite sure if this impulse towards magical thinking can be corralled for the purpose of the year-end sustaining gift by development departments. For that, we might have to rely on behavioral economics to bring potential donors to the table.