People line up to pick up food at a New York City mobile food pantry in Brooklyn, New York. (Angela Weiss / AFP via Getty Images)
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Still employed, and don’t need your stimulus check? COVID-19 fundraisers want you to donate it

Samantha Fields Apr 27, 2020
People line up to pick up food at a New York City mobile food pantry in Brooklyn, New York. (Angela Weiss / AFP via Getty Images)

The money was never his, or it never should have been his. That’s how Daniel Malinsky thinks about his stimulus check. 

Why, he figured, should he get $1,200 from the government when he’s still working his regular job, making his regular income? 

“It’s not really something that makes a big material difference to my life, whereas it can make a huge material difference to the life of somebody else,” said Malinsky, 31, who lives in Baltimore and works as a researcher at Johns Hopkins. 

“I know that there are a lot of folks, especially undocumented immigrants, who sort of fall through the cracks, don’t have various social support networks or safety nets, that really need the money.”

So, as soon as it arrived in his bank account a little over a week ago, he donated it, all $1,200, to a fundraiser for immigrants in the D.C. area who are not eligible for help from the federal government. 

That fundraiser, organized by the immigrant rights group Sanctuary DMV, is one of many that have popped up online in the last few weeks, often with the hashtag #ShareMyCheck, encouraging anyone who doesn’t need their stimulus check to donate it. While there is not yet data on how many Americans are donating all or part of their check, there is evidence many are.

“Once people actually got those checks, which was around the 14th or 15th of April, that’s when we saw a huge bump,” said Brandon Wu, an organizer with Sanctuary DMV. “We raised $80,000 in one day once the stimulus checks actually hit people’s bank accounts.”

Social media campaigns and fundraisers, like this one from volunteer group Sanctuary DMV, are popping up online asking people who don’t need their stimulus check to donate it. (Sanctuary DMV/GoFundMe)

Charity Navigator, which evaluates and rates nonprofits, has also seen a correlation between stimulus checks and an increase in charitable giving. The week after the checks started going out was “the highest traffic that we’ve had on Charity Navigator,” said Kevin Scally, the organization’s chief relationship officer. 

In addition to a 20% uptick in traffic, Charity Navigator has seen a 237% increase in people giving to nonprofits directly through its site compared to this time last year, and a 30% increase in the average donation. 

All of that is “a strong indicator,” Scally said, that people are “likely using their stimulus money to support the safety nets of society and make a donation to a nonprofit.”

It would not be the first time. 

“There is evidence in the literature that when folks receive windfall amounts that they are more likely to give to charity with that windfall,” said Shena Ashley, head of the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute. 

That was the case in 2001 when, the summer before 9/11, most Americans got $300 tax rebate checks after President George W. Bush signed the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act — the so-called Bush tax cuts — into law. After the attacks, a number of charities and fundraisers appealed to people to donate their checks and, Ashley said, “we saw evidence all across the country of a spike in giving to charitable organizations.” A spike that corresponded closely with the amount of the checks. 

While it was a different time — fewer people were personally affected, some wanted to protest Bush’s policies — Ashley said, “I do think we can learn from what we saw in behavior patterns in 9/11 that give support for this.”

Stimulus checks or no stimulus checks, there tends to be an increase in charitable giving around disasters. 

“One of the things that we know is usually following a disaster that many households give gifts of $50 to $100. That’s pretty common,” said Patrick Rooney, a dean at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Recessions, though, are a unique kind of disaster. 

“During recessions,” Rooney said, “giving tends to fall. Giving in a normal recession falls over 3% per year in inflation-adjusted dollars, and during the Great Recession that fell 15% spread over two years… And this looks more like the Great Recession than a typical recession.”

More Americans have lost jobs in the last five weeks than during the entirety of the Great Recession, 43% of households report having lost some or all of their income, and millions are struggling to cover basic expenses like rent, utilities, groceries. 

But even if many people now have less capacity to donate, “we already know that the closer you are to the need, the more likely you are to give,” said Woodrow Rosenbaum, chief data officer at the annual, global campaign Giving Tuesday. “So the fact that this is having a broad impact I think is going to continue to be an inspiring factor on people to want to make a difference.”

New research shows that is currently the case, both in the U.S. and around the world, Rosenbaum said. That is one of the reasons Giving Tuesday, which typically organizes a global day of giving around the holidays, is launching an additional campaign this year, on May 5, Giving Tuesday Now, “as a response to the unprecedented need caused by COVID-19.”

“What we’re hearing from our partners is that there’s significant interest in people giving within their communities — both geographically, literally where they live, as well as the way they define their broader community,” Rosenbaum said. “These campaigns tapping into the stimulus check might be an effective way of getting people who don’t need it to be able to give more.”

Most of the fundraisers geared toward getting people to donate their stimulus checks, according to GoFundMe, are raising money for undocumented immigrants and others who are not getting checks from the government. 

“We’re asking those who can to contribute their entire stimulus check to immigrants in the Washington, D.C. metro area who were purposefully left out of the government’s response to COVID-19,” Sanctuary DMV wrote on its GoFundMe page. “These donations will go directly to the pockets of our immigrant neighbors to support them in the face of new and already existing challenges.”

That message seems to be resonating. In three weeks, Sanctuary DMV has raised more than $475,000 — well over its original goal of $120,000. Many of the donations have been small, but more than 100 people have donated their full $1,200 check, according to Wu.

“On the one hand, we’re feeling so great that people are giving so much money,” he said. “Then on the other, when we turn around and give it away it’s like, well, this covers groceries for a family for a few weeks, and then doesn’t even touch their rent.”

That is why, for Malinsky, it felt like an obvious choice to donate his whole $1,200 check.   

“It seems like, in general, a lot of people are getting stimulus checks like me that don’t need it,” he said. “A lot of people who need financial support are not getting it. And for a lot of people who do need it, and are getting it, it’s not nearly enough.”

What’s missing, according to both Malinsky and Wu, is a real social safety net for those who need it most.

“This is such a massive failure of public policy,” Wu said. “This isn’t a problem that can be solved just through a volunteer GoFundMe, or a bunch of nonprofits and service organizations. It really is a problem that we need the government to take seriously.”

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