Q&A: Global Impact chief on how and where US workers give to charity

Scott Jackson, president and chief executive officer of Global Impact.

SEATTLE — On November 28, millions of people in the United States opened their wallets to make charitable donations because of a six-year-old initiative called Giving Tuesday, which piggybacks on the proliferation of consumer-driven branded days such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday that follow the Thanksgiving holiday.

This year’s figures are not yet available, but trend lines show an annual increase in charitable giving since the idea was invented in 2012 by New York’s 92nd Street Y with support from the United Nations Foundation. Last year generated $168 million in donations, a 44 percent increase over 2015. This year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation matched up to $2 million in donations made on Facebook. 

Charity is big business, and Scott Jackson helms one of the biggest. Global Impact, based in Washington, D.C., fundraises for international humanitarian causes and has raised $1.8 billion since it was founded in 1956. As president and chief executive officer, Jackson oversees the marketing effort behind the Combined Federal Campaign, the largest employee giving campaign in the U.S. Previously at World Vision International and PATH, Jackson was a founding member of the ONE Campaign to end global poverty.

His current leadership role at Global Impact now comes with unprecedented challenges to keep encouraging nearly 10 million U.S. federal employees to donate a portion of their paycheck to one of 12,000 charities. The size of the federal workforce peaked in 2010 and has declined ever since, with the Trump administration threatening to cut even more federal workers and declining to fill vacant posts.

Devex spoke with Jackson about giving trends and his new memoir, Take Me With You: One Person’s Journey to Find the Charity Within, following his keynote address at this week’s Global Washington conference in Seattle. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What has been the impact of Giving Tuesday on the charitable sector, and does this one-day approach compete with sustained giving over the course of the year?

Giving Tuesday is an additive rather than a substitution. So far, the numbers show that Giving Tuesday is helping. We're entering into a third year in a row of record giving since we've gotten past the recession, and yet we don't have significant economic growth. Giving Tuesday and anything that shines the light on the need to continue to give is helpful.

How have federal workforce trends and the Trump administration’s staffing moves affected the Combined Federal Campaign?

The Combined Federal Campaign has historically been the largest employee giving campaigns in the world. It represents almost half of employee giving to charity in this country. It raises somewhere between US$140 and US$160 million a year, even though federal employees have received little to no cost-of-living increase in the last several years and faced a two-week government shutdown in 2013 during the scheduled launch of that year’s campaign.

This year, federal employees faced a double whammy.

First, federal regulations changed, requiring a whole new technology platform for the Combined Federal Campaign. The portal was supposed to open October 1, but it wasn't ready until October 17. That meant federal employees had to delay their ability to make their donations for two weeks.

Second, federal employees are uncertain about leadership and where their departments are headed. That's having its own toll on people individually, as well as collectively, inside those departments. When people are worried about the future of their jobs, they are less focused on giving. The vacant posts also mean that leaders are not there to set an example by encouraging employees to participate in the Combined Federal Campaign.

We hope that the campaign will hit and exceed $120 million this year, which would be 20 to 30 percent below where it's been historically.

Where are federal employees choosing to donate their dollars?

We're seeing a lot of issue-based fundraising, key issues such as homelessness, education, health. Often, federal employees contribute to charities like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital that are supporting their own families, veterans, and communities. That's one trend. The other is continued interest in international causes. The Combined Federal Campaign has always had a real interest in international giving.

With the recent hurricanes affecting the U.S. and prompting nationwide donations to Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, have you seen any change in attitudes in giving towards domestic versus international causes?

There is a trend in these times towards domestic giving. As we have the world here at home, we have the world's problems. As we face those problems ourselves, especially with disasters, people want to make sure they're taking care of their families and their communities.

How do long-term international causes including the refugee crisis or global famine fare in the face of immediate events like natural disasters?

Slow-burn disasters, especially in fragile or conflict states, have been harder to raise money for. We have the largest refugee problem we've ever faced, the most people displaced that the world's ever seen, and yet we have a hard time raising funds for the Syrian refugee crisis, or for the East African famine. These are harder issues to get in front of people and help them stay with those issues versus a disaster.

Your book describes your upbringing as you and your mother fled an abusive father, ultimately resulting in a Washington State Supreme Court case to settle whether you were a kidnapping victim or not. What kind of lessons can development professionals glean from your life story?

There are two lessons that I hope support fundraisers especially when they think about the book. First, if we don't connect our own personal story to our organization and to change in the world, there is less likelihood of us being able to transform others and to support donors. We all have to connect our own story of why we do this work. It can't just be a job.

Second, I had a revelation after writing the book about making that connection of my story to the Global [Sustainable Development] Goals. It has helped to transform me. I call it making the SDGs personal.

Read more Devex coverage on philanthropy.

About the author

  • Greg

    Gregory Scruggs

    Gregory Scruggs is a journalist based in Seattle. He has a bachelor's degree from Harvard University and a master's degree from Columbia University. A specialist in Latin America and the Caribbean, he was a Fulbright scholar in Brazil. His coverage of the Habitat III summit and global urbanization won a 2017 United Nations Correspondent Association award. He coordinates the Seattle chapter of the Solutions Journalism Network.