Debt, Donors, and the Decision to Give

Thad Calabrese and Cleopatra Grizzle
Journal of Public Budgeting, Accounting, and Financial Management, volume 24, no. 2: 221-254

There has been a significant amount of work done on the private funding of nonprofits. Yet, despite the enormous size of the nonprofit sector as a whole, the importance of private donations to the sector, and the significance of the sector to public finances, there has been very little empirical research done on the capital structure of nonprofit organizations, and none has examined the potential effects of borrowing on individual contributions. Debt might affect donations because programmatic expansion might “crowd-in” additional donors, the use of debt might “crowd-out” current donors since expansion is undertaken at the behest of the organization (and not due to donor demand for increased output), donors might have a preference for funding current output rather than past output, or because of concerns that the nonprofit will be unable to maintain future programmatic output. These potential effects of debt on giving by individuals have not been the focus of research to date. The primary data for this paper come from the “The National Center on Charitable Statistics (NCCS)-GuideStar National Nonprofit Research Database” that covers fiscal years 1998 through 2003. The digitized data cover all public charities required to file the Form 990. The final sample contains 460,577 observations for 105,273 nonprofit entities. The results for the full sample support a “crowding-out” effect. The analysis is repeated on a subsample of nonprofits more dependent upon donations, following Tinkelman and Mankaney (2007). The restricted sample contains 121,507 observations for 36,595 nonprofit organizations. The results for the subsample are more ambiguous: secured debt has little or no effect, while unsecured debt has a positive effect. The empirical analysis is then expanded to test whether nonprofits with higher than average debt levels have different results than nonprofits with below average debt levels. The results suggest that donors do remove future donations when a nonprofit is more highly leveraged compared to similar organizations.
Nonprofits may fear that the use of debt signals mismanagement or bad governance, worrying that donors will punish the organization by removing future donations. The results presented here suggest a more complicated relationship between nonprofit leverage and donations from individuals than this simple calculus. On the one hand, increases in secured debt ratios (from mortgages and bonds) seems to reduce future contributions, possibly because donors are wary of government or lender intervention in the nonprofit’s management, or possibly because of the lack of flexibility inherent in repaying such rigid debt. On the other hand, unsecured debt, while more expensive, seems to crowd-in donations, even at increasingly higher levels when compared to similar organizations. There are at least two important conclusions from this analysis. First, during times of fiscal stress, nonprofits are often tempted to use restricted funds in ways inconsistent with donor intent simply to ensure organizational survival. Rather than violate the trust of certain donors, the results here suggest that nonprofits would be better off utilizing unsecured (possibly short-term) borrowing to smooth out cash flow needs. This option, however, assumes that nonprofits have access to some type of borrowing which is not true for many organizations. A second conclusion one might draw, therefore, is that policy considerations should be made to expand access to debt for nonprofits. The results here suggest that certain types of unsecured debt might in fact draw in additional resources, allowing nonprofits to leverage these borrowings for additional resources. By encouraging this type of policy option, nonprofits would not only gain access to increased revenue sources, but might be able to maintain programmatic output during times of fiscal stress.

Wagner Faculty