Why are TV commercials for charities asking for $19 a month?

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Listener and reader Gretchen Hrusovsky from Ohio asked:

Bombarded with charity requests on TV and they all seem to be asking for $19 a month. How did they choose this seemingly odd amount? (And I’m old enough to remember the “that’s less than a cup of coffee a day” requests.)

For charities that advertise on TV, 19 seems like the magic number.

Disabled American Veterans, save the children, Alliance House, No child is hungry and March of Dimes ran ads calling for donations starting at $19 and often earning $19 the first possibility on their donation sites.

A common theory links it to the obligation of charities to provide a receipt for an annual contribution of $250 or more, according to Internal Revenue Service rules. A contribution of $19 over 12 months is equivalent to $228, which is less than the threshold for sending the receipt. But Russell James, a professor of personal financial planning at Texas Tech University, doesn’t quite agree with that explanation.

“There are no charities that don’t issue receipts for these types of gifts. Among other things, it’s a great place to request the next freebie and report on the previous one,” he wrote via email. “Secondly, it does not make it easy for the donor to take [from their taxable income] because if they didn’t get a receipt, they would still have to look for their own documentation. »

Charities have probably settled on this amount and continue to request it through a process akin to Darwinian natural selection. James said that’s the amount requested because that’s the amount that works best. And once a leader in the field does, he said, others will follow.

This still leaves us with the question: why is $19 the best performer? It’s an odd number in both senses of the word, compared to a nice round number like $20. But that weirdness makes viewers think longer about the ad they’re watching, which James says might be why it was cast.

He also noted in an interview with Marketplace that it is not easy to do simple math with $19. If it was, say, $19.90, viewers would round that up to $20 anyway. And they could quickly calculate that $20 a month equals $240 a year.

But $19 times 12 might be harder to calculate. As a result, James explained, you focus on the modest $19 instead of the yearly total of $228.

So why isn’t the demand then an amount like $9 or $29? Rick Cohen, director of communications and chief operating officer of the National Council of Nonprofit Organizations, said a $9 request would be too small to cover such expenses as the costs of the programs they offer, the advertising itself and credit card charges.

“And the higher the number, the harder it is for people to find it attractive and to sign up,” he explained.

In the spring of 2020, Digiday, a trade magazine for online media, reported that charities were increasingly turning to TV ads after facing a drop in donations. Indeed, in-person fundraisers have been postponed amid the pandemic, while the crisis has rattled people’s finances (the unemployment rate peaked after the Great Depression at 14.7% in April 2020) .

However, Cohen said, TV ads typically come from a select group of nonprofits, and this type of outreach may not be the right fit for every charity.

“Most nonprofits are relatively small and don’t have a TV advertising budget. Most are just trying to help as many people as possible and are facing truly unprecedented challenges right now,” Cohen said. “And so each organization has slightly different strategies on this.”

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