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Helping Our New Neighbors: Volunteering and Philanthropic Giving in Latino Organizations

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Senior Fellow Fabiana Perera wrote "Helping Our New Neighbors:Volunteering and Philanthropic Giving in Latino Organizations" as part of the 2015 Humanity in Action Philanthropy and Social Enterprise Fellowship.


There are approximately 54 million Latinos living in the United States. This group, which makes up close to 17% of the country’s population has some unique needs, chief among them legal and language services. As with many other nonprofit organizations, the funds to run these programs largely don’t come from the population they serve, but rather from outside donors. Walk through the doors of any community-based nonprofit and there are bound to be signs thanking corporate donors and other benefactors. The website for Horton’s Kids, an organization that works with children in an impoverished neighborhood in Washington, DC, displays a message of thanks to Walmart and DirecTV, neither of which have any direct connection with the neighborhood Horton’s Kids works in. DC Central Kitchen, another community-based organization in DC, thanks the AARP Foundation and the Naomi & Nenemiah Cohen Foundation for their donations. Neither of these donors seem to have an obvious connection to DCCK’s mission of using food as an empowerment tool.

The CARECEN Latino Resource and Justice Center is a community based organization that fosters the comprehensive development of the Latino community in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. The services the organization provides include immigration legal services such as legal aide and classes for those wanting to apply for US citizenship, housing counseling services and community support services that help victims of crime and abuse.

CARECEN works with a number of volunteers to be able to provide these services to people in need. Mr. Abel Núñez, Executive Director of CARECEN, explains that volunteers are “instrumental to the work of the organization.” He believes that these are a group of people that are already committed to helping the organization and could also be asked to 2 help the organization financially when they move away or are unable to continue volunteering for other reasons.

In 2014, total giving to charitable organizations in the United States totaled $358.38 billion (1). Approximately three quarters of this amount came from individual donations. This is interesting because according to Mr. Núñez, most organizations that work with Latinos rely heavily on government contracts and grants and donations from foundations and receive only a small share of their income from individual donations. In the case of his organization, government contracts accounted for 49% of CARECEN’s income in 2015, meaning that when the government faces cuts, they are almost inevitably impacted. Grants from foundations accounted for 16.3% of CARECEN’s budget of just over $900,000 per year. CARECEN charges small fees for some of the services it provides. Citizenship classes, for example, are $50 for a semester (a cost that includes the books). These fees make up a third (33%) of CARECEN’s income. Individual donations make up a very small percentage of the organization’s operational budget (2%) and thus are a source of potential growth for CARECEN.

Donations from individuals could be a driver of growth for CARECEN, but the organization knows little about who these people might be. Mr. Núñez believes that most people that donate to the organization he leads do so because they have some personal connection with the cause and the Center. He also thinks that more people would contribute if they were personally asked to donate. Consistent with Mr. Núñez’s intuition, surveys of American philanthropic giving confirm that being asked to give is a strong predictor of whether a person will donate, but these surveys do not consider the specific circumstances of 1 Giving USA Foundation. (2015). Giving USA 2015: The annual report on 3 organizations that work with the immigrant Hispanic population (2). Overall, more Americans donate money than volunteer (3), so Mr. Nunez’s intuition might be right.

The United States is the most generous country in the world according to the World Giving Index (4). It ranks highly both in the participation of its citizens in charitable giving as well as in the total amount contributed. The largest recipients of this charitable giving (32%) are religious organizations. The categories that most directly impact Hispanics -public-society benefit and human services- receive 7% and 12% of total donations respectively (5). That is to say that organizations that address the need of the immigrant Hispanic population are not benefitting from individual donations to the same extent that other organizations are and are receiving a smaller share of total giving than other organizations.

Involvement in formal religious organizations is an important determinant of the charitable behavior of American citizens, though not the only factor. Income is also a strong predictor of charitable giving, with donations increasing as income increases. Likewise, the tendency for people to volunteer increases as income increases, though the amount of time that people spend volunteering does not vary with income. In the case of organizations that address the needs of the immigrant Hispanic population, who is contributing? Who is volunteering? What motivates people to contribute and donate to these organizations?

To help the organization determine who their supporters are, I implemented a survey of their current and former donors and volunteers. The survey questions were adapted from the Giving & Volunteering in the United States survey and were pre-tested on a small group before the survey was deployed to 300 individuals. We received 87 responses: 81 from current and former volunteers and six from individual donors who have never volunteered with the organization. This number is significantly above the 20-25% response rate expected for email surveys. The main goal of the survey was to identify the motivations of individuals to give either time or money to CARECEN. The idea was to shed some light on, the individual donor “the biggest mystery” to Mr. Núñez and probably to most of his peers. It is important for his organization to understand the individual donor for two reasons. First, the amount it receives from grants has decreased as foundation spending has decreased. Indeed, giving from corporations, foundations and bequests all declined during the recession (6). Second, because the organization operates in the District of Columbia, it relies on funds from the federal government and is unable to access state funds and grants. Relying on funds from the federal government also comes with unique challenges, such as being directly affected by the government shutdown in 2013 and the threats of a shutdown since.

A secondary goal of the survey was to determine whether people would donate to CARECEN if they were asked to give. Mr. Núñez thinks the struggle with individual donors is at least partly cultural. “Communities of color don’t like to ask for money,” he explains. “We think our work speaks for itself.” CARECEN thus faces the challenge of getting its majority minority staff to ask for contributions.

People who volunteer at CARECEN are engaged with the organization. The majority of the people who currently volunteer of those who have volunteered in the past with the organization have committed more than 40 hours to this work: close to 70% of current volunteers have exceeded 40 hours of work at the organization, as have 38% of those who volunteered in the past. In addition, almost half of current volunteers (46%) have donated money to the organization. People who have volunteered with the organization in the past are slightly less engaged, with only 27% of people donating. Among volunteers that have not made a charitable contribution to CARECEN within the past 5 years, 38% of them said that the reason that this is so is that they would rather volunteer than give money. Comparatively, fewer than 2% of American adults in the Giving and Volunteering in the United States survey cited this as their reason for not donating.

The reason most often cited in the nationwide survey for not donating was that the individual could not afford to give. Only 8% of current volunteers and 30% of former volunteers cited insufficient funds as a reason they have not contributed to CARECEN. Interestingly, no respondent mentioned being asked to give too frequently or believing that the money will be misspent as a reason not to give. This compares favorably with the nationwide survey where 0.8% of people thought they were being asked to give too frequently and 5.8% of respondents believed the money would be misspent.

Contrary to initial expectations, the majority of current and former volunteers (75% and 62%, respectively) have no direct connection to the issue of immigration. Instead, most volunteers cite a desire to give back and an interest in meeting new people as important reasons for volunteering. Interestingly, all of the current volunteers cited an interest in meeting new people as a reason that they volunteer, compared to two in three adults in the nationwide survey. This is not surprising in an area where people are always looking to network.

Veronica, who I interviewed, volunteered at CARECEN for over a year as a citizenship class instructor. As a volunteer, Veronica was responsible for two hours of instruction per week. Though she is Hispanic, she did not cite this as her primary reason for volunteering with the organization. Instead, Veronica says she “chose CARECEN because I believe in their cause and it permitted me to serve my community. I also felt like I was doing something important, being an agent of change. There was nothing more rewarding than to hear your students say, ‘I passed my citizenship exam and it's thanks to you,’ then you see and feel the impact CARECEN has on people.” This idea of involvement of an undefined “community” was the most often cited reason for volunteering with CARECEN.

The profile of the donors is closer to what we would have expected. The majority of respondents who have donated money to CARECEN have also volunteered with the organization (83%), with almost half of these individuals volunteering at least 40 hours. Most donors have been asked by the organization to contribute. Only 20% of donors have made a contribution without being asked to do so. In fact, being asked to donate was the third most important reason that people contribute. Thirteen percent of respondents (13%) cited being asked to give as a reason for contributing. The other two important reasons were a sense of debt to the community (37%) and a feeling of responsibility to those that have less (47%).

CARECEN works with the Latino community, but in a city where Latinos make up about 10% of the population, the Latino community is a big part of that broader, loosely defined but often-mentioned “community” that donors and volunteers both talk about frequently. What has motivated people to give so far has been the idea that they are helping their community. The problem that CARECEN faces in trying to increase donations from individuals mirrors a struggle that we face across the United States: to get people to think about donating to CARECEN, they have to think of it as a community organization, and to do so, they have to think of Latinos as members of their own community. To borrow language from President Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, they would need to think not of a “Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America but the United States of America.”

The project of thinking about the Latino community as part of a much larger American community is a long-term one. To increase individual donations in the short term, CARECEN should follow Mr. Núñez’s intuition and ask for contributions. Because a large percent of respondents cited financial constraints as a reason not to give, the organization could look into alternative ways of collecting individual donations that might make it less burdensome on their supporters. The University of California-Los Angeles implemented a system of pledging that allows individuals to pledge to give a specific amount payable over five years. Splitting a donation amount over time allows the individual to feel that they are making a substantive contribution ($100 instead of $10 for example), while not immediately feeling the economic impact of the donation (because it will still be only $10 right now).

Ultimately, it is in the best interest of CARECEN to increase the share of its income that it gets from individual donors, but it is also in the interest of potential individual donors to contribute to organizations like CARECEN. While Latinos make up 17% of the population in the United States now, this number is expected to almost double to 28.6% by 2060 according to the US Census Bureau. Addressing the needs of this community early on will benefit everyone in the long term. For all, the challenge is getting people to think of the Latino community as their own community. For the organization, the challenge is making the ask.


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About the Author

Fabiana Perera Fabiana “Fabi” Perera is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at The George Washington University. Her research focuses on social spending in developing and resource dependent countries. She received her MA in Latin American Studies from Georgetown University, where she was a Fellow in Language and Area Studies, and her undergraduate degree from Northern Michigan University. She was born in New Jersey and raised in Caracas, Venezuela. Fabiana is a Humanity in Action Senior Fellow (Diplomacy and Diversity 2014).


Creative Commons photo (2008) by Gerson Galang


1. Giving USA 2015: The annual report on philanthropy for the year (60th ed.). (2015). Chicago, IL: The Giving Institute

2. Toppe, C., & Kirsch, A. (2001). Giving & Volunteering in the United States. Waldorf, MD: Independent Sector

3. Most Americans Practice Charitable Giving, Volunteerism. (2013, December 13). Retrieved September 1, 2015, from http://www.gallup.com/poll/166250/americans-practice-charitablegiving-volunteerism.aspx

4. World Giving Index 2014: An overview of world giving trends. (2014). Retrieved September 1, 2015, from https://www.cafonline.org/docs/default-source/about-uspublications/caf_wgi2014_report_1555awebfinal.pdf

5. Ibid

6. Reich, R., & Weimer, C. (2012, October 1). Charitable Giving and the Great Recession. Retrieved September 3, 2015, from https://web.stanford.edu/group/recessiontrends/cgibin/web/sites/all/themes/barron/pdf/CharitableGiving_fact_sheet.pdf

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