Russell Jackson, a top official of the Alabama Association of Nonprofits, has spent the past year looking into online “giving day” events produced in Dallas, Denver, Minneapolis, and Pittsburgh. He’s looking at them because each has raised millions for multiple charities in a single day, even in the depths of the recession.
Mr. Jackson, the group’s chief operating officer, is planning to organize a statewide “Alabama Gives Day” during this year’s holiday season. This spring’s tornado damage to Alabama communities has added new urgency to the work of the region’s nonprofit groups. In addition to the money he hopes to raise, he sees a statewide event as an opportunity to call attention to Alabama charities and to get them to work together.
He’s encouraged by the conversations he’s had with organizers of previous giving days. “They are showing how easy and safe online giving is,” he says.
Regional and citywide giving days are spreading around the country as a way to attract new people and new money during a time of government and corporate cutbacks to charities.
The giving days are helping charities garner donations that they would not otherwise receive, and often from brand-new supporters.
For example: Minnesota’s Give to the Max Day in 2009 and 2010 raised a total of $24-million from 80,000 donors. Dana Nelson, who managed the events for GiveMN, says part the draw of giving days, besides an opportunity to give locally, is a sense of urgency similar to a disaster appeal.
After all, says Ms. Nelson, “People don’t get up in the morning saying, 'I think I’ll give today.’”
Giving-day pioneers report some challenges in organizing the one-day online events but say they see a golden future. “We are at the beginning of a very large national experiment that wouldn’t have been possible without the technology available now,” says Grant Oliphant, chief executive of the Pittsburgh Foundation, which has raised $6.3-million for charities since its first Pittsburgh Day of Giving in 2009.
On May 11 a one-day event focused on the arts raised $1.4-million for 150 arts groups, and the foundation is deciding this summer whether to do a wider-spectrum event for the city’s other charities in the fall or one focused on groups hit hard by state budget cuts.
“The recession and the subsequent fiscal crisis left charities suddenly operating in an environment where every new dollar is important,” Mr. Oliphant says. “They are willing to go after any dollar in any way.”
Mr. Oliphant says giving days encourage individuals to give at a time when many charities rely too much on big foundations and corporate donors. To be stable, organizations need many supporters, and giving days are a lot less expensive than the traditional ways of prospecting for gifts, such as mass mailing to lists of potential donors.
The one-day fund-raising events use widespread community promotion to encourage people to visit a designated Web site, where a menu of charities and descriptions of their work are presented. With a few clicks, donations large and small can be made to the organizations selected by the donor. All participating charities, and many companies that support those causes, promote the day and take steps to drive Web traffic to the special site.
Giving days, Mr. Oliphant says, can also be used to promote accountability, a growing concern among many donors. Pittsburgh’s Day of Giving Web site includes financial reports on all of the event’s participating charities.
Besides bringing in new money for strapped nonprofits, Mr. Oliphant sees these programs as a way to teach nonprofit leaders about online giving.
Dan Hanley, former director of development at the Boulder County AIDS Project (he now raises money for Opera Colorado), says Colorado Gives Day, held for the first time last December, put small organizations like the 12-employee AIDS Project on equal footing with the biggest organizations. They received training in online giving, talking points about the campaign, and marketing tools that included a graphics package to help promote the event.
On that first giving day, the AIDS Project raised $22,000, more than its online receipts from all of 2009. Of the 178 donors, 45 percent were new supporters.
The goal for last December’s Colorado Gives Day was $1-million, say organizers. By day’s end, $8.7-million had rolled in for 530 charities, according to Marla J. Williams, chief executive of Community First Foundation in Arvada, Colo., which created the event.
The charities that brought in the most dollars were those, like the Boulder County AIDS Project, that created promotions throughout the day. The Boulder group began lobbying for support the night before in a Denver bar, with the first donations coming in from patrons at one minute into the big day. Later in the morning, Mr. Hanley and several volunteers brought laptop computers into Boulder coffee shops to make giving easy. They ended the day with a standing-room-only concert at the Boulder Draft House, where periodic announcements encouraged people to give before midnight.
Organizers of the giving days say they regularly receive calls from people, like Mr. Jackson of the Alabama association, who hope to mount their own one-day online fund-raising events. They warn such callers that administratively, technologically, and politically it’s no easy task to produce a successful giving day.
Each giving day has had its glitches. Pittsburgh’s computer system, for example, crashed on the big day in 2009, as hundreds of donors tried to beat the clock against a time-limited donation match. (The second year, organizers say, went smoother, and Pittsburgh raised $3.3-million last year, up $2-million from 2009.)
Minnesota’s first Give to the Max Day raised $14-million-- far beyond expectations. However, the nonprofit organization running the event, GiveMN, had agreed in advance to pick up the credit-card transaction fees. Nobody imagined that the charges would total $650,000. Ms. Nelson, of GiveMN, calls the day a “catastrophic success.”
For 2010’s Give to the Max Day, organizers found a bank that lowered the transaction costs and asked each participating charity to pick up its share.
A positive lesson charities have learned from their participation in giving days, say organizers, is that the events have strong appeal to young donors.
“We are the hip thing to someone 22,” says Ms. Nelson, of GiveMN. “On the giving day, we saw lots of conversations on Twitter like, 'Who are you giving to?’ with younger people trading suggestions, trying to persuade others to give to their favorite charity, or just commenting on new groups they discovered.”
The key for charities is to keep these new donors, says Audrey Kintzi, executive vice president of the state chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society. “They may not be making half-million-dollar gifts now, but charities need to find new ways to nurture them.”
The Columbus Foundation knows that many donors to its five Match Days since 2008 are new to charitable giving. The events have brought in a total of $6.1-million for 336 charities.
The Ohio foundation has developed a communications strategy to reach them, says Joyce Ray, manager of PowerPhilanthropy, the community fund’s Web portal for donors, which features profiles of 600 charities. New donors receive a monthly e-mail newsletter plus podcasts to cultivate their interest in continued giving.
“We know they aren’t prospects [for big gifts] yet, but we know they are interested in the community,” Ms. Ray says.
Lisa Schweitzer Courtice, vice president for community research and grants management at the Columbus Foundation, believes the online giving days have changed the image of the foundation from that of a rich people’s enterprise to something everyone can support.
“We began to be viewed as more accessible,” she says. “It has animated philanthropy and transformed how we interact with the public.” She agrees with a local news article that said the events “are democratizing philanthropy.”
Ms. Ray echoes that sentiment, remembering that beneficiaries Columbus’s second PowerPhilanthropy Match Day included an environmental-education charity that got $150 in pennies collected by a kindergarten class, which the foundation matched 50 cents for every dollar the kids raised. She notes, “We have provided a tool even for small donors.”