GiveBIG: Love it, or not so much?

GiveBIG: Love it, or not so much?
June 2013 by Emily Anthony and Julie Edsforth

By now you have undoubtedly heard that the Seattle Foundation-sponsored GiveBIG was a smashing success. Over 11 million dollars were contributed online to over 1300 local non-profits on May 15, 2013 and the Seattle Foundation and its partners (including corporations, foundations, and individual donors) threw in an extra million as a “stretch pool”.

GiveBIG

These numbers set records in every category, including growing last year’s total of 7.4 million raised by 50%, which would seem to be proof its success. And yet, we can’t help but notice that when GiveBIG comes up in conversation with friends and colleagues, love may not be the first emotion that is expressed by many Seattle area donors—in fact, some seem downright hostile towards it! So. . . what Gives? Is GiveBIG just a great opportunity for our region to come together in support of non-profits, or is there a downside to the promotional juggernaut that GiveBIG has become?

There’s a lot to love about GiveBIG
Don’t get us wrong: as fundraisers we genuinely appreciate the Seattle Foundation’s championing of a day devoted to charitable giving. First and foremost, GiveBIG provides non-profits with a reason to ask and to ask NOW. Not unlike the holidays, it is a great time to finally cash in on all of that cultivation work you’ve (hopefully!) been doing all year. We’re all for asks that do not involve putting on a major event or pitching a new program, and the fact that GiveBIG happens at a time in the fundraising calendar that is often a “dry spell” can really help (since we all know that “I really need to meet this quarter’s fundraising goal” is never going to be a compelling ask!) GiveBIG provides a great excuse to nudge board members who’ve been dragging their heels on actually making a pledge, and an opportunity to convert fans of your organization who have not yet made the leap into being a donor. We’re betting that those of you who saw GiveBIG bring in much needed cash to your organizations so you could hit those targets have very few complaints about a day dedicated to giving.

Beyond the money, GiveBIG gets the social media world talking about our organizations, and since “getting the word out” is critical to fundraising, that is a good thing. Some organizations we work with who are hesitant to ask clients and staff for donations feel very comfortable asking those same folks to tell their stories and promote their cause on Facebook or other social media. We enjoy going to our Facebook pages and seeing the organizations we love taking center stage in our newsfeeds.

And speaking as donors, there are some benefits for contributors as well. We saved tons of time this year by making dozens of our annual gifts via the GiveBIG website –going right down our lists without having to search and find each separate site. We’ve also been known to procrastinate, so having that GiveBIG deadline is helpful in terms of remembering to actually get it done. Perhaps most important, we both took the time to sit down with our lists of the “usual suspects”, talk to family members, and think through which organizations were due for a gift and if there were any new ones to consider supporting. If GiveBIG precipitates this sort of intentional thinking and talking about giving priorities all over the Seattle area, we have to believe that is a good thing.

So what’s the problem?

Well, first off, let’s talk about all that email. 1300 non-profits (and surely it only seems like we’re on that many mailing lists, although lately we’re starting to wonder . . .) sure do generate a whole lot of email. When you’re reading the 27th heartwarming story of the day it’s easy to stop feeling even remotely inspired, no matter how real the impact might be or how adorable the kids in the pictures are. “We get more unsubscribes to our website on GiveBIG than any other day of the year” an Executive Director friend told us last year. “People just don’t want to get all that mail.” And maybe people also don’t want to be quite so aware that fundraising is a competitive business, with many organizations using sophisticated strategies to vie for our attention and dollars. That realization can feel jarringly at odds with an altruistic desire to change the world, and disillusionment may just make you want to “unsubscribe”.

But what about the benefit of the GiveBIG “stretch pool”? This year it was 1 million, and since 11 million was raised, that means that gifts were increased by about 9% -- but don’t forget about the 2.9% credit card processing fee. Once you figure that in, by our calculations, each gift a donor makes will be increased by about 6%. Now, our hang-ups about matching are already well-documented, and to be fair, the Seattle Foundation is very clear that it is a “stretch” and not a “match” and is transparent about how much will be given. But not every organization that promotes GiveBIG to their own donors is quite so scrupulous, and we can’t help but wonder: if non-profits promoted the truth (“Make your gift for GiveBIG, and your donation will be increased by more than 5%! Whoo hoo!”) would it be as successful? We know that there’s always going to be some hype in any marketing campaign, but it still feels to us like the messaging relies a little too heavily on the assumption that most donors will not bother to do the math.

Moreover, for many organizations the jury is still out on whether GiveBIG is actually generating more donations, or just moving donations that would have come in anyway to that particular day. While we’ve heard of organizations who are bringing in significant numbers of new donors through GiveBIG, we’ve also been asked to hold off on making certain major gifts until GiveBIG rolls around so organizations can reap the benefits not only of the stretch pool but also of the good buzz that comes with having a successful day. This may be a strategically sound request, but somehow it does not reflect what we see as the intended purpose and spirit of the campaign. Does it make sense to reward the organizations who are most successful at getting their biggest existing donors to give on that particular day?

But perhaps in the end none of these concerns trumps the benefit of having a special day of giving where all of us in the Puget Sound region come together to support the causes we care about most. Inspiring, right? Except . . . in our very unscientific sampling of donors, we’ve noticed that more than a few of them don’t seem to feel that way. A colleague told us about overhearing women in her exercise class griping that GiveBIG was “a scam” and “just a way for the Seattle Foundation to collect personal information about thousands of potential donors.” We have heard others complain about how it can feel too aggressive when all those non-profits are all asking at once: “it’s like being in a marketplace where everyone is harassing you to buy something, and it just makes you want to leave” said one donor friend. We don’t share these reactions, but it is worrisome if some people in our community have come to feel that a day of giving is a trial to be endured rather than an uplifting expression of community good will. If we really believe in “joyful giving”, then the fact that some donors dread it and feel harassed turns GiveBIG into a BIGProblem. “When philanthropy is working, everyone is happier” goes the quote, and it’s hard to know if GiveBIG is meeting that criteria. At the end of the day, could it be that we in the non-profit sector are, at least on some level, shooting ourselves in the foot by hastening city-wide donor fatigue on an annual basis?

So, if GiveBIG is useful but flawed, what should be done to improve it?

Mom always said you should not complain about something without offering a solution, but we have to admit to being a little stumped. Some ideas, such as only applying the stretch pool to new gifts, sound good but would surely become an administrative nightmare to actually execute. Other ideas for “reining it in” go too far—because the truth is, the 12 million dollars that got infused into the non-profit sector on May 15 is nothing to sneeze at, and we’re not at all sure we would want to do anything that would actually reduce that total and all the important, life-changing work that it represents. Perhaps at the very least, GiveBIG needs more of an official feedback loop, so donors can ask questions and share their concerns. And so we turn to you, dear readers, for your input: do you love GiveBIG, or not so much? Have you found creative ways to make it work for you and your organizations? What ideas do you have to improve it? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Comments

Thank you for your nuanced, thoughtful and courageous exploration of this thorny issue in the PNW philanthropic/nonprofit sector. I have heard and been part of many conversations that touched on one or two of the points you raise, but until now haven't had the benefit of seeing it all laid out so clearly. I wonder whether targeting GiveBIG to only new donors to a particular organization might work? And I wonder what other ways the SF and corporations can help worthy Nonprofits meet their missions throughout the year?

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