Matching Opportunities: Smart Strategy or Scam?

Matching Opportunities: Smart Strategy or Scam?
March 2013 by Emily Anthony and Julie Edsforth

We’ve all heard the spiel:    

“We have a special opportunity for those of you who want to leverage your gift today! Thanks to a few generous donors, we are offering a match for all gifts over $150.  So if you can stretch to $150, that really means $300 for the organization!” 

Matching Opportunities

It sounds great to double your money, but does this promise really hold up?  More often than not,  those “matching pools” are nothing more than a list of committed donors  whose predictable (and fungible!) annual gifts have simply been counted towards some “virtual” matching fund.  If the major donors consent to be included, and if the gifts in that “fund” total more than the amount that comes in on the day of the lunch, the organization feels free to say that those luncheon gifts have been “matched” -- even if those “matching” checks were already written, or would have been written anyway.  There are exceptions, but our experience is that most of the major donors advertised in a “matching pool” do not intend to give more  based on what others gave at an event.

How do we know this happens? Because as donors, Julie and I have been asked to participate in matching pools like this many times -- and more times than we would like to admit, we have agreed to take part. After all, everybody’s doing  it . . .

Well, it’s true, this practice has become rampant.  And many donors will tell you they know most matches are fake.  But the fact that it’s common doesn’t make it right. 

Isn’t this pretty much lying to donors?

Here’s how we see it:

The luncheon donor makes her gift with the belief that something significantly different will happen for the organization if she makes a larger gift.  And why does she believe that? Because someone just got up on the podium and told her it was true! But contrary to what they have just announced, in reality the organization will likely receive no new funds as a result of this donor making a stretch gift.  How can this be ethical?  If good fundraising is really about relationship building, how can we treat our supporters, our friends, like this?

I first started thinking about this issue of “false” matching one time when my parents joined me at a fundraiser for an organization where I was on the board.  At that event, it was announced that gifts from new donors would be matched one for one, and my in-from-out-of-town dad stepped up, mentioning several times that he was thrilled that his gift would “actually be doubled!!”  Sitting there next to my excited dad and knowing that it wasn’t  really true, I felt like I was being dishonest.   Julie and I have a theory about fundraising:  if it feels bad, you are probably doing something wrong.  And maybe since it was my own mom and dad it really hit home: this feels bad.

Three cheers for REAL matches

The real irony is that genuine matches are not only more ethical and honest, they are also much more effective at raising money.  Here’s why:  a genuine match, where one person writes a check for a different amount depending on what others have given, creates leverage in 3 ways:

  1. It creates incentive for staff, board members, table captains or other “askers” to really beat the bushes to encourage the donors to attend and give at the event. After all, no one wants to leave that matching money on the table.
  2. Naturally, it creates an incentive for event attendees (like my dad!)  to give more.
  3. If the team is successful at #1 and #2, it results in a bigger gift than the “matcher” may have otherwise given – in other words, the major donor really stretches, just as everyone else at the table did.   

A real match, therefore, is a “win-win-win”, with all three players (asker, donor, and matcher) putting themselves out there for the organization.  With fake matching, only #2 is operational – and only because we have misrepresented what is really happening!  Much of the potential power of the match is lost.

So if genuine matching is so much better, why don’t more organizations do it?  Probably because genuine matches  involve a lot more work to set up: they require a special ask of a donor or donors, and then there need to be conversations about limits and conditions, not to mention dealing with the accounting after the fact, especially if you are dealing with a pool of “matchers”.  While that can all be complicated, remember that it also provides a unique opportunity to make a “stretch” ask of a major donor who might have been stuck at a certain level for a long time.  And the truth is, sometimes doing something the right way just takes a little more effort.

“When philanthropy is working, everyone is happier.”

This is one of our favorite quotes, and a match done well really proves its truth.  With real matches, your donors are happy that their gifts are doubled,  your “matchers”  are happy to be encouraging others to join them  in the cause, and your organization is thrilled that everyone is stretching on your behalf.  And best of all, we can all sleep better knowing we’re being honest with our donors. 

What do you think? Are we overreacting? Or are you ready to join us in a “Real Match Revolution?”  Comment below!!


I fully agree that a challenge match should involve a real challenge that incurs consequences if certain goals aren't met. But I don't think the "fake" matches have yet lost their power to inspire giving. At a local elementary school, the 3-month-long annual fund campaign raises 60+ percent of its total after the "match" is announced. So, it's time to find/do research that proves the greater effectiveness of "real" matches!

Thanks Cliff - thanks for kicking off the discussion. This is the heart of the dilemma. Achieving goals through misleading or misinforming isn't really success in my opinion, regardless of bottom line dollars raised. Call me a purist, but the ends don't justify the means. And, yes, it would be great to have some data to back up our claim (hope...) that greater honesty, transparency and integrity will - in the long run if not the short run - lead to better bottom line results!

At our organization we have real matches. However, sometimes (not all) the donor is fully intending to give that amount whether we make the match or not. So, donors have to want to stick to the "real" of the matching program, too. Last year for Give BIG, we has two matches both real by the standards you have laid out. But, to be totally honest, one of them was an annual giver who chose to use her gift as a match. I believed that donor would give full match amount whether we made the match or not. I never got to test the theory because we made the match and then some. All said, matches work. We had our luncheon this week and had a suggested donation of $150. but a match at $250. Most new, first time gifts were at $250.

Thanks Chris. I agree, donors have a role in the whole fake match industrial complex too. First awareness, then action. Onward and upward!

I agree that some matches will be given regardless, but I also agree that they do spur people to give. What if the matcher was intending to give X amount but the organization didn't actually meet it's goal. Then they would actually get less from the matcher. Wouldn't that be counterproductive? or do you think it would spur the organization to do better next time? I don't have the answer. What if a donor says, I'll give X amount and you can use it to spur donors at an auction to raise their paddles at any amount that you need. Wouldn't that flexibility be an incentive? Again, just thoughts, not answers. LOVE THIS SITE!

Thanks for revealing the truth about most donor matching offers. I've always wondered if my additional "matching" monies would have been donated anyway. Now I have the answer, at least in most cases, apparently. So, how do you tactfully find out if a matching promise is real or just a marketing gimmick?

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Transparency and "real matches" are the only way to set up a sustainable fundraising model. Maybe the short term dollars will take a hit as fact replaces fiction, but the long term results will more than make up for it when all three parties can be winners. How can we be working towards social justice when we are promoting dishonesty? How can donors remain committed when they may find out they have been duped? Your post just contributed to my self awareness - I just discovered that it is still possible for me to be naive.

Thank you so much for writing this! I have long felt this way and my team is tired of hearing me talk about not being able to "sell" a fake match. This fall when soliciting a matching gift for a pool, the donor loved the idea and agreed to do it and asked where to send her check. I explained that she needed to wait to see what came in and she paused, thought that through, and then thanked me for my ethics! I think the strongest point in favor of real matches is your first one, that it truly motivates staff and volunteers when we know the matching funds are at risk. Again, thank you for writing about what I consider to be an important topic in our field!