Have you noticed that more and more community foundations are launching one-day, online, community-wide fundraising drives, themed variously around the idea of “give big”? These foundations get as many nonprofits as they can to send out emails asking for donations, with each solicitation pointing to a giving portal at the community foundation itself. The foundation then collects the money and distributes it back to the nonprofits.
Examples abound. Here in Seattle, the Seattle Community Foundation runs Give Big. There’s one in Monterey, California, another one Nebraska called Go Big Give, and yet another in Louisiana called Give for Good.
I’ve worked in fundraising and nonprofit leadership for over two decades, and I don’t know anyone outside the community foundations themselves who is enthusiastic about these campaigns. I, and my friends, family, partners, and colleagues all dread the one-day avalanche of email solicitations. And the dozens of nonprofit leaders I’ve spoken to about them feel obligated to participate but consider them mostly distracting annoyances that raise relatively little money.
So why are we doing them? Since influential people who direct millions of dollars to local nonprofits run these campaigns, it makes sense that nonprofits feel a bit coerced. It’s easy to imagine the brand risk that comes with not participating in a big, community-wide charity fundraiser with lots of marketing dollars behind it. And what charity is willing to say no to cooperating with a major funder in their community, potentially tainting applications for future grants? Pressures like these leave little room for public discourse about the problems with these campaigns. That’s too bad, especially when there are many ways to improve them to more effectively catalyze community support for and engagement with nonprofits.
So let’s start a dialogue. First, let’s first review the flaws of the “give big” model as it exists today:
- Cramming thousands of gift solicitations into a one-day window inevitably turns valuable charitable appeal messages into spam. Anyone whose inbox has been filled with dozens of emails asking for money knows how few they actually read.
- For those who dare to wade through this tsunami of solicitations, the emotionally provocative language can be stressful, especially for the sensitive, generous people who tend to donate. They may think, “OMG, I can’t help them all!” or experience fatigue or even cynicism: “All these charities do is beg for money!”
- Beyond the annoyance and stress is a harder truth: These campaigns represent poor fundraising strategy, and nonprofits make the wrong decision by participating. For starters, it’s always a bad idea for a charity to outsource its fundraising or use an intermediary, because it weakens the all-important relationship-building process. If a nonprofit runs its own creative, unique donor acquisition effort and follows it up with a well-structured, high-touch major donor relationship management system, they will get much closer to people who care about them and raise a lot more money.
- These campaigns bring obvious benefit to the community foundations who host them. The foundations get to market themselves as hubs of philanthropy, while also attracting donor prospects for their own funds. And it’s hard for a charity to say no to participating. Nonprofit directors surely feel they have to participate—otherwise, they risk looking bad. And what would saying no mean when it comes to the next round of community foundation grants? Whether they are doing it intentionally or not, community foundations are leveraging their influence to benefit themselves far more than the nonprofit participants.
The bottom line is that “give big” campaigns are a brilliant strategy if you are a community foundation, but not so much if you are a nonprofit participant.
That said, we shouldn’t get rid of them! Community foundations are supposed to encourage community-wide participation in nonprofits. It’s just that they could be doing it so much better. Instead of “give big,” for example, the theme could be “invest thoughtfully,” borrowing concepts from the worlds of impact capital and venture philanthropy. It might look something like this:
- Consider: People tend to make small gifts—but large investments. More support for our nonprofits will come if we replace these mass, click-bait appeals with thoughtful, long-term efforts that help donors think and act like major investors. Let’s put all this awareness-raising toward efforts that foster deep engagement, such as community education efforts to help donors choose which charities to support, identify the signs of high-performing nonprofits, and use their time and talent as well as their money to help.
- Community foundations could help local nonprofits become more transparent and accountable by showing them how to clearly and concisely measure and report their program results and use of funds. The most effective nonprofits treat their donors not like cash machines but like shareholders, giving them honest appraisals of their performance and soliciting their feedback. Business plan competitions and fast-pitch events—popular in the social enterprise and impact investing worlds—hold great potential for nonprofits as well, and by supporting useful frameworks like these, community foundations could be showing nonprofits how to make their programs stand out in a crowd, not get lost in the din.
- Most communities already have too many small, struggling nonprofits working independently on overlapping issues. Here in Seattle, for example, we have more than 30 different small nonprofits trying to produce affordable housing. While the optics are good when a community foundation spreads out lots of little gifts, that approach actually contributes to wasteful and inefficient design, and a culture that teaches nonprofits to stay small and beg for spare change. Community foundations would do better to use their stature and influence to encourage overlapping nonprofits to work together—or even merge—or to promote the only organizations that have proven impact and the most potential to scale.
- Community foundations could also do more to foster hands-on volunteer efforts. I for one would much rather participate in a day where the entire community gets out to volunteer at once—meeting charities up close and personal and seeing the good work they do first hand—than face an inbox full of asks.
These are just a few ideas, but they illustrate the type of thoughtful, deeper engagement with nonprofits that donors, investors, and community members need to achieve if we are going to solve problems instead of nibbling around the edges. We need serious dialogue around fostering nonprofit performance and scale—not cheerleading for feel-good, do-little efforts like these.