Thursday, November 19, 2009

To the Max: A New Day in Charitable Giving

Tuesday was "Give to the Max Day" in Minnesota -- a work of marketing genius and the dawn of a new day in philanthropy.

In 24 hours, inspired by a pool of matching funds from several area foundations and by a flurry of media attention and appeals from nonprofits to their audiences and mailing lists, nearly 39,000 people donated more than $14 million to Minnesota nonprofits via a new site, (GiveMN is powered by Razoo in partnership with Network for Good. A distinctive feature of the site is that foundation support pays for all credit-card transaction costs, meaning that the charities recieve 100% of the funds donated, rather than losing a percentage to fees.)

$14 million! That's an average of over $350 per donor!

I've been aware of online charitable giving sites like Network for Good and that act as a one-stop donation portal to registered nonprofit organizations. The GiveMN model is the big next step in simplified, motivated giving because of synergy created by:
  • A designated, highly publicized donation day in which funds would be matched
  • A $500,000 pool of matching funds -- which in this case, because of the huge outpouring of donations, ended up only amounting to pennies on the dollar. The limits of the matching fund were not always well-communicated, with many people (charities and donors) evidently believing that a full or substantial match would be made for all donations. I'm sure this has led to some disappointment, and probably the donation level would not have been as high if everyone had known the situation -- so the match was lower than expected, but the donations greatly exceeded expectations. But donor matches are a highly successful tactic and in most cases as a practical matter do have to be limited.
  • Coordination with social media: if you chose, you could post a comment about your donation(s) that would not only appear on the individual giving page of the charity/ies involved but also, again if you chose, appear on your Facebook or Twitter feeds.
  • Individual giving pages on the site that allow you to see who else is at least following, if not supporting, the particular cause and, if the nonprofit chooses, to also see how much has been raised so far.
It remains to be seen if most donors simply moved up their normal end-of-year giving by a few weeks, or if many nonprofits will see a net rise in gifts for the year. I have to think there were some new and additional donations made. I personally made several modest donations; two of these were the first time I had donated to the particular organizations, and another was a small gift in addition to my standard yearly membership donation.

The outpouring of generosity in Minnesota was far greater than anticipated. The truth is, once people get used to the idea of giving they usually enjoy it, and people don't always need to feel they have excess funds before they are willing to give something. I came to a realization several years ago (fostered by having worked for seven years at a listener-supported radio station) that if I value something I should support it to the extent I can, and that even if I feel quite pinched financially I would be ashamed of myself to give nothing to at least a few causes I feel are important when I am so much better off than much of the world.

I don't mean to sound sanctimonious or preachy or self-satisfied. I hope I am none of those things. But it was a breakthrough to me when I realized that I could fit some modest giving into my life on a regular basis; all I had to do was make it a priority. My shoes are old, my wardrobe is adequate but limited, I don't go out to eat much, I don't buy luxury items -- but I can give $25 here and $50 there to certain causes I believe in.

Philanthropy becomes a habit, and anything that makes it easier and more fun, as Give to the Max Day did, is all to the good in getting more people hooked. I hope that public celebrations of charitable giving like Give to the Max Day become a recurring feature of our lives.

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