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Giving days and the illusion of control

This article was written by Ariel Glassman. She is no longer with Ostara, but we want to preserve this piece so that you can learn from her and from the work she did while part of the Ostara team.

Unless you’ve been living under a nonprofit rock, you know that last week’s GiveBIG – the Seattle Foundation-hosted community-wide day of philanthropy – didn’t quite go as planned.

What happened?

In fact, cities around the country participating in the coordinated May 3 GiveLocalAmerica uber-giving day (spearheaded by Kimbia, an online giving and crowdfunding platform) had a real scare. A hardware glitch took down the donation page functionality, back-end reporting tools, and the shiny new real-time leaderboards and data visualization, all in one fell swoop.

Cue thousands of nonprofit professionals and board members freaking out in perfect synchrony.

Thankfully, The Seattle Foundation extended the event for another 24 hours, Kimbia’s hardware came back online, and Seattle as a community met our $20 million collective goal. And then we lived happily ever after!

Just kidding.

In the week since May 3, Seattle’s – and America’s – nonprofit community and fundraising thought leaders have been trying to make sense of the GiveLocalAmerica kerfuffle. Kimbia tried to get ahead of potential backlash with a plan to make it up to the participating organizations that has been heavily criticized by the potential recipients.

Kivi LeRoux Miller immediately punched out some lessons for donor communications professionals on backup plans for technology failures on giving days and then raked Kimbia over the coals.  Beth Kanter jumped in to talk about the wisdom of trying to scale and centralize giving days like Kimbia attempted to with GiveLocalAmerica. The head of Colorado Gives wrote about their giving day crisis management plan. Local Seattle activists have thrown an equity lens into the mix.

How did we get here?

It’s important to reflect on how we got to the place where a technical glitch can trigger a massive wave of organizational anxiety, panic, and anger. Since its 2011 debut, GiveBIG has transformed into a fundraising juggernaut. It’s grown from a $3.6 million event in 2011 to raising over $20 million in 2016.

Year after year, the Seattle Foundation has added new creative twists to keep it fresh. They started with a stretch pool from some local corporations, and the idea to create $1,000 random golden tickets. Then came silver and platinum tickets. Media partnerships with major sports teams. A new theme every year. A stretch pool over $1 million. Promotional toolkits to help nonprofits easily create custom campaigns. Real-time leaderboards. Shopping cart functionality and the ability to schedule gifts in advance.

GiveBIG now dominates the spring fundraising season for most nonprofits in every sector in Seattle and King County. Organizations aren’t just stepping up to the plate for GiveBIG for one day anymore. They prep their donor bases with weekly communications for a month in advance of the event itself. They change the timing of longstanding spring direct mail appeal campaigns, crowdfunding campaigns and signature events so they don’t have competing simultaneous fundraising opportunities for their donors.

GiveBIG is no longer a giving day – it’s a well-oiled, sophisticated philanthropy machine. All the innovations make it super shiny, and it seems like an easy technology-based solution for organizations that struggle to find the time to fundraise effectively from individual donors year-round.

The illusion of control

But even the most sophisticated fundraising endeavor doesn’t give you complete control. What the Great GiveBIG Freakout of 2016 really illustrates is the thing every nonprofit has to remember about fundraising: you never have control. Certain tactics and incentives can help you influence behaviors, but control is an illusion.

In the past year alone, we’ve seen our clients take hits from all kinds of situations they couldn’t control.

One organization’s top event table captain’s travel plans were changed to the week of their gala.

Another saw their biggest general operations grant funder change their guidelines on short notice.

Another saw a top major donor drop their gift significantly to help pay for a parent’s unexpected medical bills.

These situations crop up all the time, and they can happen to any nonprofit. You are not immune. Throw in elements that rely heavily on new technology, and the risk is even greater. 

It’s OK to be angry or upset about the GiveBIG failure, or about any of these situations. Feel those feelings – you wouldn’t be in the nonprofit sector if you didn’t attach to your mission, outcomes, and impact. It’s entirely accurate to point out that people’s lives may literally be at risk when a giving day fails to launch.

But ultimately, your job is to make sure that if it ever happens again, your whole fiscal year doesn’t go out the window, your doors stay open, and your programs still succeed. Stay focused on constructing that fundraising reality for your organization. 

What can you do?

So how can nonprofits insulate themselves against this lack of control? How can they buffer themselves against the winds of bad luck and bad timing? Through smart planning and diversifying your revenue sources.

This isn’t a new concept, or one you can accomplish in a snap. It has to show up in both your short-term, annual fundraising tactics, as well as in your long-term, overarching funding strategy. Fundraising is difficult, relational work. It’s an art and a science. No technology or single tactic will ever replace the sustained effort and thoughtful strategy that effective fundraising requires of us.

So, what does this look like in practice? In any given fiscal year, your development plan has to acknowledge what giving days are capable of accomplishing for you, and what they’re not. Giving days are good for certain things, like acquiring new donors and generating matching challenges from existing major donors and corporate sponsors.

But precisely because so much is out of your control, and because everyone and their mother is participating and shouting from the rooftops about it, giving days can’t be given excess weight.

How do you know when you’re over-investing in giving day?

Every nonprofit has a custom calibration of staff size, available budget, and ongoing fundraising tactics. There’s no one standard, obvious red flag.  But ask yourself some questions like:

What will happen if I don’t meet my giving day goal? If the answer is along the lines of a staff layoff or furlough, or a significant reduction in program activities, you have too many eggs in your giving day basket (or shopping cart? Too soon).

Am I spending more energy on giving days than major donors? If you’re investing more resources in preparing for a giving day than you are in shepherding your top 5 major donor relationships, you’re over-investing in giving days.

Am I investing more energy in giving days than engaging my board in fundraising? If you’re spending more time on preparing for giving days than you are in training your board members to be year-round advocates for your work in all kinds of situations, your strategies are out of balance.

Am I expending more resources on giving days than year-round donor stewardship? If you’re investing more time and energy on a transactional, acquisition-oriented single day of your fundraising calendar than a year-round continuum of impact stewardship and love stewardship for donors at different levels, you’re over-investing in giving days. 

You probably can’t address over-investment in giving days in one fiscal year, especially if you see your nonprofit reflected in one of these scenarios. And you don’t want to pull the rug out from under donors you’ve conditioned to give through GiveBIG too quickly.

But let this incident be a wake-up call for every nonprofit to assess your level of investment in GiveBIG, Giving Tuesday, or any other giving day that has become part of your annual activities.

Now is the time to step back and look at the balance of your investment in each of the major established fundraising strategies: grants, corporate partnership, events, crowdfunding, giving days, annual appeals, major giving, and planned giving. And don’t forget earned income!

Think through questions like:

How much money do you raise through each of these strategies?

How much time and effort do you invest in each area to achieve these results?

What activities can you drop, based on ROI?

What could be tweaked or modified to be more effective?

What is missing?

Is your current staff structure aligned with your areas of greatest ROI?

Do you have the right people in those staff roles?

Is your board fundraising engagement aligned with your areas of greatest ROI?

Don’t chase every strategy – some of them won’t be right for your organization. But you should have a healthy, appropriately prioritized mix of the right 4 or 5 digital and analog fundraising strategies, without any one leg of your philanthropic stool standing too much taller than the rest. That way, if somebody kicks one and breaks it, no one’s going to fall over.

Every single one of these strategies has its own level of risk, and its own type of reward besides pure funds generated. There is no one strategy, and no specific mix of strategies, that is ideal for every organization. The challenge is to know your organization and your donors well enough to know which strategies are right for you, for your level of risk tolerance, for where you’re at in your organizational lifecycle and program cycles, and for what you’re trying to accomplish. 


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