Last week I had the pleasure of experiencing firsthand the last few hours of the 36-Hour Giving Challenge, an amazing two-day marathon of charitable giving to benefit nonprofits in Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto counties. The second annual Challenge, which started at 7:00 a.m. on March 5 and ended at 7:00 p.m. on March 6, broke its own record by raising more than $2.78 million for 285 nonprofits. Even more impressive, the Challenge generated 17,626 donations from 50 states and 24 countries – a 65% increase in donations from last year.
On the afternoon of March 6 I arrived at the Community Foundation of Sarasota County and entered the “Donor Lounge,” where the foundation’s large meeting room had been transformed into a lounge thanks to some swanky chairs, sofas and coffee tables donated by a local furniture store. In the lounge I was greeted immediately by some irresistible puppies brought in by a local animal nonprofit that had stopped by to say thanks to everyone involved with the Challenge. Representatives from the nonprofit said they had never before been able to raise so much money in such a short period of time, and praised the event for giving them a powerful new way to cultivate relationships with existing and new donors. I was told that nonprofits had been stopping by throughout the two days to express their gratitude. The thank you letters and gifts they left were spread out all over the walls and tables in the lounge.
At one table in the Donor Lounge, a group of donors were sitting around tracking the donation tallies on their laptops. Along the back wall was a bank of laptops where foundation staff were tabulating results, helping donors with questions and doing countless other tasks. Along another wall were two whiteboards where staff were updating by hand two of the Challenge’s many prizes: for the nonprofit receiving the most donations from outside the United States and the nonprofit with the most page views of its online profile on The Giving Partner website, which was the technology backbone for the event .
Along another wall was a large screen where you could view a continuously updated tally of total dollars raised and total donations. Soon after I arrived cheers broke out in the Donor Lounge as the Challenge crossed the $2 million mark. Just a few hours later we got close to surpassing the $3 million mark. I had never experienced philanthropy in action in quite this way before.
The 36-Hour Giving Challenge represents a growing trend in philanthropy: a giving day or match day where local donors and nonprofits come together for 24 hours or more of charitable giving, using new online technologies and social media to reach out to donors in exciting new ways. A study by The Case Foundation found that giving days offer regions an opportunity to “bolster their nonprofit communities with short-term funds, long-term online fundraising skills, and an increase in awareness of their important work.”
So what made Southwest Florida’s 36-Hour Giving Challenge so successful? For starters, the event incorporated key aspects of a successful giving day outlined in The Case Foundation’s study:
1. A contest structure that supports individual giving with a higher priority on individual donors versus size of dollars. The 36-Hour Giving Challenge offered many incentives that emphasized the number of donations rather than the size of donations. For example, the event offered a total of $125,000 in incentive grants for the organizations that got the highest number of “unique” individual donors who gave to them, regardless of the size of the gifts. Another incentive grant offered $1,000 for the first 30 nonprofits to get 50 donors to give a minimum of just $50.
2. A nonprofit training program that helps organizations not only perform better during the giving day, but also acquire long-term online fundraising skills. The Giving Partner offered plenty of training to the nonprofits that participated in the Challenge. I spoke to nonprofits in the Donor Lounge who told me that the Challenge taught them a lot about the power of online fundraising and how to use these tools for longer-term donor cultivation.
3. A significant marketing program to heighten the awareness of the nonprofit community and facilitate the event. From what I could tell, the 36-Hour Giving Challenge was supported by an impressive local marketing effort, thanks in no small part to the event’s partnership with the Herald Tribune Media Group. In the Donor Lounge I listened to the local radio station broadcast during the critical rush-hour drive time, and every few minutes the announcer would encourage listeners to participate in the Challenge during the final few hours. A local TV station was on hand in the lounge, giving updates for the local news broadcast. I talked to a local radio personality and a media executive who exuded unbridled enthusiasm for the event.
In my view another important ingredient in the success of the Challenge was the impressive partnership between several private and community foundations in the Southwest Florida region, including the Community Foundation of Sarasota County and The Patterson Foundation (the two Presenting Partners for the Challenge), Gulf Coast Community Foundation, Manatee Community Foundation, Charlotte Community Foundation and the William G. and Marie Selby Foundation. This year The Patterson Foundation contributed $430,000 in matching funds for new and increased gifts raised during the Challenge, which offered a powerful incentive for participating nonprofits to amp up their outreach to donors.
Perhaps the final “secret” ingredient in the Challenge’s success was the hard work of all of the foundation staff I saw running around in the Donor Lounge, led by the tireless efforts of Susie Bowie, director of The Giving Partner.
Kudos to everyone involved in this year’s 36-Hour Giving Challenge, from the nonprofit participants to the donors to the foundation and business supporters. It’s encouraging and inspiring to see that philanthropy is alive, well and growing in Florida.
– David Biemesderfer, President & CEO, Florida Philanthropic Network