Community foundations across the country have been promoting local giving days to motivate people to support nearby charities, encourage nonprofits to embrace technology, and bolster their reputations.
But in the wake of last week’s technology meltdown during Give Local America — a May 3 campaign that affected some 13,000 nonprofits in more than 50 places — community foundations, nonprofits, and donors are suddenly feeling uneasy about the future of giving days.
Rather than dismissing these campaigns as too risky, foundations and nonprofits should take lessons from this fiasco, look at groups that ended up doing well, invest more wisely in technology, and plan more effectively for the unexpected.
Kimbia, an Austin, Tex.-based software company, created Give Local America so community foundations could host annual one-day fundraising events. The company provides the software for processing the donations, finds national sponsors to help market and promote them, and solicits matching funds to help charities attract donors and raise money.
Last year, Give Local America raised $68.5 million for about 9,000 nonprofits in 24 hours.
But not this year.
Last Tuesday at about 10 a.m. Eastern time, the technology provider noticed that donation forms were loading slowly or not at all, and soon many communities were unable to process donations.
Nonprofits and community foundations across the country had spent months planning for and promoting the event, lining up corporate matches, courting media coverage, and encouraging individuals to give — many for the first time.
For its part, Kimbia’s technology team tried to fix the problem. It says it processed more than $29 million in donations and estimates that altogether charities brought in $50 million. Nonetheless, participating groups raised millions of dollars less than in previous years’ events.
It would be easy for community foundations to back away from giving days in the wake of the Kimbia disaster and similar problems that plagued Minnesota’s popular Give to the Max Day in 2013.
But it would be a mistake to abandon an event that’s benefited thousands of charities across the country. Instead, nonprofits should take lessons from community foundations that managed to come out ahead.
In Columbia, S.C., the Central Carolina Community Foundation had organized a big party at the city’s minor-league ballpark to celebrate its giving day, Midland Gives, staged in conjunction with Give Local America.
The foundation had lined up local television stations to broadcast their noon news programs live from the stadium and had scheduled promotions and entertainment.
Last year, Midland Gives brought in more than $1.5 million for 252 South Carolina nonprofits, more than doubling the $700,000 raised in 2014 when the event debuted.
This year, the Central Carolina Community Foundation had even bigger goals. More than 380 nonprofits were taking part, and the early results were strong. By late morning, the campaign was already approaching $500,000 — a total that was being updated on the ballpark’s Jumbotron.
"Then the screen froze," says JoAnn Turnquist, the foundation’s president.
The grant maker, like dozens of others across the country, was suddenly thrust out of celebration mode and into crisis mode.
But unlike many of its peers, Central Carolina had a plan for handling crises. In advance of the event, leaders had outlined what it would do in case of unexpected problems like blackouts, inclement weather, and technology failures. Within hours, it had created its own online Wufoo donation form — essentially working around the failing Kimbia platform.
While far from a perfect solution — it took a massive effort to redirect donors to a new webpage — it allowed Midland Gives to get back online that afternoon even as other communities that participated in Give Local America were essentially out of business.
Ultimately, with the support of the group’s board and local sponsors, the Central Carolina Community Foundation was able to extend its event to May 4 and recapture some of what was lost.
The foundation’s quick thinking and strong communications efforts allowed Midland Gives to raise nearly $1.7 million — roughly a 10 percent increase over a year ago.
Still, some damage was done, according to Ms. Turnquist, who says the foundation estimated that local nonprofits would have raised 20 to 30 percent more if the original platform hadn’t crashed.
In northwestern Pennsylvania, the Erie Community Foundation’s event, Erie Gives has raised more than $10.6 million over 5 years. (The event is not a part of Give Local America; it runs on its own at a different time of year.) In 2015 alone, nearly 7,000 donors in this economically troubled city contributed $2.8 million to 339 local nonprofits.
The foundation has invested heavily in training nonprofits to prepare for and capitalize on the event — and how to cultivate donors to give again later.
It has also taken a unique step, investing about $25,000 to build its own donation-processing platform, which it provides to nonprofits without the 3 to 4 percent fee typically charged by commercial providers.
The Erie Community Foundation’s well-planned event and the Central Carolina Community Foundation’s disaster planning and quick thinking offer important lessons for other groups hoping to run their own giving-day events or take part in a larger one:
Prepare for problems. Perhaps the most troubling takeaway from Give Local America was that the majority of participating community foundations and nonprofits didn’t have a backup plan. Every public event — even virtual ones — should have a strategy for handling glitches.
Communicate clearly and regularly. The organizations that fared the best were the ones that used social-media and digital-media channels to provide regular updates about what was happening, what was being done about it, and how the intended audience (whether it was donors, the media, or sponsors) could help.
"A number of community foundations went silent for hours, throwing up their hands," marketing consultant Kivi Leroux Miller says of this year’s Give Local America. "I realize they were likely just as confused as the nonprofits, but you can’t position yourself as the leader and give directions for months and then go silent."
Invest in training and support. Nonprofits need more than just a platform and sample messaging to be successful with online fundraising, even during a big effort like Give Local America or Giving Tuesday. They need to make serious investments in support and training on technology, communications, fundraising, and more.
The Knight Foundation’s Giving Day Playbook offers a useful guide.
Invite feedback. As part of its follow-up from Give Local America, the Central Carolina Community Foundation is asking nonprofits and the community for advice on how it can improve its event in 2017. This simple question — accompanied by an honest account of what went wrong and what the foundation has already learned — will help it build goodwill and trust.
Share and learn. One of the most encouraging responses to the problems with this year’s Give Local America has been the willingness of many nonprofit and community-foundation leaders to share their experiences and lessons. A number of conversations are already taking place on Ms. Leroux Miller’s Nonprofit Marketing Guide, Beth Kanter’s blog, and through the Twitter hashtag #givedaylessons.
Skipping giving days altogether would be missing out on opportunities to raise more money online and build connections with new donors. But charities must also plan appropriately.
Note: This post appeared originally on philanthropy.com and is reprinted with permission.