Leading experts weigh in on current policy issues and challenges

Can Giving Days Unlock America's Giving Potential?

Giving as a share of GDP has rarely strayed far from 2 percent over the past four decades—despite growth in the number of philanthropic organizations and donors, as well as efforts to encourage greater giving. Many communities have adopted giving days as a technique for encouraging giving. Has America reached its full potential for generosity? Or its generosity limit? Is there value in leveraging giving days to push the needle to increase our #GivingPotential?

The Urban Institute is talking with...
Brandi Yee Brandi Yee
Andrea Perez Andrea Perez
C. Eugene Steuerle C. Eugene Steuerle
Jen Shang Jen Shang
Javier Alberto Soto Javier Alberto Soto
Shena Ashley
Moderated by:
Shena Ashley
Director, Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy

Hello everyone and welcome to our virtual discussion of giving days and their impact on giving in communities. Today marks the fifth Giving Tuesday- a day of heightened national attention to giving and acts of generosity. But, there are many other giving day campaigns to stimulate giving in communities of all types, be they geography based like Give Miami Day and Spring2ACTion in Alexandria or an online community of Latinos in the case of HIPGive. Through this discussion, we have the opportunity to learn from the experiences of our panelists who have been involved in launching and managing very successful giving day campaigns. My hope is that we will gain new insights into what drives their success, the implications giving days have on who gives in community, and ultimately their ability to significantly increase giving in the US.

Let’s get started with two questions:

  1. What have you learned about the strategies and approaches that make giving days successful?
  2. Is having collective energy around a focused day or challenge harnessing a different kind of giving or attracting a different giver than other forms of philanthropic giving?

The power of giving days, I think, resides not simply in having just another set of advertisements.  They work best when individuals in the community encourage those they know to give in turn and when donors make it a more exciting game through use of prizes and challenges. 

My sense from community foundation work (with Brandi Yee at ACT for Alexandria) is that participation in giving days yields further participation in other activities of a community foundation and the charities that use these days to rev up interest and support.  I wonder if others have come to the same conclusion?

The Miami Foundation has a clear vision for our city: to create a community that is generous, engaged and committed to investing in its future. Give Miami Day is about bringing Miamians together to realize this vision and make a collective impact. Since launching this initiative in 2012 with support from Knight Foundation, The Miami Foundation’s Give Miami Day has made history as the most active 24 hours of giving in the Southeast United States, with the number of nonprofits, donors and dollars raised increasing year after year. This year's Give Miami Day, held on November 17, brought close to 29,000 donations from more than 19,000 donors around the world, raising over $9.1 million for 660+ local nonprofits. 

Our community has totally taken ownership of Give Miami Day. Everywhere I went on Give Miami Day, the energy was palpable – all of Greater Miami was pumped about giving back and supporting these important organizations. The day’s outstanding results prove the heights Miamians can reach when we band together in support of the place we call home. The impact extends well beyond those 24 hours. 

It furthers our mission to improve quality of life by igniting the community to rally around the organizations building it every day. It has increased our community knowledge around the issues residents care about to inform our work and better meet emerging needs. It has engaged our board of trustees and led directly to the establishment of new funds by generous residents who were previously unaware of the work of The Miami Foundation. It has deepened our relationships with fundholders and expanded our network of formal corporate partnerships. 

Give Miami Day is our biggest opportunity to impact a greater number of nonprofit organizations beyond our standard grant programs. Participating nonprofits represent every sector from the arts to housing, disability services, education and the care of animals. Since the contributions on this day are unrestricted, nonprofits can use the dollars at their discretion, helping establish, grow and expand programs. Additionally, Give Miami has helped introduce people to new nonprofits: in 2015, 28 percent of gifts made on Give Miami Day were by donors who self-identified as first-time givers to the selected organization(s). It is also an excellent opportunity for capacity building, providing a sophisticated online fundraising platform filled with helpful giving campaign resources to nonprofits while boosting their marketing skills through our communications trainings around the city.

ACT for Alexandria, our city’s community foundation, began hosting Spring2ACTion, Alexandria's Giving Day in 2011.  We saw the giving day model as a perfect way to educate and engage the community about all of the incredible nonprofits in our City, build the fundraising capacity of the nonprofits and increase the number of dollars and donors for them.   Little did we know that Spring2ACTion would have so many more benefits to our foundation and the Alexandria community.

This year’s Spring2ACTion was April 20 and brought in nearly 12,000 donations from more than 8,300 donors, raising more than $1.3Million for 152 local nonprofits. 

Giving days are unique because there is a sense of urgency and a chance for nonprofits to reach their donors in a different way.  Nonprofits and donors appreciate the time sensitivity of the event and the spirit of competition for prizes.  It has also been an engagement tool for us with our donor advised fund holders.  Many of them provide thousands of dollars in matching grants for Spring2ACTion.  We've also found that it has been an excellent way to engage board members, donors and volunteers in peer to peer fundraising by giving them the opportunity to serve as ambassadors, Free Agent Fundraisers (FAFs), for their favorite nonprofit.  These FAFs are able to reach out to their networks, ultimately increasing the visibility for the nonprofit and helping them obtain new donors.  

Nonprofits tell us they appreciate Spring2ACTion because it allows them to be part of a collective effort – it truly is a community-wide event, much more than just online giving.  There is a buzz in the city about giving back and this can been seen from yard signs, to I Gave stickers, to events hosted all over town and local businesses donating a portion of their sales to nonprofits, the Spring2ACTion spirit of generosity is contagious.   


These are all quite impressive results and you have all identified many areas of benefit that extend beyond the donation like increased nonprofit capacity and increased engagement with the community foundations hosting these giving campaigns. I'm curious about your sense of how these giving days impact giving in general. Are giving days increasing our giving or shifting the timing of our giving? The Miami Foundation's stats on first time givers indicates that the pie is increasing there, but is there other evidence that points to increasing vs shifting patterns, or the potential for either one of these directions?

As more and more Miamians take a vested interest in this city’s future, Give Miami Day is their chance to take part in the generosity movement. In 2015, of respondents to our post-event survey, more than half indicated that they were increasing their annual charitable contributions or shifting the timing of their donation because of Give Miami Day. 

Because the giving day platform resides online, Give Miami Day creates a way for organizations to broaden their reach and audience and makes it easier for donors to give. With donations coming in from across the country and around the world, our city of global citizens is inspiring friends and family abroad to invest in our progress. In addition, we have taken knowledge gained during Give Miami Day to build out Nonprofit Central, a year-round community resource helping donors and residents better understand Miami-Dade County’s nonprofit ecosystem. Giving days are not just about raising money; the event can also serve as a catalyst for a year-round, community-wide commitment to a culture of giving that fuels civic pride.

Great question!  I believe giving days are doing both.  As many of our daily transactions have moved online, so has the way we give.  Nonprofits have successfully converted many “check writing” donors to giving online and giving days, like Spring2ACTion and Give Miami Day, allow nonprofits another opportunity (outside of year-end and galas) to reach out to their donors and to target new ones.  Our community foundation provides training on donor stewardship and engagement and creating strategic fundraising campaigns for Spring2ACTion, techniques that can be used year-round. 

When we originally started Spring2ACTion in 2011, one of our goals was to engage younger people in local philanthropy – the coveted “millennials.”  While we’ve begun to engage them through our Free Agent Fundraisers, we are also seeing that many of our traditional donors are now giving online.  The good news is we are seeing an increase in overall giving through Spring2ACTion and other times throughout the year.  Donors are increasing their gifts and many long-standing donors are now offering matching grants to help nonprofits leverage donations during Spring2ACTion.  We are excited to see donors partnering with nonprofits and getting them more involved in their work.

Spring2ACTion also has a high percentage of first-time givers, now the challenge for nonprofits is to engage and retain those new donors.  

I think all new charitable efforts serve both as substitutes and complements to other efforts. When we started our community foundation, the same question arose.  Would people just give more to us and less to other local charities? Wth the money we have been able to raise for these charities, partly through our sponsorship of a giving day, that concern has largely gone away.  By analogy, think of those enclaves in cities where several restaurants congregate. New restaurants clearly compete with the old ones, but together they make the areas on net more attractive. One reason is that each new approach offers a new option not available from the others.  That is, they are not complete substitutes and give donors new ways of becoming engaged.

Of course, much depends on how well the giving days are organized within communities and specific charities. If the giving day is inefficient relative to other efforts, then net gains can be limited.  In Alexandria, Brandi makes a huge effort to train and encourage the local charities, so much so that our community foundation (ACT for Alexandria) sponsored giving day now comes close to raising about $10 per citizen.  I wonder how the metrics play out in other communities? Does any other top this?  And , if so, what techniques do they use?  I also wonder whether the large charities who only put a tiny effort into adding a giving day solicitation to their other, bigger, efforts find that they are raising more money.  These questions are researchable.

Its clear in these cases from Alexandria and Miami that realizing the potential of Giving Day campaigns to increase giving depends to a great extent on increasing organization's capacity to engage donors and providing information resources to help donors understand the nonprofit ecosystem year-round. This is a helpful reminder that the campaigns or the particular day is only one part of the larger effort.  Gene raises some important research questions and I wonder if there is any evidence around which nonprofits benefit most from these campaigns? Are the ones that already have a fairly  sophisticated fundraising capacity benefiting the most?

I also want to make sure that we have the opportunity to hear from Andrea and Jen. Andrea tell us about the results of #LatinosGive on #GivingTuesday and what you learned from this experience? Jen feel free to weigh in and provide some thoughts on donor motivations and behaviors in the context of giving days.

While giving days are designed to evoke a spirit of competition, we always tell nonprofits that it’s not just about winning prizes, it is about engaging your donors and raising funds for a critical need.  Everyone is a winner when that happens!  One might think the most sophisticated nonprofits have the most success, but we have witnessed many smaller grassroots groups that do an incredible job rallying donors behind their causes.  For example, King Street Cats, an all-volunteer cat rescue nonprofit, raised more than $62,000 in 24 hours from 500 donors.  Casa Chirilagua, a small neighborhood-based nonprofit that serves the Central American Latino community, raised nearly $54,000 from 589 donors.  These are significant numbers for organizations with small operating budgets. 

Neither of these groups have dedicated full-time fundraising staff, but they do have solid relationships with their donors - they know who they are, how they like to be solicited, and how to engage them to be ambassadors for their cause.  These nonprofits equipped and empowered their donors to participate as Free Agent Fundraisers during Spring2ACTion.  The Free Agent Fundraising (peer to peer fundraising) aspect of our giving day contributed more than 30% of the overall $1.3Million total.  It’s a win-win for the nonprofits, donors, and for the giving day, as a whole.  

Giving days provide an excellent opportunity for capacity building. Give Miami Day provides a sophisticated online fundraising platform filled with helpful giving campaign resources to nonprofits while boosting their marketing skills through our communications trainings around the city. I have seen nonprofit partners use everything from creative memes on social media to dance parties, pledge cards and mascots to rally supporters; they have implemented these strategies with other events, year-end campaigns and development plans. I have also witnessed some of our smaller nonprofits be among our most successful organizations on Give Miami Day.

I have to agree with some of the previous comments. My sense is that giving days often help most those smaller and medium-size charities that can use a bit of hand-holding in dealing with social media and other options for increasing awareness of their activities.  Some are even likely to make this their major fundraising effort of the year.  Other charities with well-established fundraising activities are more likely not to overload their supporters with advertisement on giving days. 

This week, our crowdfunding platform HIPGive.org hosted an international crowdfunding competition called #LatinosGive on #GivingTuesday. Intended to encourage Latino generosity and support the amazing grassroots nonprofits supporting the Latino community throughout the Americas, this year's campaign was the biggest yet. In just 24 hours we raised more on the platform than in the entire months of November and December last year combined: $250,832 from 1,090 individual donors to 120 different projects. This included $50,000 in matching funds that we were able to provide thanks to generous sponsorship from Google, Fundacion Tigo, and others.

The lessons we learned this year echo some things we already knew. For one, matching funds are a powerful incentive for donors; our first pool of $10,000, which we released at midnight EST on November 29, was depleted in less than a minute! Also, the campaigns that succeeded in raising their goal amounts were the most well-organized - they had a communications strategy ready and reached out to their donor base with clear and consistent messaging about how and when to donate. In contrast, various campaigns did not meet their fundraising goals, often because they did not invest the needed time into planning and executing a strategy to engage their donors. Though crowdfunding can be an extremely helpful tool, it isn't magic, and it takes a lot of elbow grease to execute a successful campaign.

I want to thank the panelists for this insightful discussion and for taking the time to engage in this conversation with us. We've only scratched the surface here but I think we have identified some interesting and testable research questions that we can continue to explore to advance practice and policy in this area. The excellent examples provided by the Miami Foundation and ACT for Alexandria provide great models for community foundations all across the country to learn from and I am grateful that they were willing to share the lessons they have learned to help build the field. Let’s keep the conversation going on twitter #https://twitter.com/search?f=tweets&vertical=default&q=%23givingpotential&src=typdGivingPotential.