Is Giving Tuesday a Wash for Small Nonprofits or a Forum for Experimentation?

November 21, 2017; Reading Eagle

Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the most wonderful time of the year—for everyone but nonprofit fundraisers, that is. For many small nonprofit executive directors and one-person development offices, the last months of the year are instead a long slog of hand-signed annual appeal letters, thank-you notes, and holiday cards sent with the frantic hope of capitalizing on America’s generosity. After all, it’s long been noted that nearly one-third of giving takes place in December.

Five years ago, yet another date was added to the third sector’s collective calendar, complete with a trendy hashtag: #GivingTuesday. Its founding was a well-intentioned campaign by the 92nd Street Y and the Belfer Center for Innovation and Social Impact to refocus the nation on giving after the gluttony and greed of Thanksgiving and Black Friday. Its popularity also coincided with the rise of social media and online purchases: in 2010, only six percent of donors said an e-appeal motivated a gift; in 2016, the number was 28 percent, according to a Dunham and Company study.

Giving Tuesday continued to grow; meanwhile, community foundations and state-based nonprofit associations started smaller-scale giving days. Now, as the sector faces unprecedented challenges from the Trump administration, nonprofit leaders feel pressured to participate and match incentives from the Gates Foundation in partnership with Facebook and Newman’s Own Foundation in partnership with Crowdrise. Others are widely publicized.

But, although some big-name nonprofits saw huge increases in giving following the election in 2016, last year’s Giving Tuesday results were less than stellar, with a lower rate of growth than in previous years. Small nonprofits wonder if donors are really paying attention to this made-up holiday. Some have refocused messaging on gratitude to counter the deluge of competing asks in their donors’ inboxes.

The Reading Eagle recently chronicled the divergent experiences of local nonprofits, including Shady Hollow Assisted Riding, which raised about $5,000 of “easy money,” according to a staff member.

“When Shady Hollow decided to participate last year, it followed the guidelines recommended by the Berks County Community Foundation, including which days and how often to post about the campaign online, and what to include in posts,” reporter Lindsey O’Laughlin wrote. “The posts included photos of the horses, sometimes with riders and volunteers and other times by themselves. In addition to always using the national hashtag #GivingTuesday in their posts, the folks behind the Shady Hollow social media accounts added a specialized hashtag, #HugAHorse.”

Despite the farm’s success, the Berks County Community Foundation has seen a drop in participation by local nonprofits, from 70 participating in 2012 to less than 20 last year, which is attributed to little return on investment of time for already under-staffed organizations.

Another local nonprofit, the Berks History Center, raised $1,700 last year, which was “lower than expected based on the time and resources the center dedicated to the campaign,” according to the Reading Eagle.

This year, the history center will offer a free open house on Giving Tuesday in addition to the online campaign.

If you’re a nonprofit fundraiser weighing ongoing participation in #GivingTuesday, there’s another tactic that could capitalize on the national momentum, as outlined by Chris Pearsall and Alison Carlman in NPQ last month: experimentation to test your ongoing strategies.

“#GivingTuesday seemed like the perfect testing ground for the golden ticket,” Pearsall and Carlman wrote. “On a day when donors are already primed to give, a small incentive might tilt the scales.”

The data show that nonprofits will be most successful if they keep e-mail appeals simple; appeals should focus on a clear call to action to lead donors out of e-mail and onto the giving page; and the more complex the communications, the harder it typically is to get a donor to act. However, once donors are ready to make a donation, giving them an opportunity to select between two, more complicated matching offers (a lower percentage for a one-time match and a higher percentage for a recurring match) can lead to a significant increase in recurring donations.

As always, NPQ will be watching—and reporting—on #GivingTuesday trends. Good luck to all, and to all a good night!—Anna Berry