Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during July/Aug 2013, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.

Spending flurries focused on a single day are nothing new. The day after Thanksgiving, commonly known as “Black Friday,” spurs round-the-clock shopping. Telethons urge people every hour to call in and give. It was only a matter of time before the growth of online fundraising and social media led to “giving days,” coordinated online fundraising campaigns lasting 24 hours.

Aside from online crowdfunding through vehicles like Kick-starter and Indiegogo, annual giving days are one of the few proven ways that nonprofits have used social media to successfully raise money from new donors. To help grassroots and community-based organizations better understand how to use giving days to boost their fundraising, GIFT talked with three such campaigns: Minnesota’s Give to the Max Day, Riverside, California’s Give BIG Riverside campaign, and the newly-launched national effort to increase funding to LGBTQ issues, Give OUT Day.

How It Works

A giving day is often planned and coordinated by a central entity, usually a partnership between a lead organization, a funder, and the nonprofit community. This entity sets up the online giving platform where donors can search for organizations by location or issue. It also has a leaderboard, a regularly updated chart on the website showing which organizations are raising the most. This is critical because most giving days offer cash prizes or matching grants as incentives for nonprofits to raise the most funds or reach the most donors. The competitive aspect is often referred to as “gamification.”

The coordinating entity is also responsible for outreach efforts to nonprofits, prospective donors, and the broader community. In addition to creating all of the graphics, logos, and other promotional materials, they are responsible for sending emails, posting on social media, and using other promotional strategies, such as tabling at conferences and even erecting signs on the freeway. They also conduct training on the campaign for participating organizations, which includes how to use the online platform and leverage social media.

Interested nonprofits participate by creating a simple webpage through the campaign’s online platform. The platform also allows additional individuals to “join the cause” by signing up to raise money on behalf of an organization by creating a personal web-page. The organizations are then responsible for promoting the campaign to their networks and coming up with creative ways to encourage giving. While an existing campaign makes it easy for an organization to join, it is still up to each individual organization to raise donations for itself and to follow up with donors after the campaign.

Potential benefits to an organization can include:

  • increased visibility;
  • fundraising engagement from your board, staff, volunteers, or constituents;
  • increased experience in online fundraising and social media;
  • new donors; and,
  • increased funding through new dollars or larger donations.

GIFT and Community Partners both work with many organizations that do important work but have little fundraising capacity. Creating a successful fundraising team, building a base of individual donors, and integrating fundraising with social media can be difficult for new or small organizations. The benefit of a “giving day” is that groups can plug into an existing high-visibility campaign without needing a significant up-front investment of their own resources. Used strategically, giving days can help small organizations launch their donor programs or bring added credibility to their work.

“It’s great for small groups that don’t have access to a sophisticated online fundraising program or training for how to use it,” says Jason Franklin of Bolder Giving, the anchor organization behind Give OUT Day. “We offer free training on the tools.”

Indeed, 71 percent of organizations participating in Give BIG Riverside reported they had never conducted an online fundraising campaign before. “These groups have known for years that they have to do more fundraising online and use social media, but it often falls to the bottom of the to-do list,” says Amy Sausser, a volunteer with Give BIG Riverside. “Give BIG Riverside created a deadline that motivated them to finally do it. And the barrier to entry is really low, so why not just try it?”

But Does It Really Work?

A significant motivating factor for creating giving days is to broaden the audience for specific causes. Give OUT Day found that less than five percent of the LGBTQ community gives to LGBTQ causes. This is echoed by Give BIG Riverside, where anecdotal evidence suggests that much of Riverside’s generosity goes to causes outside of the city, such as in response to natural disasters or to alma maters. Both campaigns believe there is a large population of people who might be inclined to give to their particular cause who haven’t been effectively reached—the hope is that giving days might be the strategy to do it.

“This is not just about getting the same donors to give in a new way,” stresses Dana Nelson of GiveMN, the entity behind Give to the Max Day. “86 percent of participating nonprofits report getting new donors. We really are helping groups find new donors.” Similarly, Give BIG Riverside reports that 40 percent of participating donors were new to the group that received funds. Initial reports from Give OUT Day are also promising: over 75 percent of participating groups report that they engaged new donors, and over 80 percent report that current donors gave larger gifts.

Nelson says that part of the central entity’s job is to reach audiences that are not traditionally asked to give. If your donors complain that their email inboxes are overflowing with donation solicitations related to the giving day campaign, “it doesn’t mean that everyone’s inbox is full; it just means that we’re talking to the same people—and there are many more people out there.”

Giving Days by the Numbers

13 percent of responding donors said that Give OUT Day prompted them to make their first gift to an LGBTQ group, and almost 40 percent made a gift to a group that they discovered through the giving day.

“Obviously, the main goal is to raise money. But it’s not necessarily an opportunity to walk away with a wheelbarrow full of cash,” explains Sausser. “It is, however, a chance to get the word out about your work, deepen the engagement of your supporters, and identify new donors to then steward all year.”


This idea is echoed by the participants of Give to the Max Day. “A big portion of the 400-plus donations that we got were from new donors—and a large portion of those were people in our circles we had never asked before. But the giving day made it easier to ask them—and it turns out they were ready to give but just needed to be asked,” shares Josh Reimnitz, co-executive director of Students Today Leaders Forever, one of the top organizations in last year’s campaign.

Is It Right for You?

While the numbers of participating donors are substantial, you can see in the chart on the previous page that participation translates to an average of less than 20 donors per organization. The lead organizations in Give BIG Riverside ranged from 58 to 318 donors each, while those of Give to the Max Day ranged from 192 to a whopping 2,092. This means the majority of participating organizations garnered fewer than 10 donors.

It is no surprise that many organizations signed up in the beginning only to find later that they didn’t have the time to devote to the campaign or that they didn’t have a sufficiently robust online or social media presence. Says Nelson, “A giving day is just a good excuse to ask for money with a sense of urgency and excitement. If the timing isn’t good or the strategy isn’t right for your organization, then don’t participate.”

Spare Key, a nonprofit that helps families who have seriously ill or critically injured children in the hospital with housing payments, found their participation in Give to the Max Day invaluable. “Because we only have two full-time staff, we have to be really selective with our fundraising activities,” says Erich Mische, Spare Key’s executive director. “They have to be focused, heavily depend on volunteers, and have few moving parts for staff to manage. Giving days fit the description, but groups also have to ask themselves if they have enough resources to be heard above the din. If the answer is no, then you might have to find another way to raise money.”

Adds Sausser, “This doesn’t work as just a day-of activity. Successful organizations begin planning at least a few months out and start promoting it well in advance. They need to have a strategy and to approach it like an organizing campaign that mobilizes large numbers of people.” For the first two years of their campaign, Students Today Leaders Forever did some general promotion through email and social media, and they raised around $10,000. For the third and fourth years, they decided to ramp up their strategy and invest more time, resulting in over $40,000 raised last year.

A mistake groups sometimes make is that they focus their fundraising efforts on the campaign and neglect the other necessary parts of a healthy development program. Giving days can be an effective way to broaden a donor base, but additional work is needed to sustain it. Says Franklin, “I’m a staunch believer that these giving days cannot replace other fundraising efforts. Groups still need cultivation and relationship-building, an annual fund, and major donors. What this strategy can do is raise new money and reinvigorate existing donors. Think of it as an acquisition or upgrade strategy to engage people who aren’t responding to other fundraising efforts.”

Making the Most of It

Here are tips for how organizations can maximize their participation in giving days:

Set an appropriate goal. Not every group has to set their sights on being at the top of the leaderboard. Your goal could be to get your board members involved in fundraising, improve your online fundraising efforts, or motivate staff to ask their friends to give.

Because Give BIG Riverside’s prize money was based on who had the most unique donors, the winning organization set a clear goal of acquiring the most donors. They did this by asking everyone they knew—through social media, personal contact, email signatures, and online video—for just $10. They saw this as a donor acquisition strategy with an easily affordable entry point that might generate larger gifts from some of these donors sometime down the road.

Get a matching grant. It doesn’t have to be a large amount. Perhaps a local community fund or family foundation would be willing to do a match for your group or for several groups. Or it could simply be a $1,000 matching gift that your board pools together from gifts they would have already made. Even if the matching gift itself is not new money, it will motivate prospective donors to give—and give more.

Be creative—within limits. Hundreds of organizations could be participating in a giving day, so groups need to get creative to be noticed. Several organizations participating in Give to the Max Day created 24-hour events to accompany the 24-hour giving period, such as a theater company’s improv-a-thon. Some participants in Give BIG Riverside held informal gatherings and receptions for donors and their friends to meet and mingle with the organization—with plenty of laptops and tablets available for making additional donations.


Max Day created 24-hour events to accompany the 24-hour giving period, such as a theater company’s improv-a-thon. Some participants in Give BIG Riverside held informal gatherings and receptions for donors and their friends to meet and mingle with the organization—with plenty of laptops and tablets available for making additional donations.

Spare Key came up with the idea of doing a 24-hour bike ride with an interesting twist. A local company, PedalPub, donated the use of one of their signature bikes, a four-wheeled contraption that requires ten people to pedal and someone to steer. With over 120 volunteers enthusiastically recruited from local CrossFit clubs to pedal in two-hour shifts, they pedaled up and down the scenic riverfront for 24 hours. Mische credits their ability to spend less than $1,000 and raise more than $25,000 to the combination of fun, quirkiness, and so many volunteers. They were able to get local media attention in addition to tens of volunteers posting fun photos from the event on Facebook and Twitter with a link to the donation page. “I think it would have been impossible for us to raise the amount of money and awareness of our work without this type of event,” shared Mische.

Students Today Leaders Forever got creative with an online event. Because they work with a young population, they started a livestream right before the 24-hour start, featuring entertainment and a group chat box where viewers could share messages. It worked so well for the audience that by 4 a.m., they had already received $4,000, putting them near the top of the leaderboard right away. The excitement and momentum of being at the top helped motivate more people to give throughout the day.

Organizations participating in Give BIG Riverside reported a mixed experience with off-line events as part of that campaign, with 43 percent saying their events were not successful. Cautions Mische, “If not managed well, the push to ‘be creative’ can lead to ideas that end up costing more than you’re raising or that can undermine your organization’s credibility or brand image.”

Keeping Your New Donors

Give BIG Riverside offers its participants training and technical assistance on keeping donors engaged. “It’s standard donor development principles but using different channels,” advises Sausser. “You tell stories that draw people in—but you can do it through fun images and first-person video testimonials. You don’t just ask for money—you give donors a chance to let you know what they want and like, perhaps through Facebook comments or via Twitter.”

Students Today Leaders Forever has a unique strategy to acknowledge and retain their donors: they thank every donor within four minutes of receiving their donation. During off-hours, a staff person stays awake to send a personal email right away. During peak hours, they recruit volunteers and staff to call donors to thank them. “They love it!” says Reimnitz. “They love that it’s personal. They know we’re really busy on this day and appreciate that we call.” The organization then adds donors to their email list and gives them the opportunity to donate again a few months later. Those that do donate again are given more personal attention, while those who don’t are not asked directly again until the next giving day.


If you have an online presence—such as a website, email list, and Facebook page—and you have a large group of contacts who haven’t yet been directly asked to give, then online giving days can be a great way to convert general supporters into donors. It can also be a great way to convert general volunteers into fundraisers. But, just like all fundraising activities, it will require an investment of time and planning to make it all worthwhile.

  • Want to start a “giving day” in your community? Check out these resources for more information:
  • razoo.com/p/giving-days
  • kimbia.com
  • casefoundation.org/case-studies/give-max-dc-case-study

Priscilla Hung is a program director at Community Partners in Los Angeles and former executive director of GIFT.