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Why #GivingTuesday isn't the best way for nonprofits to raise money

By Janet H. Cho • Updated Nov 25, 2018 at 5:46 PM

Giving Tuesday offers those of us who splurged on Black Friday and Cyber Monday a chance to compensate by just as generously supporting our favorite nonprofits on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving.

As one software company for nonprofit fundraising puts it, the day offers “24 hours to harness the online power of #GivingTuesday. That’s 1,440 minutes to make your mark and 86,400 seconds to spur supporters into action.”

But in a world where so many worthy efforts are fighting for our increasingly fleeting attention spans, fundraising experts say the most successful fundraising goes well beyond hashtags and social media-driven holidays.

The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, for example, just announced a campaign to raise $80,000, with Cleveland Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam offering to match $1 for every dollar donated to Legal Aid by Dec. 1, up to $40,000. Dee Haslam and others issued the challenge to 1,000 of Legal Aid’s supporters at its annual luncheon on Nov. 19 at the Hilton Downtown Cleveland.

Melanie Shakarian, director of development for the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, isn’t a big fan of Giving Tuesday. Just because it’s popular doesn’t make it meaningful. Instead, she says, the most effective fundraising comes from cultivating donors one-on-one, based on the causes they care about enough to support.

“Fundraising is about relationship-building,” she said. “And that means you get to know the people over time.” On Giving Tuesday, “you’re getting $10 from that person because it’s easy, whereas by sitting back and waiting to talk to that exact same person, you could be getting $100."

Dan Mansoor, president of Goodworks Group and a veteran consultant to nonprofits on philanthropy and fundraising, said Americans give away about $1 billion a day, about 80 percent of which comes from individuals. Collectively, charitable giving from individuals, foundations and corporations surpassed $410 billion in 2017, the highest amount ever. At the same time, the percentage of Americans who are donating money has declined about 8 percent. That means that nonprofits need to better engage people to persuade them to want to support your cause, he said.

Those looking to donate to charities or nonprofits should instead consider what causes they most care about, then which organizations are working in that arena.

Mansoor has identified what he calls the three fatigues of giving. The first is ‘giving fatigue.’ By that he means we have become numb to the hundreds of fundraising entreaties received via letter or email, especially at this time of year. Donors don’t want to be treated like ATMs; they want to have an ongoing connection with what they’re supporting. In particular, “women and young people don’t give to institutions, they give to causes,” he said.

The second fatigue is solicitation fatigue. “We’re tired as foundations, as volunteers, as board members,” by the effort and energy required to fundraise, Mansoor said. Not only do people not like asking for money, but there’s this feeling that “we just got done with one [fundraising] campaign, and we’re off and starting another. There’s always got to be new stuff going on."

A better approach is to consider how the nonprofit defines and measures its success. Betsie Norris, founder and executive director of the Adoption Network Cleveland, which this year is celebrating 30 years of helping families and communities navigate adoption and foster care, said the Adoption Network shares its success stories with donors even when they’re not asking for money. At the same time, they can’t afford to skip an opportunity like Giving Tuesday to remind their supporters of what they’re doing to support adoptive families and children aging out of foster care.

Tammy Willett, Adoption Network Cleveland’s director of development, said donors want to see the impact of their donations, so they know what their money is supporting. She said that although organizations like Charity Navigator and Guidestar can be useful, they can only provide part of the picture of how a people-centric nonprofit spends its money.

The third fatigue is altruism fatigue. Cal Al-Dhubaib, founder and chief data scientist for Pandata, a Cleveland-based data analytics firm, said that although people give to the United Way of Greater Cleveland, for example, because its experts have already identified a menu of local charities worth supporting, “engagement with the mission is key.”

Last summer, while analyzing more than 100,000 donors for United Way, he found that the people who checked off what they wanted their donations to support — education, basic needs or health — tended to give more. “Those who indicated a specific interest designation were likely to donate twice as much, twice as often,” he said. “The more engaged people are with your mission, the more likely they are to give."

Cleveland has been a pioneer in philanthropy with an active giving community, Mansoor said. In 1913, the modern United Way was launched in Cleveland, and in 1914, the Cleveland Foundation was founded as the world’s first community foundation. In addition to community-wide philanthropy, family foundations have also become more popular. Others are turning to donor-advised funds or planned giving to think more strategically about ways to support their favorite causes. “From not trusting institutions to wanting to be more active, donors are not as laissez-faire as they used to be,” he said.

Contrary to what most people think, crowdfunding efforts such as GoFundMe.com make up only about 1 percent of giving. “There are so many campaigns happening in Cleveland right now, so many causes people can give to on Facebook," Shakarian said. Facebook now encourages you to raise money from your friends when it’s your birthday. "The problem is that when people support the cause you ask them to contribute to, they’re doing it because they like you, not because they care about your cause.”

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