Non-profit giving gets a middleman

It started harmlessly enough about a week ago. An e-mail from an arts organization asked me to “give to the max!” for it’s fundraiser. Not that uncommon for my inbox, and so I moved on to the next item.

Then the next day, a similar message, from another arts group – this time a dance company. “Double your impact when you give!” A matching grant, I thought (I’m familiar enough with those) – how nice.

Then a third, and a fourth, and now even my facebook page is replete with urges to give, and not just when I have some money to spare but TOMORROW! November 17th!!! PLEASE!!!

So I finally clicked through a couple of these messages to the source of the onslaught, GiveMN.org. It turns out this site is offering itself up as a common destination for all giving to Minnesota based non-profits, and is “launching” itself tomorrow with a special matching grant of $500,000 (those dollars are the combined contributions of the Saint Paul Foundation, the Minneapolis Foundation and the Bush Foundation). In addition, the three nonprofits that receive donations from the most individuals will receive cash prizes of $5,000, $2,500 and $1,000, respectively.

Well as of this writing GiveMN has 33,748 organizations listed on its website. If they split the $500,000, they’d each get $14.82. Big whoop. Of course many of these listings offer nothing more than a name to go by, like “Help the Helpless” or “Intimeofneed.org.” I called the head of “Razoo,” the server hosting GiveMN, and CEO Sebastian Traeger told me that the site initially puts up the names of all listed nonprofits in the state. It’s then up to those organizations to claim the page and populate with images and information. So far around 2,000 non-profits have responded. GiveMN looks pretty empty right now (but hey, that means those 2,000 arts organizations could make matching funds of $250 each on average – that’s a little better than $14.82).

GiveMN’s angle is that it covers the cost of donating online (approximately a 4.75% charge for processing a credit card transaction) through supporting grants and partner funds, so the arts organization always receives 100% of a donation.

Traeger’s hope is that the Minnesota site will take off, and other states will want to follow suit. The site is almost entirely managed by Razoo staff located in Washington, D.C. The only listed Minnesota staff for GiveMN – executive director Dana Nelson – could not be reached for comment as of this writing.

Update: Just talked with Dana Nelson. She said GiveMN was created because people are getting more and more comfortable with making purchases online. She said non-profits have lagged behind in this area, and it made sense to have a website that’s easy and efficient for both parties. Nelson said Minnesota, with its strong community support, seemed like a perfect place to test out such a site.

At heart the new website sounds like a great idea, but the effectiveness of launching a fundraising website by sending all your clients out asking for money on the same day seems questionable, at best. After all, how much can one person give on the same day (with a one-week warning, tops) to all his or her favorite institutions in need? It may help raise the profile of the new website, but what damage will it do in the process?

I should state for the record that as an arts reporter, I don’t give money to arts organizations for ethical reasons, so I don’t feel the request for funds as acutely as I imagine my arts- and other non-profit-loving friends do. At the worst, I imagine this barrage of pleading e-mails may actually put off some contributors (I think of it as akin to oh, say, turning on the radio only to find all your favorite stations are hosting fund drives at the same time – now who would do that?).

Oh and by the way, one of those non-profits asking for your donations on November 17th? You guessed it – Minnesota Public Radio.

I’ll be interested to see how the experiment works. Will giving to non-profits become easier for everyone involved? Or will the organizations lose the direct relationship with their donors that they’ve worked so long to foster? And will each non-profit simply be lost in a sea filled with 33,747 competitors?

Check back to hear how “Give to the Max Day” turns out.

  • Jodie Ahern

    Thanks for the explanation, Maryanne. I’ve been bombarded and was somewhat mystified about the whole undertaking.

  • http://www.smartgivers.org Rich Cowles

    Regarding your final question about whether nonprofits will get lost at sea amid all the other nonprofits on GiveMN:

    The Charities Review Council is partnering with GiveMN as a means of helping donors find accountable and transparent charitable organizations. Our Meets Standards seal will be prominently displayed on GiveMN for all organizations that have voluntarily demonstrated compliance with the Council’s widely accepted standards.

    Our online review process, known as “The Accountability Wizard,” is available to all nonprofits for a nominal administrative fee. Council staff helps participating nonprofits make changes toward more accountable practices, where needed, to meet the standards. The Charities Review Council has been helping informed MN donors connect with accountable nonprofits for 63 years.

    Rich Cowles

    Executive Director, Charities Review Council

  • http://cantusonline.org Mary Lee

    In this climate, it’s important for nonprofits to have all the help that they can get in reaching their donors and especially in connecting with new donors who may not respond to traditional means of solicitation. Many of Cantus’ fans have heard us in concerts and can now stay in touch with us through our social networking sites. Having another tool to make it easy for these fans to give to Cantus only helps us in the long run. And GiveMN actually *eliminates* the middle man…at least temporarily…by taking care of credit card fees. That alone is worth a great deal to nonprofits participating in GiveMN. A $100 donation to Cantus actually is $100…rather than $100 minus a percentage to Paypal.

    Whether or not Cantus gets $14.82 or $250 from matching funds tomorrow, we’re pleased to be part of a historic day in Minnesota philanthropy.

  • http://www.tc.umn.edu/~coop0001 Jenzi Silverman

    I agree totally with Ms. Lee from Cantus. Of course, I can’t predict exactly how well GiveMN.org will do in helping nonprofits connect with donors, but Marianne, I can’t see the issues you raised being problems, and I think you’re being unnecessarily pessimistic. For one thing, you don’t seem to be taking into account the fact that GiveMN.org encourages nonprofits to let friends and supporters know of their presence on the site through email, Facebook, and Twitter. So they make it easier for nonprofits to market themselves, and this giving opportunity, in this way. Secondly, it seems pretty hard for any organization to get lost in the shuffle. All you need to do is search GiveMN.org for any nonprofit in MN: if you aren’t sure of its name, you can search by category. I think this will actually make finding nonprofits to support easier for everyone.

    I would say that GiveMN.org is already a huge help to the nonprofit for which I volunteer: the Jade Foundation (shameless plug there :). Before this site, we did not have an online donation option. Thanks to GiveMN.org, now we do! So of course, I hope the site fulfills all our expectations. But at this point I see no reason to think it won’t.

  • Gail

    As Tuesday, 10:00 a.m., the GiveMN website says generous Minnesotans have already donated over $2MM in two hours!

    I unfortunately, have only been able to make 4 gifts in the first two hours. The one day fundraising drive may have overwhelmed the site. Keep trying everyone; it’s worth it.

  • kates

    thanks for digging into the group!

    i gave money today – the company i work for doesn’t match employees’ nonprofit donations, so this was a great way to double my year-end gift to groups i care about, like friends of the boundary waters wilderness and second harvest heartland.