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.