Monday, November 04, 2013

Pondering E-Philanthropy: Give to the Max

10 days from now, and perhaps a little sooner, Minnesotans will get inundated with appeals from all of their favorite and even non-favorite non-profits in Minnesota with Give to the Max Day.

As someone who's worked in non-profits since 1997, I know full well the importance of fundraising and encouraging grass-roots philanthropy. And I'm glad there's a lot of focus being given on an individual's capacity to make a difference as a donor. There are some great opportunities in this.

Give to the Max Day is an event held on November 14th. That day, every donation you make gives your favorite nonprofits and schools the chance to win even more money. Hundreds of organizations will offer the opportunity to double your dollars with matching grants throughout the 24 hours it takes place.

Among the novelty incentives for giving on that day are the Power Hours and the Golden Tickets. During The Power Hours, five nonprofits and schools that raise the most money during each of five power hours will win a $1,000 prize grant. With the Golden Tickets, two donors, one to a nonprofit and one to a school, will be randomly chosen every hour to have $1,000 added to their donation. Additionally, two $10,000 Super-sized Golden Tickets will be randomly drawn at the end of the event. Some organizations who have sponsors who make challenge matches will be highlighted: so donors will have the opportunity to double their donation.

It's important for a variety of reasons, not the least being: A system where corporations form the bulk of major givers runs the risk of seeing social justice and social change co-opted and subordinated to strictly corporate agendas. What happens when Asian American organizations who should be taking a stand against sweatshop labor practices place themselves in compromising positions with the foundations fueled by disparity?

I appreciate Give to the Max Day, but I hope someone finishes a study soon about how much it stresses out smaller non-profits with limited technical capacity and bicultural fluency, among other digital divide issues. Sorry, refugee-centered non-profits, it's going to be an uphill slog for you. "I know we only have 4 staff here, but everyone, we're taking a day off to spam everyone or else we won't be able to extend you to next year."

The technocrats warped ideas of philanthropy have become sadly pervasive. They believe all problems in the world are technology-centered and would improve with clicktivism. Especially absentee clicktivism like certain banks and cred card companies hold every year now, thinking it absolves them of strategic giving in favor of mob-consensus. "Oh, 30,000 people said give our funds to Save the Lobsters? Ok. Sorry, homeless shelters and soup kitchens, the people have spoken!" It's corrosive.

 Yes, Give to the Max reduces barriers to giving for people who are able to access credit and bank accounts and the internet. But it also excludes a lot of stakeholders for many organizations, and arguably starts to warp the way good non-profits have to start directing their efforts. Less time on services or coalition building and more time obsessing over social media metrics.

I caution non-profits that participating in this or other push-button campaigns is not a substitute for effectively cultivating individual donors and it's easy for smaller non-profits, and even big ones, to make the mistake of alienating and burning out their donors good will.

Certainly, there are some donors who understand you'll be doing what you have to do to get funds as we hurtle towards the end of the year. But for occasional donors, if it looks like you're now just e-pan-handling without building up a serious relationship with them or the rest of the community, you're going to get put in the spam folders faster than ever. Just running through your contact list and doing a bulk e-mail is sloppy development.

Democratizing philanthropy is worthwhile but it needs to be done while generating equity. We've tried the pass-through, trickle-down models where supposedly, Mega-NGOs will 'solve problems upstream' and dole out portions according to the merit and capacity of smaller organizations. But in practice, if those smaller communities got strengthened, it's in spite of, not because of those models. Smaller NGOs still have to remain nimble to survive, but it takes exceptional leadership to avoid 'chase the money' syndrome and validating ineffective philanthropic process.

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