Seattle’s GiveBIG seeks collaboration amid the competitive chaos of our day of giving

Give-BIGToday is the annual GiveBIG event in Seattle, a massive online giving spree sponsored by the Seattle Foundation aimed at raising money for good causes and for fostering a broader “collective” identity and appreciation for this region’s many charitable and humanitarian endeavors.

“GiveBIG is an opportunity to focus on the collective work we are doing to build a healthy community,” said Mary Grace Roske, spokeswoman for the Seattle Foundation. “It’s a day to come together.”

It’s also a day that drives many people nuts due to all the competing demands for attention from the 1,400 non-profit organizations hoping to get you to donate during GiveBIG – thanks to the event’s promise to ‘stretch’ donations (not quite matching, but adding to donations, up to $25,000) and its random Golden Ticket award.

Joy Portella
Joy Portella

“I recently returned from a weeklong vacation to find my email inbox clogged with more than a dozen appeals from nonprofits pleading for donations on May 15. Feeling overwhelmed, I did what many people in my position might: I deleted everything,” wrote Joy Portella, in a guest column for the Seattle Times entitled Has Seattle Foundation’s GiveBIG campaign gotten too big?

Portella, who formerly did communications for Mercy Corps and now runs a non-profit consulting firm Minerva Strategies, might seem like an odd one to complain about an event specifically created to provide support to her client base. Then again, maybe she’s trying to convince them they need her services? In any case, Portella’s perspective is hardly unique – if not usually stated out loud. Read the entire column. It’s a good one.

“It’s hard to dispute that the campaign is a good thing,” she writes. “But with a cacophony of nonprofits clamoring for donations and potentially cannibalizing each others’ efforts, it is fair to ask: Has GiveBIG gotten too big?”

No, it hasn’t, says Jared Watson, senior vice-president at the Seattle Foundation.

Jared Watson
Jared Watson

“There’s no question that this event has become a big thing for the community, pun intended,” Watson said. That’s something to celebrate, he said, since many of these organizations need assistance in reaching out to the community for support and recognition. The bigger the better.

Contrary to the concern that GiveBIG fosters a frenzied competition for donor dollars that pits groups against each other and especially puts small organizations at a disadvantage, Watson said they’ve heard from many small non-profits that the one-day onling giving event helps them raise their profile.

“We hear from a lot of groups that GiveBIG is particularly helpful to them because they don’t have a social media strategy or an avenue to do online donations,” he said. “Many say they find new donors through the process.”

Launched in 2011, GiveBIG last year tallied 22,538 donors and 37,886 donations for a stunning total of nearly $8.7 million. This year’s event has a bigger ‘stretch’ pool of $850,000 of matching grants provided by the Seattle Foundation and other major donors.

Bookda Gheisar
Bookda Gheisar

Bookda Gheisar, executive director of Global Washington, is one of the 1,400 organizations vying for money and attention during GiveBIG.  Global Washington exists to foster the regions’s growing efforts overseas fighting poverty, disease and inequity. GiveBIG tends to be focused on local causes in philanthropy, but one of its giving categories is ‘Global Giving.’

Gheisar welcomes the intentions of GiveBIG but she is also concerned that the event has become more competitive than collaborative, and that in this context it’s even harder to make the case for international causes.

“A lot of colleagues and friends say they feel inundated by all the requests during GiveBIG,” Gheisar said.”People are overwhelmed or they just stop paying attention.”

The federal government is expected to reduce its foreign aid spending, she said, which many Americans mistakenly believe represents a significant portion of the federal budget (it’s less than one percent). IF you took the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation out of the equation, Gheisar said it would also show that private philanthropies have reduced donations for international causes.

“I’m concerned that these kind of campaigns don’t really encourage us to come together as much as they make us compete for increasingly scarce dollars,” Gheisar said.

Watson responded that the structure of GiveBIG, with its matching donations, is designed so that bigger foundations and donors are directly supporting smaller groups. So the campaign is best thought of as a combination of individual organizations competing for funds in the context of community support. As for Gheisar’s concern about the difficulty of seeking support for this region’s work on global poverty, disease and other issues, he said Seattle’s ahead of the curve on that.

“Many community foundations don’t do international causes,” Watson said. The Seattle Foundation specifically makes global giving one of its eight top categories. “We do embrace international causes as a part of of our community and that’s a bit unusual.”

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.