StageStruck: Community Competition

The headline in the Gazette read “Nonprofits seek giving windfall on 12/12/12,” and the subject lines in my overflowing in-box said things like “Please support our work on 12/12/12—here’s how!”

Last Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012, was Valley Gives Day, a 24-hour online fundraiser for area nonprofits, spearheaded by the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts. It was billed as a unique opportunity for local organizations working in the arts, education, social service and the environment to raise their profiles and donor bases along with funds, and for supporters to “help make our community a better place to live.”

It was an attention-grabbing gambit that seems to have paid off for many of the groups whose fortunes I followed throughout the day. But as much as I hoped Valley Gives would prove a boost for the local theaters and other nonprofits I admire, I had an uneasy feeling about the whole enterprise.

Here’s how it worked. Over 260 organizations in the Pioneer Valley had a 24-hour window to raise as much online cash as possible from as many donors as possible. The incentive was not just the opportunity to join with other groups in a collaborative fundraiser. Valley Gives was also a competitive race toward additional cash prizes for the groups that took in the most money and/or netted the most individual donations.

So the initial email and Facebook blasts I received, urging me to mark my calendar for 12/12/12, gave way on the day itself to increasingly excited updates that felt like the last lap of a Kickstarter campaign (“Home stretch for Valley Gives!”). And from groups who were within reach of the top of the pile came even more urgent posts as they sought to elbow aside the competition (“Help us get back in third place!”).

In the end, the event met its million-dollar goal, logging over 10,000 donations from 6,646 individuals. And while none of the local theater troupes vying in Valley Gives qualified for the extra prize money, most of them came away with four- or five-figure totals and satisfying numbers of contributors— though I don’t know how many of those were new donors or regular supporters making their annual contribution. One company, The Drama Studio in Springfield, ended the day only one spot away from the top-dollar winners’ circle. They and Holyoke’s Enchanted Circle Theater also came tantalizingly close to grabbing the day’s additional 12th-place prize (continuing the duodecimal theme), ending up in 11th and 13th place, respectively, in numbers of donors.

To the extent that Valley Day brought extra resources and additional supporters to these organizations, everybody won. What unsettled me about the contest was that, well, it was a contest. In a sense, nonprofits are always competing for the limited pot of charitable donations, and I don’t fault these groups for seizing the chance. I hope they did in fact pad their bank accounts and donor pools. But the whole effort struck me as somehow unseemly, un-collegial. And while the grail of extra prize money was an effective motivation, the outcome—those who got the most got even more—made it even more a win/lose game.

But the bottom line, ultimately, was the bottom line. And apparently, the system worked. I gave, too.•

Author: Chris Rohmann

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