Big Day of Giving: A 24-Hour Fund-A-Thon

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If you’ve ever given so much as $5 to local charities or other nonprofit organizations (and if you have email, a telephone or even a prehistoric fax), you already know plenty about the annual Big Day of Giving, or BIG DoG, as its sponsoring group mysteriously stylizes its capitalization.

You know, for example, that the aforementioned charities and nonprofits will cajole, beg and, where possible, strong-arm their board members, assorted volunteers and contributors, both present and past, to make their annual donations on one particular day. This year, it’s May 3 between the hours of midnight and 11:59 p.m. 

The organizations will inundate e-mail systems and social media, host catered-pizza phone banks, wine-and-cheese outreaches and craft-beer call-a-thons—anything to ensure maximum participation and, sometimes, to become eligible for extra prizes and funding matchups.

Organized and run by the Sacramento Region Community Foundation, which hopes to raise $6 million this year, according to Jeannie Howell, the group’s community impact officer, BIG DoG mirrors the pressures of an election primary. Both take place on only one day—and both require precision planning for months in advance. But it can really pay off.

NEW VISIBILITY CAN MEAN NEW DONORS

Take Placer Land Trust, a nonprofit set up to protect natural and agricultural landscapes in Placer County, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. “When we came out strong on the morning of BIG DoG (in 2014), people were asking ‘Who is Placer Land Trust?’” says Jeff Darlington, the group’s executive director. “But by the end of the day, we had 94 new donors from all over the region, and we came in second overall in terms of dollars raised.” 

Darlington says the land trust “carried that success into 2015, as more people got to know us through our projects and programs. And on the 2015 Big Day of Giving, we received more donations than any of the other 529 nonprofits.” If you’re keeping score: The trust raised approximately $75,000 in 2014 and $127,641 in 2015.

Alice Sauro, executive director of the recently resurrected Sacramento Philharmonic and Opera, says BIG DoG “brings this region together to support its nonprofit organizations. Last year, we had several groups of musicians participate throughout the day. We prerecorded some thank-you messages from our orchestra as well as our chorus members, which we shared on social media.”

The event was more than just a fundraiser, Sauro says, adding that it “brought us together as an organization, which was a welcome feeling after having been dark for a year.” The group raised nearly $55,000 in one day, making it the 11th most successful nonprofit that day out of 500 participating groups. 

Katie McCleary is the co-founder, with Michael Spurgeon, of 916 Ink, a bricks-and-mortar writers’ workshop in the otherwise closed Maple Elementary School on 37th Avenue. The organization’s staff also travels to its constituency, scribes from 4 to 18 years old. McCleary says that BIG DoG has allowed her non-profit to hold zero other fundraisers throughout the year. Her group was part of the 2013 “beta test” of the 24-hour donating concept, then called Arts Day of Giving.

“We were an all-volunteer group then and netted $6,800 in one day,” McCleary says. That rose to a comparatively staggering $19,000 in 2014 and $45,000 in 2015. The group now has five full-time staffers—and BIG DoG “is now our only major fundraising event all year,” she adds.

THE WORD(S) FROM HQ

In a joint interview at the offices of the Sacramento Region Community Foundation, Linda Beech Cutler, chief executive officer, and Jeannie Howell, the aforementioned community impact officer, address a tempest-in-a-teapot controversy that crops up each year: the fees exacted from each participating organization’s BIG DoG donations, which Cutler says can range from $50 to $250.

A portion of the fees go to credit card companies, which is a standard practice for online transactions. The balance goes to Kimbia, a tech company based in Austin, Texas, which handles all of the back-office, online platforming and cyber security for the 100 different communities around the country that have their own annual giving day. (Nationally, the effort is branded as Give Local America.)

“In our region alone, we have in the neighborhood of 30,000 transactions in a 24-hour period,” Cutler says. “And we should clear up something right away: Our foundation takes zero fees (for itself) even though our finance team does all of the processing, accounting and incentive-prize coordination. We follow up with all of the participating groups in 40 days after BIG DoG ends.”

The foundation also provides free social media training and helps nonprofits create an eight-week marketing plan and materials, Cutler adds. “We receive few complaints from the participating groups once they see how Day of Giving works and what we provide them.” 

Yuba City-born Howell, whom Cutler credits as “the heart, soul and brains of the operation,” has been with the Sacramento Region Community Foundation for more than five years. She had put in three years as an area director for the American Lung Association and was the business director of the American Heart Association’s Heart Walk fundraiser. “I’m thinking of Big Day all year,” she says, “but it gets the most intense in the 72 hours leading up to the actual day.” Asked what happens if something goes wrong as donations are pouring in, both she and Cutler laugh. (They’ve heard this question before.) “All of our tech support is covered in the Kimbia fee,” Howell says. “There are backups to backups to backups.” 

A goal this year for BIG DoG, Cutler says—“and really, for the past two years”—is 100 percent participation by each organization’s volunteer board of directors. “When we started this, we were lucky to get 9 percent (board) participation,” she says. “Now, people realize Big Day is not only a valuable fundraising mechanism but also a great board-building activity. Competition between groups is great, but when you get your board members (vying) with each other to put the numbers over the top, it boosts morale and makes each organization that much stronger.” 

THE REVIEWS ARE IN

Groups that have benefited from BIG DoG are unanimous, possibly ecstatic, in their praise of the event. 

When asked if her organization plans to participate in this year’s give-a-thon, Gina Knepp, animal care services manager for Front Street Animal Shelter, says, “The Friends of Front Street Animal Shelter will most certainly be participating in the Big Day of Giving this year. Our goal for this year is $60,000.” 

She says the shelter joined the BIG DoG program in 2014. “Our first year, we really had no idea what we were doing or what this was all about,” she recalls. Yet, “despite being clueless, we managed to raise $14,000. Without too much effort, and relying mostly on social media, we thought this was incredible. Last year, we tried a bit harder and participated in all of the training, boot camps and contests provided to participants. We’re happy to say (that) with bonuses, we were able to raise $49,000 for our shelter.” 

Those “bonuses” comprise a series of incentives and “challenges” the Sacramento Region Community Foundation offers to spur enthusiastic participation. A full list of this year’s extras was posted in March at the foundation’s website: bigdayofgiving.org. In the past, they’ve included such gimmies, among others, as the Blast-Off Challenge, a prize awarded to the nonprofit that receives the first donation of the day at midnight on May 3 (set your clocks!); hourly “money boosters” (“A $1,000 prize will be awarded every hour to the nonprofit that raises the most money,” says the Region Foundation’s Howell. “That’s 24 chances to win!”); and a $750 prize for a no-more-than-15-second video posted to Facebook or Twitter “that demonstrates a group’s mission,” Howell says.

Licia King, development director of Children’s Choice for Hearing and Talking, says that her group, which provides free, specialized services for deaf and hard-of-hearing children, will be participating for the second year in a row, with a goal of raising $25,000. That’s a $5,000 increase from what it garnered in 2014. “BIG DoG is an amazing opportunity to not only raise much-needed funding . . . but it’s also a wonderful way to promote awareness. Surprisingly, hearing loss is the most frequently occurring birth defect and most people don’t even know that CCHAT exists or, more importantly, that a deaf child can be taught to listen and talk,” she says.

CCHAT is an early-intervention program that enrolls children with hearing loss shortly after diagnosis (which can take place within weeks of birth). King says the visibility—and credibility—BIG DoG provides is priceless. “CCHAT’s standing as a reliable resource and a worthy investment of donor contributions 

has been vetted by the Sacramento Region Community Foundation”—which inspires donor confidence. 

Jim Tabuchi, executive director of the Sacramento Mandarins Drum and Bugle Corps, says the money it receives from the Day of Giving in 2016, its fourth year of participating, will go toward establishing “a dedicated kitchen trailer for use during (our) annual summer tour across the United States. We hope to raise the initial payment of $30,000.” 

He proudly points out that the Mandarins “were one of the original 84 (organizations) that participated in the first-ever Arts Day of Giving in 2013. So you can say that we’re a repeat customer!” Tabuchi says his group has raised approximately $96,000 during the past three years. “This total includes the actual donations, challenge prizes and the incentive funds.”

As an example of BIG DoG’s regional reach, consider the example of Winters Friends of the Library, an all-volunteer group headed by Lisa Nalbone. She says that in 2014, the first year her group joined the event, “We set a goal of $10,000, which we raised by noon. So we doubled the goal to $20,000 and met it. We collected another almost $4,000 in prize and (incentive) funds. The second year we set a goal of $25,000 and . . . ended with just over $28,000.”

SHOW ME THE MONEY—BUT . . .

Nalbone echoes other participants contacted for this story when she says being involved in the Day of Giving isn’t solely about the money. “Since we’re a small, all-volunteer organization in a small town (and have) many older volunteers with limited tech skills, the trainings that are provided by Big Day of Giving partners have really helped us grow as an organization. We’ve attracted some new, younger board members, reached into a broader segment of the community and formed great partnerships with some of our local businesses.”

“BIG DoG has the power to shine a very bright light on nonprofits that are having a direct impact on our quality of life, and that helps tremendously in spreading the word and reaching new people within our region,” says Placer Land Trust’s Jeff Darlington.

Who could ask for anything more?

THIS FOUNDATION DOES MORE THAN WAG THE BIG DOG 

While the 13-member staff of the Sacramento Region Foundation works year-round to make Big Day of Giving, the one-day philanthropic extravaganza, glide to a satisfying finish, it’s just one part of the group’s multitasking. Its principal mission is managing roughly 550 charitable funds, including grant making, for donors who have the resources but not always the time, capacity or interest to deal with the day-to-day details of same. 

“We’re helping manage 50 new funds this year alone,” says Linda Beech Cutler, the foundation’s Cincinnati-born CEO. Equally versed in the realms of government, business and giving, she previously served for three years as director of commercial strategy for the Sacramento County Airport System and for nearly a decade as GenCorp Inc.’s vice president of corporate communications and investor relations.

“About 75 percent of our grant making is donor-advised,” she says in a recent interview at the foundation’s offices, a few yards away from the bike-and-pedestrian Guy West Bridge, which spans the American River and the campus of Sacramento State university. “Twenty-five percent is what we call ‘flexible funding’—which may mean that a donor gives us general instructions, like, ‘I want to help out the arts,’ and we make suggestions on groups (he or she) can give to.” Sometimes, the donor has set up this form of funding as a legacy, giving the foundation the responsibility of managing a fund if donors have passed away—or the groups they supported have ceased to exist.

“The fees we charge for our services stay in the community,” Cutler says. (Perhaps needless to point out, the foundation itself is a 501(c)3 public charity.) She says that despite the foundation’s successes—which include having granted more than $100 million to a potpourri of regional charities and nonprofits since its founding 33 years ago—“Sacramento still lags behind the nation in giving.”

She points out that the average, per-donor yearly contribution to worthy causes in the region is $1,990. “The national average is $2,355,” she says, “meaning we’re generous but we still have some catching up to do.”

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