Have you seen digital voting contests that encourage people to vote for their favorite nonprofit to receive a grant or a portion of a pot of money based on how many votes they get?
Please excuse me while I climb onto my soapbox.
This is quite possibly the worst way to distribute charitable funds. Before I dive into the issues here, let’s first review the benefits to the organization who is hosting this voting contest:
- Free advertising — The nonprofits in the running will share the contest to their social networks. So will their staff, their board and their supporters. That’s potentially hundreds or even thousands of free impressions for the granting organization.
- Proof that they support the community — Not only will there be lots of shares, but the organization will also be ensuring that those shares are positive. The free impressions will all be referencing its charitable donation, its commitment to the community, its philanthropy, its general awesomeness.
- Media placements — These make for great feel-good segments or articles in the local news. “Look at Organization X, they’re so charitable, and the nonprofits in the running need your help!” For most of these, the focus is on the organization donating the funds; the nonprofits in need of votes may be listed out in the article but it’s rare that additional details on what they do or who they help are included.
- Minimal cost — A certain organization with more than $900 million in assets recently ran a #GivingTuesday digital voting contest in Philadelphia. With an organization that large, you’d expect them to give big, right? Wrong. The total pot was $5,000 — and it was split between three different nonprofits based on who got the most votes. That’s a fraction of a drop in the bucket in terms of cost for them, but it surely resulted in a whole lot of positive impressions and media for the organization.
The bottom line is, the benefits to the granting organization are huge given the minimal cost and effort on their end.
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For the nonprofits going after that funding, the opposite is true. The benefit is small: grants for these contests are usually in the $5,000 to $10,000 range.
The cost, however, very much outweighs the benefit.
To color in this picture, I’m going to use details from my own organization, Pathways to Housing PA, to provide a comparison for size and scope. We’re a $14 million organization, we house more than 400 annually and furnish homes for another 600+, and we have about 100 employees. When my department is fully staffed, we will be three: me (the director), a marketing coordinator and a development associate. We’re in charge of all fundraising and marketing for our organization.
I would consider us to be on the larger side. We’re not as large as a hospital or university (where there can be 30 or more fundraising and marketing staff), but as far as social services, go we’re on the medium-large part of the scale.
The amount of time my team would put into that contest would be better spent writing a proposal to a family foundation where we have a personal connection that would result in $10,000.
Medium-sized social service organizations usually have one person who does both fundraising and marketing. The larger ones, like me, have up to five. The smaller ones often don’t have anyone dedicated full-time to fundraising or marketing at all. A program staff person may do some grant writing, another may run the social media accounts, and the executive director will handle individual giving; it’s piecemeal and keeps things running at the bare minimum, but it’s all that some organizations can afford.
(Please also keep in mind that the size of an organization does not determine the effectiveness of their work. The organizations that are community-driven and headed by folks with lived experience with the issues they address are often both the most impactful and the smallest.)
So, back to me as the example: I would simply not go after a grant of $5,000 that required voting.
The biggest reason is that I have bigger fish to fry. The amount of time my team would put into that contest would be better spent writing a proposal to a family foundation where we have a personal connection that would result in $10,000. Or writing a grant report to a large local foundation that gives us $85,000 annually. Or planning and executing a #GivingTuesday campaign that is 100 percent branded for my own organization, brings in $5,000 in unrestricted funding, and helps pull in new donors that we can cultivate for larger gifts down the road.
Of course, our organization would most likely lose that contest anyway. We don’t have the instant brand recognition that places like Philabundance and Big Brothers Big Sisters does. We don’t have a whole lot of social followers in comparison to other local nonprofits. Our email open and click rates and our overall engagement levels with our supporters could be better. The likelihood of receiving a grant as a result of a voting contest is so low (not just for us, but for most organizations) that it’s impossible to budget around it.
If we did go after one of those grants, my organization has the general operating funds to support it. The hours that my team would put into designing a social media strategy, creating branded graphics, scheduling posts, and mobilizing voters would quite honestly probably add up to more than half of what that grant is worth. But of course, unrestricted grant funding is very hard to find. If we did actually win, we likely couldn’t use the funds to cover the time and expenses we’ve spent to secure the grant. Our general operating funds would kick in to cover our time.
You also have to consider how you stack up against your competition: almost always, an environmental agency will lose to cute puppies. Teenagers in foster care aren’t ever going to win a contest against sick babies. I used to work for a cancer research organization and spent a lot of time traveling to employee giving agency fairs across the country. Interaction with my table was entirely dependent on who was around me; I once was seated next to an animal rescue that brought their own kitten. I may as well have gone home before it even started, because not a single person talked to me that day.
We do have to ask ourselves: Who is best served by that $5,000?
If my medium-large organization faces these hurdles for a contest like this, what would it look like for a small organization? Well, in most cases, they forego the opportunity all together because they don’t have the bandwidth for it.
Or, they go for it, spend the time and energy to build a strong campaign, and still don’t get the grant because they’re going up against someone who as 20 times as many supporters. A small org with 100 dedicated supporters can, and does, lose to a larger org that only needs to mobilize 10 percent of their 2,000 casual supporters.
Big organizations with lots of name recognition, followers and engaged supporters most often win these contests. Their teams and budgets are larger than most and they have to do less work to get the votes.
So in the end, that $5,000 will be a drop in the bucket for the winning organization compared to the funds they’re raising from other sources. When it’s that easy to get the extra funds, you can’t blame them for throwing their hat in the ring and it doesn’t mean that their mission is any less important.
But we do have to ask ourselves: Who is best served by that $5,000?
Would the small organization that didn’t have the resources to participate have been able to stretch that $5,000 further? They may not have been able to get the votes, but perhaps they could have demonstrated a more direct impact on their community or served a larger number of families.
Before I step down off my soapbox:
- If you’re an organization thinking about doing a voting contest to award a grant: Please think it all the way through. I know there are lots of benefits to you, but it also promotes continued inequity in the nonprofit world.
- If you’re a casual supporter who is considering voting in a contest: Look at the other organizations in the running. What do you know about them? Are you voting for an organization just because you’ve heard of them before, or because you know that they do good work?
- If you’re a staunch supporter of an organization in a contest: Vote, vote, vote! You know the organization’s mission and impact and you know that they would most benefit from a grant, so get out there and share it with your networks. Just maybe consider focusing your posts on the nonprofit you’re voting for rather than the organization running the contest — keep the attention where it should be.
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