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Originally published Sunday, May 12, 2013 at 4:18 PM

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Guest: Has Seattle Foundation’s GiveBIG campaign gotten too big?

Nonprofits and donors need to be smart about the GiveBIG campaign by Seattle Foundation, writes guest columnist Joy Portella.

Special to The Times

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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.

That’s likely not the response GiveBIG hoped to receive.

The GiveBIG annual campaign was started by the Seattle Foundation in 2011 to galvanize people in King County behind a day of giving to causes that make a positive impact in our community and beyond. Now in its third year, GiveBIG has grown to encompass 1,400 organizations and employs a $850,000 pool of funds to incentivize donors. Last year, more than 22,500 people gave $7.4 million to nonprofits, and this year the campaign may exceed that figure.

It’s hard to dispute that the campaign is a good thing. 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?

Some donors mistakenly think the campaign provides a “match,” in which one or a group of major donors sets up a fund that matches individual donations by a certain ratio, often 1-to-1, to multiply the impact of smaller, individual contributions.

GiveBIG, on the other hand, offers what’s called a “stretch,” which uses a pool of large donations to amplify the impact of individual gifts. At the end of the campaign, Seattle Foundation looks at the total amount of money raised by all participating nonprofits, considers what percentage of that total was raised by each organization, and prorates the distribution of the stretch pool.

This setup makes nonprofits hungry to maximize their share of the stretch pool. The result is the aggressive marketing that fills my email inbox. There is nothing new about nonprofits being competitive. But GiveBIG accentuates this aspect of nonprofit culture to the point of it being unsavory, and possibly even counterproductive.

Who wins in this structure? Often, it’s the large nonprofits that have clearly recognizable brands and sophisticated online marketing systems to reach a mass audience. The three nonprofits that garnered the greatest number of gifts in 2012 were Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest, the Seattle Public Library Foundation and KCTS TV.

But smaller organizations that get creative can do well, too.

Last year the organization that raised the most money was a small nonprofit called Pilgrim Africa that fights malaria in Uganda. After taking a good, hard look at how GiveBIG works, Pilgrim Africa’s leadership approached its tight circle of major donors with a request to make their annual gifts during the campaign. As a result, the group raised far more than any other organization.

GiveBIG is, on balance, a great idea and the Seattle Foundation deserves huge kudos for making it happen. GiveBIG lowers the barriers to entry for philanthropy and inspires people to give during an often-stagnant season for donations.

GiveBIG also makes us feel like part of a strong, generous community, and that sense of being part of something bigger than oneself is invaluable.

But nonprofits participating in GiveBIG need to be strategic. They cannot afford to think that one day of giving can take the place of a sound strategy for donor development and communication.

Nonprofits also need to weigh how much time and effort they put into the campaign against how much they are likely to get out of it.

Donors should give big, but give smart. Donors would be wise to use tools like Charity Navigator, GuideStar or organizational websites to research the groups and their impact.

People should consider contributing to smaller organizations for which GiveBIG stretch bucks can have more bang.

Most important, donors need to think carefully about the issues that matter to them. As one person told me, “GiveBIG is the day to say: These are the organizations I love and I’m going to support them.”

That’s a sentiment that cuts through any volume of marketing noise.

Joy Portella is a Seattle communication consultant with Minerva Strategies, which advises nonprofits, foundations and corporations to advance social good.

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