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The Significance of the Facebook Causes Giving Challenge

BY Michael Connery | Monday, February 4 2008

Update: The results of the contest are still subject to verification by the contest moderators and will be announced in about a month.

Matt Browner-Hamlin reminds me that on Friday the FaceBook Causes Giving Challenge came to a close, with Love Without Boundaries securing the $50,000 grand prize. The competition raised thousands of dollars for over a dozen different non-profit organizations and pioneered a new best practice for Foundations looking to assist a wide range of organizations with more than a one-time cash infusion.

Sponsored by what looks to be a $250,000 grant from the Case Foundation, and run by Philotic Inc, the company that created the Causes Application, the contest created a highly competitive environment that encouraged small non-profit organizations to raise money and build a large, small-dollar donor lists. The Giving Challenge accomplished this through a two-stage structure.

The first stage was a series of daily contests beginning on December 14th and ending on February 1st. Each day, all participating non-profits engaged in a 24 hour competition to raise not the most money from their members, but rather to raise money from the largest number of unique donors. An organization with 100 donors would beat an organization with 90 donors for that 24 hour time period regardless of the total dollar amount raised. The winner for each 24 hour period received a $1000 prize.

This structure spurred many organizations to pick specific days and use them as rallying points for their memberships. The Case Foundation distributed $50,000 in this first stage of the competition.

The second stage looked at the total amount of donors for the full 50 days of the competition. The organization with the largest unique donor list won the $50,000 grand prize. The second and third place organizations each received $25,000. The next 10 highest each received $10,000.

The contest is significant for a number of reasons, but most exciting is the way that it is spurring many small non-profits to build a donor network. It accomplished this by creating an environment in which organizations had a chance to win a not-insignificant chunk of their yearly budget, and by keeping the threshold for meaningful participation very low (a $10 dollar donation helps just as much as a $100 donation, democratizing the process).

Matt Browner-Hamlin, who used to work for Students for a Free Tibet, one of the runners-up, explains:

The Tibetan Freedom Movement, SFT’s cause for the giving challenge, has over 4,750 members. 2,190 of those members have donated at least once, and counting. Since I took the screen cap five minutes ago, 150 more people have donated in support of Tibetan freedom. That is one of the highest members to donors conversation rates on Facebook causes. Over the last 49 days, SFT has raised over $60,000 through the challenge, including enough individual donations in 24 hour periods to win nine days.

Students for a Free Tibet is not a big organization. When I worked there, only four other people were on staff in the New York headquarters (now there are six staffers in HQ). In my years, the annual budget was around $350,000; it was closer to $400,000 this year. If SFT wins out in the challenge, they will likely have raised over 25% of their budget in 50 days, a truly incredible output for such a small organization. By contrast, LWB had a budget of $1.2 million last year, four times larger than SFT.

Matt also notes that the contest spurred a lot of creativity on the part of SFT in how they engaged their members, including happy hour events with WiFi and laptops set up, and members pushing the competition out to their family and social networks.

He also correctly notes that only two organizations made a highly-committed and serious run at the grand prize - SFT and Love Without Borders, both of which amassed over 4,500 donors. I'm not so quick, however, to dismiss the other participants and the impact this competition had on their own bottom lines.

The League of Young Voters, for instance, made a push only a few times to win the daily prize. They managed to capture that title twice, netting $2000, and their efforts earned them a spot in the $10,000 prize range. In addition, they raised $13,696 from 786 members. So all told, they raised just over $25,000. That's not an insignificant number for them, and that is in addition to the list they built, which they may can tap again in the future with targeted fundraising campaigns (i.e. "we need to raise X amount in X weeks to fund a staffer in Ohio for 2008).

I'm not privy to the budgets of the other participating organizations, but I imagine that this competition provided both valuable funds and list-building to all of them. The Case Foundation, it appears, has discovered a highly efficient structure to provide what amounts to a de facto matching grant to at least a dozen organizations at once. More incredibly, it created a system that moves all of those organizations closer to sustainability. That's a significant achievement, and one that begins to make good on the promise that many young people and poli-tech enthusiasts saw in the FaceBook Causes application when it first launched.

Most pertinent to youth organizers, this contest and any future iterations provides a model for organizational development that can at least begin overcome one of the most significant hurdles to sustainable youth organizing - building a donor base out of a young membership with huge amounts of disposable income, but very little willingness to spend it on political/activist causes. Very impressive all around, and certainly something to watch in the future.

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