Last week’s Give to the Max Day raised a record $17.1 million for Minnesota schools and nonprofits — and a lot of ruckus, over a five-hour website crash and what participants see as a too-steep service fee.

Many participants fell short of their goals.

“I believe it really hurt us,” said Cathy Maes, director of Loaves and Fishes, which serves meals to the needy. The organization, which has a $1.3 million annual operating budget, counts on the day to “help jump-start the end-of-year giving push.”

Adding to the sting was the 4.9 percent service fee — up from 2.9 percent last year — collected by Razoo, the Washington-D.C. based website operator. In Give to the Max’s first year, there was no fee at all, with administrative costs covered by foundation money.

Though Maes said she realizes “that 5 percent may be the cost of doing business, it also could buy a lot of food for hungry people. And donors need to know that if they think they’re giving a thousand dollars, it’s really $950.”

Give to the Max, now in its fifth year, is a 24-hour collective push encouraging donations from Minnesotans. Run by the online charitable giving forum GiveMN, it has grown every year, with more than 4,400 participating groups and 52,300 donors this year.

Smaller nonprofits, which lack the fundraising resources of larger organizations, have come to bank on the hoopla to catch the attention of potential donors.

Tracy Fischman of Accountability Minnesota, which provides tax and financial services for those in need, said that after tripling Give to the Max donations last year, the group fell about $2,000 short of its $40,000 goal. While it’s not their only funding drive, “much of what we do has been directed to this day. There’s a lot of momentum and energy around it.”

Still, Macalester College opted out this year, redirecting donors to its own site. Danielle Nelson, director of the college’s annual fund, cited the higher service fee, delays in receiving donations and Razoo’s policy of allowing donors to give anonymously.

Staff hours were hidden cost

The GiveMN website crashed at 12:30 p.m. Nov. 14 and stayed down for several crucial workday hours.

Morning has been the peak donation time in the past, said Dana Nelson, GiveMN’s executive director. The total was at a record $9 million when the site went down.

The hidden costs to that crash were the considerable staff hours logged on campaign efforts to get noticed amid all the competition. The Greater Minneapolis Crisis Nursery had a cute-babies video produced pro bono, while Accountability Minnesota had a video of cats doing taxes.

The Crisis Nursery wanted to raise $60,000. It got about $45,000, said spokesman Joel Bergstrom, who said the site crash won’t deter its dedication to the day next year.

“This is an event you must participate in, for better or worse, because donors and board members expect you to,” he said.

Loaves and Fishes eventually reached its goal of $10,000 (for which a big donor had pledged a match) by doing what many other participants did — sending out requests to previous donors on its own Facebook page and website. But that isn’t effective at attracting new individual givers, which many nonprofits depend on Give to the Max for.

Some were happy for the help

The Rev. Kelli Clement, the director and the only paid staff member of the Minnesota Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, came in at only about half her $5,000 goal, with a third of donations generated independently from the coalition’s website following the crash.

“I feel like we missed out on attracting new people,” she said. “Still, to get even half our goal in one day is something we couldn’t do on our own.”

Lesley Mansford, CEO of Razoo, said via e-mail that the issue was “related to the high volume of donors, and we continue to investigate the causes.”

Lack of preparation on GiveMN’s end wasn’t a contributing factor, Nelson said. “There were nearly 10 times the servers we had last year. Five hours of outage isn’t just a volume problem. We are really demanding answers about why it stayed down so long.”

Asked whether GiveMN is seeking recompense from Razoo, she said, “we are in discussions with them about lowering the fees, and also with other possible technology partners for the future.”

Razoo’s Mansford said she is looking into “ways we can provide extra value to the charities affected.”

Maes of Loaves and Fishes has an idea for her.

“I’d like those transaction fees back,” she said.