When Steve Boland, managing partner of Twin Cities-based Next in Nonprofits, noticed a friend’s Facebook post about a birthday fundraiser for an organization they’re both involved with, he challenged his friend:
Does the East Side Freedom Library need one-time donations of $20 from individuals or does it need to build relationships with people who could become long-term, and larger, supporters?
Boland’s question is timely. Scroll through your Facebook feed and you’ll likely find at least one request to celebrate a friend’s birthday with a donation to anything from the Animal Humane Society to the Alzheimer’s Association. So, can a simple birthday fundraiser make a difference?
According to the social media giant, the answer (of course) is yes. Local nonprofits generally agree — with a few caveats.
Back to Facebook, which in February issued a report revealing that its social media users have raised more than $3 billion for personal fundraisers and nonprofit causes. Among the biggest winners: $5 million for the ALS Association, $100 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and over $50,000 for Veterans Matter.
Other platforms have followed suit, including the smaller GoFundMe, which started its own birthday fundraiser option after FB launched theirs.
Minnesota experts in the nonprofit sector say this new approach is, for the most part, a win-win-win.
First, the birthday person wins. Giving has been shown to improve self-esteem and self-worth, so it truly is a gift to give.
Facebook wins. Although it no longer charges a service fee for posting these celebratory fundraisers, the transactions produce valuable data for the social media giant. When someone hosts a successful fundraiser, Facebook sees that that person is influential enough to raise money — and selling that information benefits the company greatly, Boland said.
And the chosen nonprofit wins, too, though perhaps to a lesser degree. It gets a surprise check, and nonprofits are always grateful for monetary donations, Boland stresses.
Kris Kewitsch, executive director of Charities Review Council in St. Paul, agreed.
“Anything that helps folks give and get connected to a cause is a great thing,” Kewitsch said.
But there are downsides. One complaint made by nonprofit recipients of birthday fundraisers is the absence of any connection to the donors. As Boland noted, nonprofits highly value relationships with supporters. The most information the recipient organizations can get is some of the donors’ Facebook usernames.
“The challenge,” confirmed Kewitsch, “is we don’t know who contributed, so it’s a challenge to even say thank you.”
In most cases, the recipient of a birthday fundraiser won’t even know an event was held until a check arrives weeks or, sometimes, months later from Network for Good, the donor-advised fund that administers Facebook’s payouts. While Facebook’s official birthday fundraiser mechanism gives the impression that charities preregister with Facebook, that’s not usually the case. Facebook provides a list of over 750,000 registered U.S. charities in a searchable, drop-down menu — even if they’re not on Facebook and even if their own boards don’t realize it.
When that check arrives, “from the nonprofit’s perspective, it’s often a happy surprise or an unexpected bonus, not necessarily an intentional part of proactive fundraising work,” said Kari Aanestad, director of advancement for the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits (MCN).
She noted that Minnesota enjoys one of the strongest nonprofit sectors in the nation. Minnesotans tend to get on board with doing things for the betterment of the community — both in volunteer hours and monetary donations, she said. “We haven’t seen a limit to that generosity and goodwill,” she said.
That’s what Joseph Kerber, 27, of Minnetonka, discovered. After Facebook prompted him, he thought, “Why not?” and created a birthday fundraiser for the Nature Conservancy, a science-led environmental nonprofit. His friends seemed happy to donate a total of $150 in his honor.
“I would absolutely do it again,” he said. “It’s fun, raises awareness for something I am passionate about, and I think it is a positive in social media that should be highlighted.”
Lara Hanlon Roy, of Minneapolis, hosted similarly successful fundraisers for Planned Parenthood ($503 raised from a $500 request) and Sandy Hook Promise ($200 raised from a $200 request) on her past two birthdays. She said she will likely continue.
“I would be inspired to choose an organization based on something going on currently, so that there is some contemporary resonance,” she said.
That may be why Kewitsch suspects these new types of fundraisers haven’t hurt nonprofits’ traditional giving channels. Another reason may be that donors tend to consider such donations as part of their discretionary spending, giving dollars out of money set aside for entertainment and personal gifts, not dips into their charitable giving.
There’s a growing recognition that fundraising and technology “live organically together,” Aanestad said, adding that MCN has combined its fundraising and technology conferences into one.
The bottom line is that encouraging people to give in honor of your birthday is commendable and will be appreciated no matter how you choose to do it.
However, there are some simple ways to maximize your gift to the organization, Boland said.
Start by rejecting Facebook’s prewritten blurb — “I’ve chosen this nonprofit because their mission means a lot to me” — and craft your own thoughts about what you like about the organization. Then either link directly to that organization’s donation button, or link to their site through GiveMN.org. Either way will allow the recipient to access the list of donors who gave in honor of you. (Of course, in every scenario, donors have the option of remaining anonymous).
Accessing outside links requires the donor to exit Facebook for a minute … but your friends probably think you’re worth an additional click or two.
Friends can also donate directly to a chosen nonprofit and let the person know — graciously, of course — that you did so to maximize their birthday gift.
“It’s given more people the opportunity to be philanthropists,” Kewitsch said.
“People often think of a philanthropist as a more mature person with a checkbook. But anyone can be a philanthropist. And anything that helps people consider a gift to a nonprofit is a great thing.”
Sheila Mulrooney Eldred is a Twin Cities-based freelancer writer who plans to host her first birthday fundraiser for the Loppet Foundation on her next birthday.