Nonprofits: Have we had enough of “vote for me” fundraising yet?

This weekend, the winners were announced in the Chase Community Challenge. 

On paper, it seemed simple enough. Chase gives $5 million to nonprofits based solely on the votes of regular folk on Facebook. "Their money, our votes." In reality, the challenge illustrated exactly why these "vote for me" contests in the nonprofit world have got to go away. Businesses can do what they want, and while I applaud the move towards philanthropy, it's my opinion (disclaimer: and not necessarily the opinion of the nonprofit that employs me) that this is not the way to do it. Please look at the 1+1+1 model that Salesforce uses (and Google as well, I think) for a better corporate giving program.

The Chase Community Challenge started with an open nomination round. Each Facebook user, after authorizing the Chase application, got 20 votes to distribute among their favorite charities. The top 100 vote getters got $25K each, then competed for the $1 million grand prize, with 2nd-6th place getting $100K each. 

What's wrong with this picture? A lot. Beth Kanter summarizes some of what went wrong. Chase disqualified some charities without being transparent as to why. Allegations of fake profiles being created to drum up votes. I'm not going to rehash all that here. Beth does a wonderful job. Read it.

My main problem isn't necessarily about Chase. It's the whole recent crop of "vote for the king & queen of the prom" type challenges for nonprofits and is what Beth says best in her post: 

Scarcity thinking assumes no growth and heightened competition.  Contests that are designed to select winners based on popular votes only and huge dollar amounts inspire scarcity thinking. Much like throwing some fish food into a pond filled with starving Coi fish.

I hated watching our supporters eat the fins of other organization's supporters while they lobbied for votes for their favorites. Each charity had a page for comments, and those pages were filled with "use your spare vote for…" pleas. In other words, this was a contest where the success of your pet organization to make it to the top 100 was dependent on the failure of millions others. To win in round 2, your charity had to be content with 94 other charities losing. How do you decide that an organization's mission to provide help for Jewish families dealing with Autism has more or less value than an organization that fights a rare childhood disease or takes care of animals? That a local organization is more deserving than a national one?

Some organizations put incredible thought and time and resources into trying to win this contest (there goes that $25K). Time and effort that they maybe weren't spending addressing their core issues if they're really small or mostly volunteer run. It wasn't about mission, it was only about getting into larger networks and getting a click that I would argue was ultimately meaningless. That doesn't feel right to me. Will those votes translate into viable support and advocate engagement later? Does it really raise an organization's profile to be in the coi pond? I'd love to see some data a year from now.

Supporting nonprofit organizations that are working to make the world a better place isn't a Miss America contest. Shame on any corporation that thinks otherwise.

Here's a community challenge I want to see: Reward nonprofits for projects that require collaboration and networking. 

An example straight off the top of my head: A cancer support organization working with a meals-on-wheels organization and one that helps people with job skills designing and implementing a program to make sure that patients are eating right after treatment and can get back into the workforce after a long health-related absence. 

I think the possibilities are endless if we can get out of our silos long enough to consider them.

Extra points to the projects that require the most diverse organizations to actually work together towards a common goal. The general public can view and comment on the proposed programs, maybe even make suggestions of partners. Community insight and transparency is wonderful. Yet ultimately the funding decision is by a team that will evaluate based solely on the viability of the project and what will have the most benefit for the population it will serve. Not necessarily which will serve the largest population. Not necessarily which has the largest mailing list or Facebook fan page.

Nice dream. 

In the meantime, all I can do is beg corporations to think it through before the next challenge. If you sprinkle food at the top of the crowded pond, the fish aren't going to say, "you know, I've thought about it and I'm not really that hungry to fight for it." They're going to eat each other up like it's their very last meal. It's the fish's nature. It's ours. It's up to you to design your giving programs to make sure we're helping each other to the next meal and we're all being fairly judged on our own value, not purely in competition.
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