On March 27 in the pre-dawn quiet throughout Sarasota and Manatee, a buzz was building. Well before sunrise, the windows of the Community Foundation of Sarasota shone bright onto Fruitville Road. Inside, laptops hummed, staffers fidgeted and a projector warmed the back wall of a balloon-filled banquet room.
One mile north, Cat Depot communications director Lynn Rasys greeted colleagues in her office wearing her bathrobe and slippers. On City Island, a dozen Mote Marine Laboratory staffers fueled up around tables of fruit and muffins. In Bradenton, eight Saint Stephen’s Episcopal School faculty and parent volunteers steeled themselves with jugs of Panera Bread coffee.
Gulf Coast Community Foundation senior vice president of philanthropy Veronica Brady texted her staff, “Hey, you better be at your computer.” One recipient propped her laptop on her elliptical and began her morning workout.
The first 36-Hour Giving Challenge, a collaboration between the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, the Manatee Community Foundation and Sarasota’s Patterson Foundation, gave 109 local nonprofits a nonstop day and a half to rally their supporters to make online donations and compete for more than $500,000 in matching and bonus funds. The Challenge doubled as a promotion for The Giving Partner, a new online database of local nonprofits. Potential donors could view extensive profiles for all 109 participating organizations on thegivingpartner.org.
The Challenge’s ambitious goal? $1 million in total donations in just 36 hours.
It was to start with a bang. At 6 a.m., the very first donations entered into givingpartnerchallenge.org would be “matched” (essentially doubled) by a $334,000 grant from The Patterson Foundation—until the $334,000 ran out. Staff and volunteers from nonprofits and community foundations alike armed themselves with lists of donor pledges to enter into the website, vying for those first available funds.
Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.
Ground Zero for the Challenge was “The Giving Partner Lounge,” a banquet room at the Community Foundation of Sarasota, where many foundation staffers had already gathered with their laptops amid yellow and green balloons and chic modern furniture donated for the occasion by Home Resource. A large screen displayed the Challenge’s online donation “leaderboard,” set to track the total donations as well as the organizations with the greatest number of individual donors. The leader at the end would receive an extra $20,000.
The moment the website activated, keyboards began furiously clacking in the lounge and at nonprofit headquarters and volunteers’ living rooms from North Port to Parrish.
“Once it started,” says Brady, who had roused her son and husband to enter donations in the family’s living room, “there was no time for texting.”
Upstairs at the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, away from the hubbub, vice president of community investment John Annis settled in at his desk for a long morning of entering pledges on behalf of community foundation donors. He entered the first donation on his list, and then the second. But midway through the third, he stopped, startled by cheers erupting from the Lounge downstairs.
The entire $334,000 in matching funds had already been awarded. It was 6:04 a.m.
Another cheer: $1 million in donations. The 36-hour goal had been reached in less than 20 minutes.
“That was a great thing,” says Annis, who admitted that he had spent some sleepless nights worrying about how they would ever meet that $1 million goal. “And then they started saying, ‘Let’s go for $2 million!’”
The remaining 35 hours and 40 minutes became a marathon of sustained effort and energy to recruit more and more donors.
Jennifer Turner arrived at The Giving Partner Lounge just after 8 a.m., one of a steady stream of visitors who stopped by simply to experience the energy of the room: staff working their phones and computers, donors and volunteers conferring on couches and chairs. Representatives from participating nonprofits kept bringing in “reinforcements,” as the foundation’s Susie Bowie called them—pastries and fruit plates crowded on a table in the back of the room. A plate of carrots and hummus sat next to a card that read, “From your friends at Forty Carrots.”
Though the lounge seemed all laughter and snacks, everyone kept a watchful eye on the leaderboard. “Every minute, you’d see another $3,000,” says Annis. Periodic shouts and cheers rose above the room’s din as a rainbow of causes fought for the top spot—Manatee Players, New College Foundation, Planned Parenthood, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, UnidosNow and on and on. “We wanted them all to do well,” says Turner. “The better they all did, the better we all were.”
Among those groups at the top, a battle developed between lesser-known animal groups Cat Depot and Sarasota in Defense of Animals. “We were neck and neck,” says Cat Depot’s Rasys. “They’d be five [individual donors] ahead, then we’d be three ahead.” Rasys led her staff in an all-out telephone blitz for new donors, though she’d started feeling under the weather early in the afternoon. “We hunkered down. We called everyone we knew,” she says.
No connection was too remote. During a teeth cleaning, Cat Depot executive director Shelley Thayer convinced her dentist to donate. A Cat Depot volunteer on a business trip in Georgia called his sister, who emailed her friend, who made a donation from England. And still the two organizations couldn’t shake each other.
In The Giving Partner Lounge, people were exclaiming about the two tiny nonprofits right there in the mix with the heavy hitters. “What is ‘Sarasota in Defense of Animals’?” someone whispered.
This was the magic of the Challenge. In addition to financial rewards for the most individual donors, it offered random $250 drawings every hour, and even $5,000 bonuses for the organizations that had the most people view their online Giving Partner profile—no donations needed. In a town of million-dollar nonprofits, the Challenge allowed the smaller organizations to compete for bonus funds and, perhaps more importantly, for recognition. Everyone had a chance. Says Rasys, “We were addicted to that leaderboard—refresh, refresh, refresh.”
Leaderboard addiction was rampant, and groups went to great—and often creative—lengths in efforts to see their organization’s name climb the list. Student volunteers from the New College Foundation went door-to-door, garnering 125 donations from their classmates. Community Youth Development created a “CYD Superhero” to grab attention. Arts and Cultural Alliance executive director Jim Shirley starred in a promotional video as both Inspector Gadget and the inspector’s niece, Penny—with a mustache.
Most of all, social media ruled the day. Donors made contributions and then shared them on Twitter, challenging followers to do likewise. Jennifer Turner, who’d spent the morning in the lounge, picked up her daughter from Saint Stephen’s after school, then made her pose for a picture in her uniform. Gans posted it to Facebook with a note to her friends: “You have to donate.”
From the Facebook pages of The Giving Partner and the community foundations’ staff came official stats and a sense of the crowds of people uniting through cyber space. (There were also glimpses into the minds of people who were nearing 12 hours at work, with 24 more to go.)
“We’re jamming to Adele in our Giving Partner lounge. #36hourchallenge.” (John Annis, posting on Facebook.)
From Annis on Facebook: “24 hours remaining. It’s going to be a wild ride! Hold on!”
From The Giving Partner’s Facebook page: “Leave us a comment with your nonprofit of choice and a link to its profile. Susie will make a $25 donation to a random org listed. You have until 8:00 p.m. Go!” The post received 27 comments in 15 minutes. (Take Stock in Children got the prize.)
By 8:20 p.m., there had been 7,155 gifts totaling $1,970,812.
At 10:45 p.m., it was 7,420 gifts totaling $1,991,441. “Oh. My. Goodness,” read The Giving Partner’s Facebook post. “Less than $9,000 until we reach the $2,000,000 mark. Amazing community.”
The pace of incoming donations slowed as midnight came and went, but it by no means stopped. Hourly prizes were still to be claimed, and some impassioned volunteers set their alarms for all hours of the morning to boost their organization’s chances. Cat Depot won $1,000 in randomly drawn bonuses between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m.
Bowie finally left her Giving Partner Lounge post at 2:30 a.m., but she and others monitored the leaderboard from home. When the sun rose, everyone’s first thought was to rush to his or her computer to check its progress. What they saw was astounding: $2 million in total donations in just over 24 hours.
A renewed sense of urgency filled the Challenge’s final 12 hours, as crowds began again to gather in the lounge. Karen Bogues of Community Youth Development dropped off fresh bread and homemade strawberry jam. “It was inspiring to feel their energy,” she says, though some exhausted participants had found quiet moments to nap on the donated furniture.
At Cat Depot, the battle with Sarasota in Defense of Animals continued, but Rasys, who’d felt slightly ill the day before, now felt exponentially worse. She told her colleagues, “I think one of you is going to have to drive me to the hospital”—then added, “But I’m going to stay here until 6 p.m.”
As the day wore on, the pulse of the leaderboard picked up as donors rushed to help their favorite causes finish strong. One woman came to the lounge and gave only to those organizations with the fewest donors. Another donated $1,000 to each of her 23 favorite causes. Then, having just given $23,000 in less than five minutes, she showed her list to Annis, asking, “Did I make good choices?”
And if more incentive were needed, at 1 p.m. a final challenge from The Giving Partner offered $10,000 to be added to a randomly selected donation made between then and 5:30 p.m. The Players of Sarasota took the prize.
At moments before 6 p.m., the 36-Hour Challenge culminated in a flurry of last-second donations. A crowd of nonprofit leaders, volunteers and donors gathered with the staffs of the four foundations in The Giving Partner Lounge to count down the final seconds—a countdown that extended beyond the room, to hundreds of other people throughout the region gathered around the computers they’d monitored since early the previous morning.
And at 6 p.m., all across Southwest Florida, champagne corks started to pop.
Sarasota in Defense of Animals representatives arrived at the lounge waving a white flag. They’d finished sixth with 322 unique donors—enough to earn a $5,000 prize, but three spots behind Cat Depot’s 407, which earned $10,000 for third place. (The Manatee Players won the $20,000 top spot.) Rasys, nearly doubled over in pain, stayed by her computer long enough to see their victory assured and the champagne poured. Then, still smiling, she rode with a colleague to the emergency room, where she was treated for a stomach ailment.
The final tally: 10,705 gifts totaling $2,401,601. The 36-Hour Giving Challenge raised more money in that time span than any other event of its kind, ever. The record had previously been held by San Diego, the seventh-largest city in the U.S.
“Look at what we’ve accomplished after 36 hours of crazy, wonderful, amazing giving!!” read The Giving Partner Facebook page, March 28, 6 p.m.