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November 17, 2011 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

I am still in awe at the amount of money donated to support Minnesota nonprofits yesterday through GiveMN.org’s Give to the Max Day. A state with a population of 5.3 million raised $13.6 m in a period of 24 hours. My small arts nonprofit, Northstar Storytelling League, raised $1570.  That, and another $1100 raised in the spring, also via GiveMN.org, more than doubled our individual donations from the previous year.

Yes, there was a din of email, and a storm of Facebook status and Twitter updates. (Some of them even came from people other than me.) But when it is time for the storytelling to begin, and you ask me why I want to live out on this frozen tundra, I will speak of warm folk and their generous ways. And of all those friends and relations outside the state who responded to this frenzy with equal generosity. We love you. Ya, you betcha.

But some aspects of the day gave me pause.

A starving theater artist friend of mine got home from working her telemarketing job on Give to the Max Day and found 58 email appeals in her mailbox.  I don’t blame her for feeling a bit put upon.  It is demoralizing to dedicate your life to that passion, and to receive all these appeals from organizations you love and think worthwhile, then not be able to earn enough doing that work – or the work you have to do to make the work you love to do possible – to have the luxury of joining the giving frenzy.  To me she admitted that the only appeal that really bothered her was the one from the Guthrie Theater.  “Really?” she said. “You want a donation?  A ticket to A Christmas Carol costs more than I made all day.”

That exchange, and a blog entry by Scott Walters, “Occupy Lincoln Center” – coincidentally published on Give to the Max day – got me thinking.  Walters notes that the nonprofit community has a one percent of its own.  That “the income disparity between nonprofit arts institutions is nearly twice as bad as the income disparity in the economy as a whole.” And that this is particularly true in the performance arts. He cites statistics from Theatre Communications Group that show that theatres with budgets of $5M or more (representing 34% of the total) possessed 80% of the total average wealth.  According to the annual report on the Guthrie’s web site, the theater had revenue of nearly $24 million in 2009-2010.

I am currently Interim Board President of Northstar, a  membership-based organization,  whose largest annual event, a storytelling festival, is held the weekend after Thanksgiving. We have been very fortunate in the last two years to have received a Minnesota State Arts Board Festivals grant for that festival; that, and a grant from the Metro Regional Arts Council for a Teaching Artist workshop series, increased our budget by a factor of ten in the last three years. That means the organization now has a budget of about $50,000. 

But until now we’ve never had a strong culture of individual giving. This becomes a real issue when you are trying to build infrastructure, meet match requirements and diversify revenue. The grant money we get is precarious; it depends on panels of artists that change from year to year, and it is mostly pass through money to pay performers and promote events. We have a couple contract positions when the grant money is there.  When it’s not, we have volunteers.

Givemn.og has made for a more level playing field in many ways, particularly for small nonprofits who cannot afford expensive online fundraising software like Convio.  It is an incredibly wonderful educational tool, and a great social, collegial, feel-good experience for those who can participate.  They also do so much of the work that an underresourced, mostly volunteer organization does not have time or energy to do – which in turn helps such an organization build resources.

But I would like to see even more effort focused on smaller nonprofits in future.  A special category for the top ten small nonprofits is a great idea.  Think even smaller than budgets “under $750,000.”  That is an awfully large small to me – about a sixth of the total number of nonprofits registered, to be precise. Have a category for startups and those organizations trying to make that transition from being largely volunteer driven, to having part time contract staff, to hiring their first full time staff person.  These are the organizations that not only cannot afford something like Convio – they can only do their social media campaigns after their day jobs are done.

It’s not that I don’t want the Guthrie to use GiveMN.org.  But here’s a radical idea.

There’s currently a 2.9% processing fee for donations on GiveMn.org.  When the site started up, some very generous foundations subsidized the cost of this. It is still one of the lower processing fees for online donations around.  Rather than asking donors  to “tip” GiveMN, what if the top 1% paid the processing fee for the 99%?  Or for the small nonprofits?  Or just for the startups, however that might be defined?  That would allow some of us who work hard to provide performance experiences outside of the Guthrie model to occupy a seat there, now and again, without having to rush or to usher.

Who knows. We might even grow up to be donors.


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