What Happened on Give Local America Day?
For the past few years, I’ve been facilitating a peer learning group with a small cohort of grantees, all community foundations, hosting Giving Days in their communities using the Giving Day Playbook. The activities for this community of practice included regular conference calls primarily for the cohort, webinars for a broader audience of community foundations, and an online safe space open to any community foundation hosting a giving day to share knowledge and tips with colleagues.
Early on Give Local America Day, reports of slow page loads and server crashes started to trickle in from a couple of community foundations hosting Giving Days using the Kimbia platform. The technical glitches escalated into an epic fail and shut down of all Give Local America campaigns across the country using the Kimbia platform. Community Foundations were thrown into crisis mode as the amount of time the server was down went from minutes into hours.
Experiencing a cascading technology failure in real time for just one community is painful enough. But it was heart wrenching to watch, in real time, community after community experience this fiasco. Instead of scaling community giving and philanthropy and empowering their local nonprofits to use crowd funding, Give Local America Day amplified frustration, panic, hopelessness, and anger. Think about how you feel when you have spent five hours writing a grant proposal only to have your computer crash and completely destroy your document. Magnify that feeling a million times — not just the 50 or community foundations hosting Give Local America, but the nonprofits and donors in their communities who had spent months preparing for local events. (I think I suffered PSTD from this watching and why this blog post was not written earlier)
Server crashes and other logistical glitches during Giving Days are not unknown potential problems. In 2013, GiveMN, one of the first and longest running Giving Days, experienced a catastrophic platform fail. Their experience handling the crisis inspired a new section in the Giving Day Playbook on crisis management planning. Since 2009, a number of Giving Days have also experienced technology glitches due to the technical problems on various platforms, but these were isolated events, not part of a national day of giving on a centralized platform.
Most local campaigns were extended into the next day and community foundations communicated with humor, transparency, grace, and creativity. Midland Gives, a member of the peer learning group, had a Plan B. Here’s a case study from Kivi Leroux Miller documenting what they did. And, here’s their open letter to their community explaining what happened.
What we don’t know yet is a full accounting of dollars that came in during Give Local America or how much money was lost or how many communities or participating nonprofits did not make their intended fundraising goal because of the glitch. One bright spot was Silicon Valley Gives which raised close to $8 million dollars on Give Local America Day, a using a different platform (Razoo) than other communities.
Another bright spot, despite having their campaign derailed because of the technology fail, was the Centre Foundation that not only exceeded their goal, but an anonymous donor kicked in an additional $50,000 into the stretch fund allotted to local nonprofits. Most likely, not all local campaigns were able turn lemons in lemonade and may just be left with a bitter taste about technology, giving days, and digital campaigns. We can’t let community foundations and nonprofits abandon giving days, online digital strategies, or trying to scale local giving.
What Can We Learn from this Epic Tech Fail?
This epic fail is more than a technology problem. And, yes technology is one layer as you can read from Kimbia’s explanation here. Technology experts offered their analysis (see the end of this article in the local San Antonio newspaper titled “From Big Give to Big Crash“) Others offer their analysis. It’s complicated.
As one expert observer noted on Facebook, the problem is not simply a lack of bandwidth or hardware problem:
“It calls into question whether there should be centralized giving days at all and whether community foundations have the technical chops to host them. We should be asking why Silicon Valley startups have the cloud infrastructure to scale during major product releases, while nonprofit platforms cannot scale. How did it come to be that one platform cornered the community foundation market and how was it decided that so many would host a giving day on the same day? How did community foundations support their nonprofit partners when things got bad? And finally, who will take responsibility and how will our sectors debrief with an eye towards prevention of such failures and potential reinvention of the model?”
More and more, we have a technology infrastructure digital divide. Does our sector really lack the resources to invest in the technology infrastructure to scale generosity?
The Give Local America Day is a centralized campaign all on one day using the same platform. That can’t scale unless there is the technical capacity of a giant like Amazon or Facebook is involved. Or if multiple philanthropies and foundations including ChanZuckerberg invested in infrastructure to scale a platform for centralized giving days and local community philanthropy. I doubt it, even if all the billionaires who signed the Giving Pledge invested in a centralized campaign platform, it might just be too expensive and too impossible to scale.
And even if it would be possible, the question would have to be asked if it would actually be to the benefit of the sector, or whether a more distributed approach (one that breeds both healthy competition and healthy collaboration simultaneously is more likely to lead to increased local capacity and innovation over the long term.
It requires a networked approach to Giving Days.
A decentralized Giving Day, like Giving Tuesday, where everyone is using different platforms but sharing the same message about giving may be the way to go. Platforms, nonprofits, communities, and businesses are encouraged to adapt the idea and lead their own campaigns, while sharing best practices and data openly with one another for the benefit of all. It is not simply a Giving Day, but an evolving, learning philanthropic ecosystem and social movement.
Giving Tuesday happens the first Tuesday after Thanksgiving. Many nonprofits use the day to kick off their month of year end fundraising, to thank donors, or promote the idea of giving. What if there was a Giving Tuesday every Tuesday of the year? What if local community Giving Day Campaigns selected a Tuesday that made sense for their local community. Give Local America happens on the first Tuesday of May with 50 or so communities, but what if they happened on a Tuesday throughout the year?
We Need a Giving Day Fail Fest!
I think the concept of Giving Days is important and feel that nonprofits and Giving Day hosts should not give up on Giving Days. Kivi Leroux Miller has challenged everyone to continue the conversation so we can learn. Many community foundations are planning a local debrief with their communities, but we need a larger sector wide debrief.
I think we need a convening that brings together multiple parties touched by this fiasco – community foundations, tech providers, and nonprofits. The convening should bring in philanthropy, funders, digital strategy experts, and tech experts. The task would be to hold a series of design thinking labs to debrief on the question: How can we reinvent giving days to scale generosity in all communities and around the world?
What do you think? Let’s keep this conversation going and use the hashtag #givedaylessons
Update: Other Blog Posts
Pamela Grow, When Giving Days Go Wrong
Chronicle of Philanthropy, Peter Panepento, Give Local America Offers Disaster Offers Lessons for Next Time