Some of Minnesota's biggest nonprofits are following a new strategy to feed off the energy of Thursday's Give to the Max Day, the 24-hour giving extravaganza that has grappled repeatedly with tech problems.
Nonprofits lean on Give to the Max Day — the state's largest annual one-day fundraising effort — to draw supporters who may be unfamiliar with their name but sympathetic to their cause. But technical mishaps with the fundraising interface have frustrated donors and participating charities on what is often their single largest moneymaking day of the year.
Fearful of more glitches, some nonprofits are diverting loyal donors to their own online platforms, while still letting new benefactors discover them on the Give to the Max website, GiveMN.org.
Popular organizations like Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity have blasted splashy e-mails encouraging subscribers to "Give to the Max," yet those who click on the hyperlink embedded in the phrase are redirected to the organization's private donor page rather than GiveMN.org. A Habitat spokeswoman said they're simply adopting a "two-pronged approach" meant to capture every possible dollar.
The Animal Humane Society, the fifth-highest-grossing nonprofit on Give to the Max Day last year, shifted resources away from promotions linked to the fundraiser, like puppy grams, toward securing gifts ahead of time by raising awareness at their shelters. The goal is to make the Humane Society more self-sufficient should the GiveMN website crash, said communications director Paul Sorenson.
"We haven't been able to rely on the technology. This is an opportunity to control all the pieces and tell our own story," Sorenson said. "We're trying to have the best of both worlds."
In 2016, GiveMN shattered fundraising records by raking in $20.1 million for 6,000 schools and other nonprofits. However, online contributors battled seven hours of technical obstacles, relying on a bare-bones backup site to process $3.5 million in donations without the benefit of the main website's running totals or leaderboards. To quell discontent, GiveMN refunded to the nonprofits its 6.9 percent transaction fees — totaling about $300,000 — from when the website was down.
"We know that we have not always met expectations," said GiveMN Executive Director Jake Blumberg, whose site has faltered to some degree three of the last four years.
That's why Blumberg does not begrudge the nonprofits' contingency efforts. He encourages participants to adopt whichever strategy they find most successful.
"At the end of the day, our mission is to grow giving and ignite generosity — and as long as giving is happening, whether that's through our platform or another, we're happy," he said.
Some organizations will piggyback on Give to the Max Day with their own special marketing efforts.
At the Minnesota Zoo, staffers plan to broadcast live on Facebook every hour to provide a behind-the-scenes peek at the facility after dark. When the clock strikes midnight on Thursday, zookeepers will educate viewers on nocturnal animals — which are most active long after the public leaves.
They'll solicit donations on social media, while directing their most established donors to a private portal where flashy images of cheetahs and monkeys lock eyes with animal lovers. Supporters can also choose exactly where they'd like their money to go, ranging from veterinary care to conservation.
The zoo still tags its promotional pages with the Give to the Max label.
"We don't want people to lose sight of who created this day," said zoo spokesman Josh Le. Remaining on the GiveMN platform is imperative to expanding the institution's reach, Le said. "It's so well-established. People automatically go there to browse."
Following last year's tech problems, the Animal Humane Society questioned its future with GiveMN. Administrators had scrambled to update the group's 110,000 subscribers while the main site was down, redirecting donors to a private page that raised $49,000.
But they were unsure how many people walked away in frustration. Their donations totaled $200,000, down about 20 percent from 2015.
"You only have that one chance," Sorenson said. "People are unlikely to come back."
This time around, the organization opted to start raising funds sooner, timing its efforts with National Animal Shelter Week.
The effort would give the Humane Society a financial cushion should Give to the Max Day get off to a bumpy start.
But not every organization felt obliged to make major changes.
Days after the presidential election, Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota was flooded with more than $250,000 in donations routed through the GiveMN platform to fund medical care and education.
"It's such an important day in Minnesota," said spokeswoman Jen Aulwes. "People really want to support their community."
This time around, GiveMN has more confidence the process will run smoothly.
Organizers conducted an extensive post mortem to identify what overloaded the system managed by its Austin, Texas-based software partner, Kimbia. The company has since made repairs to ease traffic flow.
GiveMN sweetened the pot this year by doubling the number of prize drawings for participating nonprofits and rewarding early donations from Nov. 1-15.
Organizers surveyed nearly 800 nonprofit participants who said they want Give to the Max Day to stick around. More than half said they would lose donations without the fundraiser.
However, they stressed that the site must be reliable.
Blumberg said GiveMN may look to cancel its contract with Kimbia if problems persist. The backup site is ready, just in case, he said. "But I sure hope we don't have to use it."
Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648