What year-round giving looks like.
Colorado Gives has established one of the most successful giving day programs in the nation. Through a year-round curriculum and granting access to Catchafire, Colorado Gives has positioned their nonprofit partners, residents, and corporate partners for success.
We hosted an event with Kathy Brady, Catchafire’s COO, and Erica Thornley, VP of Product Development at Colorado Gives Foundation to discuss their giving program, and how others could build momentum around collaborative giving day campaigns.
Erica joined the Colorado Gives Foundation in 2021 and leads the Colorado Gives 365 program as well as Colorado Gives Day. Last year, Colorado Gives Day raised over $53M for local nonprofits in the state. She brings more than 15 years of product management experience and is passionate about delivering a seamless online experience for donors and nonprofits.
You can watch the event recording here.
Kathy: Tell us a little bit about your journey to philanthropy. What caught your attention and what brought you to this work?
Erica: I started my career in the corporate space. I had worked for organizations that focused on digital and e-commerce, and had started a digital AB testing program. I fell in love with the ability to make data-driven decisions by seeing how people are interacting. Then the opportunity at the Colorado Gives Foundation opened up to run the program for coloradogives.org, this amazing online experience, which is a great marketplace of bringing donors together with nonprofits. It was the best of both worlds kind of coming together for me.
Kathy: It's such a great story of how you're taking something from a different sector and saying, how can I apply that for social good. Can you share a little bit more about the vision behind this work?
Erica: Our vision for Colorado Gives is really about building the capacity of nonprofits and donors statewide. I'd love for Colorado to be that number one place that Coloradans think about when they have that urge to give. We really want to be that number one place that people go year-round.
Kathy: How was this concept born?
Erica: It started back in 2007. We were looking at another foundation who was doing some innovative stuff with their giving platform. We thought this could be something that's interesting for more public engagement and started thinking about how we democratize giving, because you see a lot of donations come from big donors, but we also want people to be able to feel like I can give a little bit and it can still make an impact. Back then, online shopping wasn't even a big thing, so it was innovative of the foundation to be thinking about this at that time.
They thought about it from a couple different perspectives. One, this online thing is probably gonna be a thing, right? How can we develop infrastructure for the nonprofits to be able to use this? Could we create an infrastructure that allowed nonprofits to use our platform to do online digital fundraising? On the flip side, for donors, if you're going to make a donation, you'd have to go to all these independent websites. Could we create one centralized place where you could give to multiple nonprofits in a single transaction? Sort of like today when you buy something on Amazon, add to cart, and it makes your life a lot easier. That's where it started out, we wanted to create an infrastructure side for the nonprofits and an easy giving experience for our donors.
Kathy: What was most of service to your community when this was being formed, and who did you need to get on board so that it could actually be realized?
Erica: I think there was a report that came out in Colorado that had looked at the per capita of Colorado and it was one of the least philanthropic states. At the time, there were probably about 500 nonprofits that we had gotten onto the platform and we were primarily focused within the Denver metro area. So the foundation decided we want to try doing this giving event across the entire state and we're going to set a goal of raising one million dollars. The first year, we raised $8 million. We had such a great volume of folks that showed up to give and had to keep the momentum going. We've been able to continue to carry it throughout the years. I am so honored to be part of an organization that raised $53 million last year.
Kathy: What has evolved over time? What has triggered the foundation to expand and where do you see opportunity next?
Erica: We recognize while this giving day is a big day and we're doing a lot with media partners and marketing, it's not just our voice. It takes the entire voice of the community and our nonprofits are instrumental in getting the word out. In all four corners of the state, we started to partner with foundations, collaboratives, as well as others that were real champions in their area and had their own local giving events and wanted to come together as part of Colorado Gives Day. Our regional champions have been critical in getting the word out across the state.
Another thing that had changed for us over the years was the platform that we are on. We really listened to our community, nonprofits, and donors, and asked them what they liked about the experience and what could be better. We realized that we needed to make a switch.
One of the other things in terms of strategy that has really changed for us is trying to find that right balance of communicating with donors. We're this platform that people can come and find the nonprofits that are doing meaningful and passionate work, and when they make that donation, they're making that donation to that nonprofit. So where was our line to communicate to donors versus the nonprofits themselves?
We want to make sure that we strike that balance by allowing the nonprofits to really do a lot of the communication around the type of good work that they're doing and stewarding those donors. So we try not to bombard our donors with too many communications, but also make that experience easy for those that want to give to more than one nonprofit on the site. That's been a bit of an evolving strategy for us.
We're also really starting to see if we can engage the corporate vertical. This is a great avenue for employers to give back to the communities that they operate in, that their employees live in. It gives them a really easy forum to create fundraising pages that can either promote nonprofits that they care about or allow them to select one of the 3,500 nonprofits while giving the employee autonomy on who they want to make a donation to.
I would also say the work that we're doing with Catchafire, if part of our reason for being is to help build the capacity of nonprofits, then it's not just the technology, right? The platform, that's one piece of it, but it's also the strategy. We all know we're wearing like 10 different hats, and trying to get it all done. So how can we actually supplement what some of the support and the volunteers that want to give back and leverage their amazing skill set? This year with the help of a funder, we started up a cohort of nonprofits and going back to that kind of test and learn mentality of, if we provide them with the tech, the strategy and the execution side, will that help them build capacity, drive more revenue, retain donors, or acquire more donors? As much as I love instant gratification, we're going to have to wait and see. This program, we've got a commitment to try to run for the next three years, and see if we can help build the capacity of those nonprofits to be better digital fundraisers.
Kathy: There are so many different components that you just laid out, how does the foundation balance these pieces and source the ideas?
Erica: We’re always bringing ideas to the table and it really comes back to, what's our mission? What's our vision? What are our objectives and our strategies? What did we learn from last year? It really boils down to what's our strategy this year and how are we going to try to tackle some of the big things that we think are going to move the needle and test and learn? That's one of the things I'll say I love about being at the foundation, it isn't failure unless you don't learn from it. Let's try something new, let's see how it works, and we'll learn from it and continue to pivot.
Kathy: Thinking about the different kinds of players that you need to engage with to make this vision a reality. When you think about a statewide giving campaign, how does this drive equity between those who are involved? How do you have these different key constituents integrate into one place and and feel like there is equity?
Erica: We try as best we can. With our regional champions, to engage with them and to understand what's happening in the community. We're trying to give the tools and the resources to help make the giving day easy and provide that across the board, whether you are in an urban area or not.
We know that donors want to give where they live, right? So we’re making sure when they come to the site, they can narrow down the search filters by location so they're not looking at a laundry list of 3,500 nonprofits and can focus in on those nonprofits that are within their region.
Kathy: You mentioned earlier that your partnership with Catchafire is part of your larger program to build capacity building for nonprofits, and combine your technology, giving, and community vision. Can you share a little bit more about what you are trying to accomplish through this? What are you starting to see? What do you want to prove?
Erica: There's multiple components to this capacity building opportunity that we're putting forth. We've broken it out into subgroups. There's one group of folks that are just getting the volunteer Catchafire-only services, no education and no additional technology.
They're sort of in their own cohort. We then have the other bucket which has the Catchafire services, so the volunteering execution side of things. Then we layered on top of that strategic education. So you're getting those services and education paired with it.
Then we have a third group that is the Catchafire execution, the education, and then some advanced features in technology.
By the way, we have a control group–there were a handful of nonprofits that had applied for this. We didn't have enough space. So there was a group that was denied. What we're gonna be doing is, over the course of time, looking at the results that are driving between all of these different groups to try to understand if there's particular levers that are helping to drive more revenue, more donor retention, more donor acquisition, and getting feedback from the nonprofits.
So what we really want to take a look at is, are there elements here that are really driving the needle? Are we seeing things when we offer Catchafire services without any of the other bells and whistles? Does that elevate folks? If so, how can we figure out how to fund that for the rest of the nonprofits on the platform to help build their capacity.
But we really want to try to prove it out with data first.
Kathy: Have nonprofits shared how this has made a difference for them? How has having a statewide partner and regional champions made a difference for giving day goals and beyond?
Erica: I think the biggest and most consistent thing that we've heard from nonprofits on the platform is that new donors found them. So I think that that's been a great win.
Kathy: What were some of the roadblocks? If another funder is listening and wants to pursue this, what do they need to know?
Erica: One of the things fundamentally that we are taking a look at was all of our systems and how they really were not all that integrated. We recognized that we needed to do a technology overhaul and have systems more integrated and talk to each other, not just for the process and efficiency standpoint, but that also leads to allowing your people to do their best work. On top of that, we had done some research and realized that with our prior name, Community First Foundation, people didn't realize that Community First Foundation ran Colorado Gives Day. We said, we've got all of this great brand equity in Colorado Gives, let's leverage that. So we changed our name to the Colorado Gives Foundation this past April. The reaction that we got from folks was, “Oh, well, that makes sense!”
We're not doing change just for the sake of change, but it's really setting us up for the future and what we want to be able to accomplish. We are a place that wants to continue to make things better and to kind of push the envelope where we can. We've got such an amazing team here and everybody just rallies together. We're really excited!
Kathy: Many companies are looking to partner with nonprofits as a means to promote their CSR strategies. What's your honest opinion of the type of corporate support you receive? Do you feel like they can do more?
Erica: It's a good question–I don't know yet. We just really started to engage corporations this past year and we started to do some research with corporations to understand what their motivators are where there's some opportunities. A couple of things that have popped from the recent research that we did is that corporations are indicating that they want to be generous, but they don't know the path to have a bigger impact.
I think it was the giving USA data that had just come out that had shown that corporations were a sector where there was growth in giving. The other thing that popped in the research that we had done is about two thirds of corporations that we had surveyed, about 154 participants, two-thirds of them didn't have a philanthropic plan.
We're trying to find the right products to engage the companies where they're at. That’s why it's been great with the platform that we have these fundraising pages. There's a low barrier for entry, and people can start spinning up fundraising pages for their corporation.
Kathy: How can people stay connected to what you all are doing?
Erica: There's a lot that we're doing right now in preparation for December and getting our nonprofits prepared. So we offer on our website what we call “Learn 365 Webinars.” They're not just for folks that are on Colorado Gives, anyone can sign up for them. Sign up for the newsletter, sign up for the webinars. For us, it's really about getting the word out now and trying to get those corporate sponsors engaged and get people informed. We're in the process of trying to figure out a new marketing campaign for the day. So there's a lot of wheels that are in motion. Check out our site coloradogives.org or email us at [email protected].
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