Gather Together to Give Big: How Online Giving Days Can Be Made Better By Off-Line Events


This is a story about two very different online giving days in two very different communities, and what I learned from seeing them both in action. Like the Seattle Foundation’s Give Big, the Lancaster County Community Foundation in Lancaster, PA has it’s own online giving day, called Extraordinary Give. The premise is much the same.  For twenty-four hours, the foundation provides a percentage match for online donations to local charities. Since Seattle is a much bigger city with a more affluent and internet savvy population, you’re probably guessing that Give Big would be much more successful than the Lancaster’s Extraordinary Give. But that’s not what happened -- what happened was that a small community raised an enormous sum of money.  How they did it is a story worth telling.

Let me explain.  But first, let me give you a little context.  For starters, you might be wondering why a Northwest publication is even talking about a small town in Pennsylvania.  That’s because eight months ago, I transferred myself and my consulting business across the country.  After ten years in Seattle, a city I love like no other, it was time for me to reconnect with my family and my roots.  (Happily, I maintain a toehold in the Pacific Northwest.  And, Emily and Julie are gracious to let me work out my homesickness for Seattle in these pages.)

So yeah, I moved to Lancaster, PA, a city of approximately 60,000 people, less than one-tenth the size of Seattle’s 653,000.  The broader county, also called Lancaster, has a population of more than 500,000 people, 30,000 of whom are Amish, a plain sect that historically refrains for religious reasons from using modern technologies, including computers and the internet.  Comparatively, King County has a total population of well over 2 million.*

The point is, Lancaster County and Lancaster City are much, much smaller than Seattle and King County.  And of the people in Lancaster, a good 5% of them don’t even use the internet.

You might expect, therefore, that their online giving day, Extraordinary Give would provide similarly proportionate results.  But that’s not what happened.  Instead, Lancaster County raised a total of $6.2 million from the 500,000 or so people who actually use the internet.   That’s nearly 40% of the $16.2 million that was raised in last year’s Give Big!

So what was the difference? There are a few differences between the two days, such as the fact that most of the matching funds in Lancaster come from local businesses, not individual donors, and that Extraordinary Give takes place at the end of November, instead of in the spring.  But the biggest difference between Extraordinary Give and Give Big is the way in which the local community has rallied around the initiative.


The Lancaster community completely embraced this day of “online giving” by creating face-to-face events and activities throughout the county.  These events prompted people to turn out in support of their favorite nonprofits and hang out with one another.  Making a donation online almost became an afterthought.  Here are just a few examples of the ways the people of Lancaster transformed the simple act of filling out an online donation form into a day of community pride, engagement and philanthropy:

  • Hundreds of nonprofits took advantage of the Lancaster County Community Foundation sponsored series of trainings where non-profit leaders, at very low cost, learned how to use social media to reach bigger audiences and increase support. I provided one of those trainings and you can watch the summary of that training
  • The Lancaster County Community Foundation had a “Giving Mobile” that drove around around town, creating online giving stations and providing help for those folks who are unaccustomed to making online donations.
  • Nonprofits created their own events that tied into the day. For example, a private school put on a talent show, during which they passed iPad through the audience so that gifts could be made.  They provided updates during intermission and at the end of the show.
  • Another nonprofit used the day as an opportunity to host an open house where its new CEO was introduced. Guests were invited to make online donations in honor of the new CEO.
  • Lancaster City businesses partnered with nonprofits by hosting a number of activities throughout the day, including live music, food and drink, and dance parties.
  • One organization recruited their older donors who prefer to write checks to create a matching fund to further match the online donations, thereby making sure all of their donors could participate, regardless of their comfort level with the internet.


Sure, it could be argued that Lancaster is doing it backwards. That instead of embracing the opportunity for individuals to quietly make donations from the privacy and comfort of their own computers, they created a massive amount of extra work in staging hundreds of events and outreach activities throughout the area.  To be honest, I thought that, too.  That was before I saw the plan in action. 

Because what I saw was magical.  I saw a community modify a fundraising tool to fit its unique culture.  I saw a community that likes events, that has an older, tech adverse population and that recognizes the amount of donor overlap between local nonprofits. Together, they created something that embraced those unique aspects of their community.  Of course, there were still donors who made online donations from the privacy and comfort of their own computers.  There were more donors, however, who were hopping from event to event and who were cheering each other on as they navigated the online giving form for the first time.  And yes, there were some nonprofits who kept all of their Extraordinary Give activities online.  There were many others, however, who displayed their programs proudly through public activities and who shared space with one another because they genuinely believed that Extraordinary Give was a day of celebration and support for all the nonprofits in the county. Not just their own.

As you, Seattle, prepare for Give Big, I invite you to take a play from the Lancaster playbook.  Assess what is unique about your group of donors and create something for Give Big that, in addition to all the online promotion at which you already excel, gives your particular giving community the opportunity to celebrate and support you by gathering together.

And then let me know what happens.  I bet it will be big.  I bet it will be extraordinary.

*I got these numbers off the internet, which never lies.  Just in case, however, the internet was having an off day, please use these figures as a frame of reference in comparing the general size of each community, not exact or even accurate numbers.