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Online and social-media charity contests raise money — and questions

Nonprofits and charities turning to online contests to raise more revenue. But who really benefits?

Nonprofits are always trolling for new ways to raise funds, and never more so than in uncertain economic times. One of the newer approaches involves social media and online voting. 

Call it pick and click.

Here’s how it usually works: The charity or nonprofit asks supporters to go to a particular company or product website or to Twitter or Facebook (or all three) and to vote for their cause. The cause with the most votes walks away with a major prize, often significant dollars. 

Yet cynics ask: Who benefits most from such a strategy — the non-profit or the corporation behind the give-away?

A vote click is an uncertain chance for a charity to reap great reward, but a sure way of reinforcing the voter’s familiarity and recollection of a brand name or product. 

Communities Take Root logoRight now, for instance in the East Metro, Dream of Wild Health  hopes to win an orchard of fruit trees, courtesy of Edy’s Fruit Bars  (Think Edy’s ice cream) and their Communities Take Root contest. If so inclined, vote online and click “list by state,” or at Facebook and Twitter. 

(You’ll notice another Minnesota agency is listed, but staff there tell me they pulled out of the contest.)

Helping community

Dream of Wild Health aims to help the Twin Cities American Indian community “reclaim their physical, spiritual and mental health” by growing healthy vegetables on their native-owned and grown 10-acre farm in Hugo and through other programs.     

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“We grow the old seeds,” from a huge and precious collection of traditional Native American corn, squash and bean seeds gifted to them, explains the organization’s Executive Director Diane Wilson. 

But the group has also been dreaming about an orchard for years, a place to grow fruits and berries, including chokecherries, important to a traditional American Indian lifestyle. 

The American Indian Family Center in St. Paul is also dreaming of rewards. The center hopes to tally one million votes to earn $50,000 to remodel their facility. Most importantly, the money would fund construction of a teaching kitchen to demonstrate low-cost and diabetes prevention meals.   

Their money would come courtesy of the coffee seller Maxwell House.  

“We really need that money because we work so much with families,’’ and they need to learn how to cook inexpensively and nutritiously, said Janice LaFloe, the organization’s development director. The nonprofit serves the social service and health needs of 800 families, including young moms.

“It’s a popularity contest in some ways,’’ LaFloe admits.

Still, regardless of whether they win the money, she sees her group benefiting. “One of the most important things is being honored …and recognized this way. We’re a bit of a humble and quiet organization,’’ she says. 

“It’s a quandary,’’ acknowledges Kate Barr, executive director of the Non Profits Assistance Fund about such fundraising efforts.

 “Anecdotally we can tell this is on the upswing.”

Still, there has always been “cause marketing” and often there’s an “intersection between branding and community support,’’ Barr says. “Nonprofits are willing to do all kinds of things to support the work they do.’’

Yet Stephanie Johnson, with a background of 18 years in development and fundraising for nonprofits and currently membership director for MinnPost, sees a fly in the ointment.

“These things seem to really not be about philanthropy. Do these connect people to the organization and its mission or to a product? I don’t think it’s a long-term solution to philanthropy,’’ Johnson says.

Publicity for charity

On the other hand, corporations behind such fundraising contests seem to push for publicity of the charity, as demonstrated by this email request to me from a communications consultant promoting one contest:

“As we’d like the story to focus on the American Indian Family Center and their nomination, could you please refrain from quoting me in the story?”

Bottom line, winning can bring huge financial benefits to an organization.

“It was fabulous,’’ says Warren McLean, about Community Reinvestment Fund USA in Minneapolis winning $500,000 in 2010 through a social media contest sponsored by Sam’s Club, which sells products at wholesale prices to club members. His organization was one of only four in their category running to win up to $1 million.  

Voters could vote online, at Twitter or for one day at a particular store, but they had to have purchased a club membership, says McLean, who is vice president of development for the organization which makes loans to small businesses and for multi-family affordable housing projects and community facilities.

Likely those very same CRF clients would be potential Sam’s Club shoppers.