May 21, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Kali Baker knows well how the better angels of our nature think. She knows that although they are angels, they still love a little competition. They love variety, too. They love prizes. Like their less-noble brethren, they even like to party.

Omaha Gives 2014, the 24-hour-long, online telethon Baker organizes, is as much a psychological experiment as it is a charity. Still, the bottom line isn’t rocket science: The event raises a heck of a lot of money for a heck of a lot of Omaha charities. Last year, in its first outing in the city, this online telethon put on by the Omaha Community Foundation raised $3 million for charities in the area.

“It was just remarkable to watch,” says Baker, who is director of communications for the Foundation. “It’s such a different type of event, we didn’t know for sure what we were getting into. It just felt so good when we saw the numbers.”

Impressive numbers. From midnight to midnight one day last spring, nearly 11,000 people made online donations to 318 participating non-profits.

This year’s Omaha Gives 2014 will be held May 21. At 12:01 a.m. that Wednesday, you can go to omahagives24.org and donate to any one of more than 500 charities in the region.

Here’s how it works. Area non-profits sign up to be a part of the event. All the participating charities are then included on a sort of “Big Board” on the Omaha Gives website. On May 21, people can begin going to the website and donating to any one (or, of course, any number) of the charities listed. Each charity’s name on the board with have a real-time running tally of the money they’ve received.

So, here’s where the mind games come in. The website becomes a scoreboard. All of a sudden, somebody is winning. As is human nature: The volunteers and donors for the five hundred or so other charities decide it would be neat for them to be the leader.

Baker calls that “incentivizing” the event. It gets better.

Last year, many of the charities held events during the day. Donors and volunteers gathered, had fun and very often got on their smart phones and donated. Also, as the excitement built through the day, they contacted their friends, who contacted their friends. That social media thing. Pretty soon, the event was drawing hundreds of new donors and volunteers to the charities involved.
Then came the prizes for hitting certain donation targets. This year, non-profits will compete for prizes in three categories depending on the group’s annual budget.

The Omaha Community Foundation also will be offering matching funds. In addition, each hour, one donation will be randomly selected to be augmented with an additional $1,000.

That’s yet another clever carrot.

“Things can get a bit slow at some points, especially in those early hours of the day,” Baker says. “But that $1,000 each hour should get people fired up to stay involved all day long.”

One group that benefitted greatly was The Union for Contemporary Art. The young non-profit (started in 2011) hosted a lunchtime pizza party the day of the event last year as well as an open house for donors. Numerous donations were made from donors onsite, but most of the donations came through social media, says Brigitte McQueen Shew, The Union’s executive director.

“I basically spent the entire day jumping online and reminding people that even a gift of $10…would make a huge difference.”

More than 200 people donated a total of $13,000, “A huge amount for us,” she says. The Union’s effort earned them one of those $1,000 bonus prizes.

“Omaha Gives basically enabled us to launch (programs) years before I thought we’d have the funds available to make it happen,” she says. “We are truly looking forward to the event this year.”
Sara Boyd, president and CEO of the Foundation, echoes that sentiment. There’s good reason to believe Omaha Gives could grow exponentially in coming years.

“As we look at these event in other communities, the second year presents a huge opportunity to get more people involved in giving,” she says. “People who didn’t know it was happening last year or didn’t understand the premise have a greater opportunity to participate.”

The Omaha Gives day is modeled after a few similar 24-hour, online fundraisers that have popped up in recent years around the country. Because of the immense success of this fundraising formula, Baker says, more and more will likely be showing up around the country.

“It just has been proven to work on numerous levels,” she says. “It has an amazing way of getting people involved, even people who have never been involved before.”

That may be the greatest power of this fundraising formula. Thanks primarily to that intense social media burst, it’s estimated that 30 percent of last year’s donations at the Omaha event came from first-time donors.

“I think one of the great things about Omaha Gives is that it gave us a vehicle for raising awareness about our programs and work,” McQueen Shew says.

That new awareness, and all those first-time donors, means a whole new army of volunteers and donors for those charities as they move forward.

“It’s not just about the money raised, it’s about introducing a great number of new people to a great number of non-profits,” Baker says. “All these neat incentives are just ways to promote giving and bring the community together in new ways.”

Omaha Gives “is empowering, accessible, and meaningful,” Boyd says. “That’s especially important as we seek to develop a new audience of givers in our community.”

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