Facebook / The Big Give SA
This month, organizers of Big Give S.A., one of South Texas’ highest-profile fundraising events, sent an email to participants saying they had found “what appeared to be examples of agencies manipulating the system in order to win more prize money.”
Big Give, which awards cash to nonprofits based on their success spurring individual donations in a one-day online drive, said an audit after its March 22, 2018, event turned up the apparent scheming. What’s more, such audits will be part of its process going forward.
“I wanted to give (the agencies) the benefit of explaining,” said Scott McAninch, CEO of The Nonprofit Council, the event’s lead agency. “But when you have a donor who’s got 30 different emails, there’s something going on there.”
McAninich contacted three nonprofits, which he declined to identify, and asked them about donations they received from suspicious email accounts. After establishing some were erroneous, The Nonprofit Council re-awarded some of its prizes, he added.
The five-year-old event, modeled after others around the country, helps nonprofits raise their community profile while driving extra donations. Some of its thousands of dollars in cash prizes are determined by how many individual donations agencies can rack up.
This year’s phony-email scheme isn’t the first bug to bite the Big Give in recent years.
In 2016, technical glitches crashed its old donation platform, cutting off potential contributors and leaving the event short of its fundraising goal. Subsequently, local techies helped point the organizers to another online platform called GiveGab.
But that upgrade became part of the Big Give’s latest problem, McAninch said.
The previous system tracked donations by credit card numbers, making it difficult to trick. GiveGab, on the other hand, only asks for email addresses. As a result, it’s possible to split a contribution between multiple fake identities, so they’re counted as multiple donations at prize time.
“We are trying to be transparent with our nonprofits about how we’re handling it,” he said. “This isn’t something where we’re just going to spot-check the results.”
So, problem solved. Or is it?
Even before the latest Big Give, nonprofits raised questions about whether some were manipulating the process, either by creating fake accounts or registering in less-competitive categories.
“It’s something that came up repeatedly,” said one person familiar with the event’s logistics who declined to be named.
San Antonio World Affairs Council Development Director Laura Villarreal, who participated in four Big Gives while working for other nonprofits, understands why agencies might feel the pressure to play games. Some rely on it as their biggest annual fundraiser.
“That’s the blessing and curse of the Big Give,” she added.
Competition or no, Big Give participation has slipped since the 2016 glitch, dropping from a high of 1,050 organizations that year to 613 in 2018. Its $5.1 million in donations the latest go-round also landed shy of its $7 million goal.
Observers say the event’s fee structure may shoulder some blame. Chow Train, a group that feeds homeless people, sent an email to supporters in May 2017 saying it was dropping from the event because “a nonprofit shouldn’t have to pay to play.”
The email cites the Big Give’s decision to assess a $200 charge to each nonprofit, regardless of its budget, on top of the cut it takes from each donation. According to the Big Give website, those include a 2 percent service charge for GiveGab, a 2.2 percent credit card processing fee plus 30 cents, and another 1 percent each for The Nonprofit Council and the San Antonio Area Foundation, its main partner in the Big Give.
“This year, we feel as though BigGiveSA (sic) has added insult to injury by assessing a fee to every nonprofit registered — and not on a sliding scale,” the Chow Train email said. Officials with the organization didn’t respond to interview requests.
Revenues from the Big Give accounted for nearly $123,000 of The Nonprofit Council’s revenues for the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2017, according to its tax filings. That was the single biggest contribution to its $256,000 in total program service revenue.
“(The fees) are not something outrageous, but I think they could be difficult for some small nonprofits,” said Kelly Toepperwein, annual campaign manager for the DoSeum, a regular Big Give participant.
McAninch said the fees, which cover participant training and marketing materials, are in line with those of other giving days. Lorna Stafford, marketing director for the Area Foundation, said her organization remains a supportive partner and approves of the way The Nonprofit Council handled the recent email discrepancies.
“I’m glad they found it,” she said. “I’m glad they acknowledged it, and they’re doing something about it.”
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