Faced with the daunting task of raising more than $7 million in just a few months last summer, the Jackson Hole Land Trust decided to try a new strategy: the challenge grant.
“It was a totally new concept for us,” said Jenny Wolfrom, director of advancement and engagement.
In late April 2018, the Land Trust embarked on an ambitious campaign to raise the millions needed to preserve a historic downtown block, affectionately known as the “Cafe Genevieve block.” At the start, a donor, seeking to contribute $100,000 to kickstart the effort, approached the Land Trust with an idea: He would provide the gift if 100 other donors contributed by a deadline.
The donor, Wolfrom said, wanted to be sure his money was going toward something the entire community was excited about. Often, “match” or “challenge” grants require a certain dollar amount to be raised to secure the matching gift. But this time around, the donor was clear he wanted to see a high volume of contributors.
“That donor was really inspired by the concept of quantity versus quality,” Wolfrom said.
Three hundred people, not just 100, donated by the deadline. The success of the first challenge shaped the rest of the campaign: The Land Trust reached its goal by introducing a series of challenges that encouraged a high volume of donors.
“In this town, wealth is a little overwhelming to smaller donors,” Wolfrom said, “and this campaign was all about community, and getting everyone to rally around a specific cause. Having those quantity versus quality gifts was really exciting to people. They felt even if they were donating $1 or $100 it was making a difference.”
Donors continued to be attracted to the fundraising model.
“A lot of the philanthropy in this town is carried by the really wealthy,” Wolfrom said. “They get pulled in a lot of directions. High-capacity donors are asked over and over again by the nonprofits for gifts. When you approach somebody who has the capacity to give a very large gift, and you have those significant numbers of supporters behind it, it’s a different motivation for them. It strikes a different chord.”
There was Million Dollar May (1,000 gifts to secure a $1 million donation), $4 million by the Fourth (another 1,000 gifts for another $1 million donation), and the Last Chance, Last Challenge (1,500 gifts for another $1 million). All in all the project raised more than $7 million from more than 5,700 donors.
At each party and event to raise funds to “Save the Block,” people inquired about how to help meet the challenges. Small donors were encouraged that all contributions made the same dent toward the challenge — whatever they were able to give — and the common goal created camaraderie. Many donors gave repeat gifts.
“We were getting calls from people asking if they could donate a roll of pennies and have each penny count for a gift to be 100 gifts,” Wolfrom said. “Everyone was really trying to be creative and figure out how they could help us get to the specific number of gifts we needed, within their capacity.”
Other nonprofits use different approaches to the “match” or “challenge” grant. For example: For the past two years, One22, a nonprofit focused on helping the Latino community, has conducted challenge grants in the spring, providing a fundraising boost during what’s traditionally a quieter philanthropic season in Jackson.
One22 Executive Director Sharel Lund said matching grants and challenges are used in a variety of strategic ways, whether to bring more supporters into an organization, meet an urgent need or build sustainability into a funding plan. One22’s first time using the model was spring 2018, when it launched a $100,000 challenge grant over the course of about a month.
Then, in spring 2019, five families agreed to give One22 $125,000 a year for three years if the nonprofit could find additional donors to commit to a matching three-year gift. That means the nonprofit, established in 2016, can count on $250,000 each year through 2020.
“For a new nonprofit like ours, which relies on individual donations for more than 90% of our annual operating budget, this sustained funding is hugely beneficial to our ability to plan ahead and deliver services with confidence,” Lund said.
Christina Kuzmych, general manager at Wyoming Public Media, said the radio station conducts “match” challenges on air during fund drives. Usually a donor will provide a gift of, say, $10,000, and stipulate the gift should be matched in a particular time frame. Kuzmych said the model is “very successful.”
“For one, the donor actually puts some skin into the game, and then, everyone likes a ‘challenge,’ especially if it’s happening live on their radio and they can hear it being made,” she said in an email. “People like to see success, and they like to be a part of that success. They also appreciate the donor who put up the money for that challenge. I often hear from people reminding me of so-and-so’s great challenge, and how much fun it was. Or, if they missed the end, they’ll ask if it was met.”
Tory Martin, director of communications and engagement at the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy, said match and challenge grants have always been a “tool in the tool belt of nonprofits and community organizations who are looking to drum up increased support.”
“With the rise of online giving in the last five or so years, especially things like Giving Tuesday and Facebook birthday fundraisers,” Martin said. “you do see a lot more peer-to-peer fundraising and using challenges and matches to say, ‘This person is giving, you should too, and that will increase your impact.’”
Martin said trends are showing that smaller donors are giving less, so it’s important to encourage volume of givers. “Being able to say you have 10 $5 givers instead of one $1,000 giver demonstrates a lot more community buy-in and a lot more culture of philanthropy in my community,” Martin said.
All the Save the Block high-dollar donors chose to remain anonymous. Wolfrom said they wanted the campaign to be a community effort.
“They didn’t want to be the person that saved the day,” she said.
Other match donors are named. One22’s 2018 drive was titled the Carole and Jack Nunn challenge grant, named for the donating family. Lund said donors placing their name on a grant means a lot, because it demonstrates a commitment to the nonprofit and encourages the donors’ peers to join in supporting it.
“It’s a real gift to the organization when an influencer in the community is willing to put their name on something,” Lund said.
As for the amount of the match grants, Lund said, it’s important to set a number that’s ambitious but doable.
“That’s part of the art of putting it together, is making sure that it’s a challenge, that it’s a stretch, but it is important to meet it,” Lund said.
Kuzmych said that to run a large grant number like $200,000, Wyoming Public Media would need to secure a specific gift tied to a specific purpose, like a targeted news desk or a new facility.
Wolfrom said the Land Trust would consider using the strategy again for “the right project.” Challenge grants can be useful for funding projects on a short timeline, Wolfrom said.
“It keeps people interested; it keeps people engaged,” she said.
Buying an easement on a large ranch might not garner the same kind of widespread support and engagement as saving the block, which drew communitywide support.
“If we have maybe a project that the community was really passionate about again, and we knew people would really get excited about, we would probably try to mimic that model,” she said.