The 24-hour Giving Challenge brings together thousands of donors to help charities across Sarasota, Manatee, Desoto and Charlotte counties. This year, the date for the 24-hour giving event—set well over a year ago—inadvertently found itself amist C who shall not be named. Uncertainty began to creep throughout the winter and spring months as situations elevated from China to Italy to New York. The more we learned each week about the international outbreak, and the closer it made its way to enveloping our little Suncoast bubble, deeper concern transpired. Soon enough, statewide safer-at-home orders and social-distancing mandates were placed. Businesses shut down, and a sudden economic downturn threatened the coming Giving Challenge.

Would it have the same response as previous years? Would it even have a response at all? But on April 28–29, from noon to noon, the community showed up round-the-clock in true philanthropic form. Donors of every class logged into their devices and responded with altruistic resiliency. Even those left unemployed and disrupted in their lives stepped up to give what they could afford. Across the virtual leaderboard, meaningful gifts culminated in milestone numbers in an outpouring of local support—$10.9 million of raised funds by 59,000 donors for 686 local nonprofits. With an additional $7.5 million match from The Patterson Foundation, the grand total clocked in at a remarkable $18.4 million. “Givers got to give,” said Jacobs.

“When people say, ‘People aren’t going to give during a pandemic,’ sorry, but we can prove you wrong, time and time again.” Being that The Giving Challenge has always been a virtual event helped passionate donors and nonprofit partners meet the moment with an unprecedented response—setting a new standard for generous giving. And it couldn’t have come at a more significant time. “Ultimately, the people served by our nonprofits are the true beneficiaries,” said Roxie Jerde, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. “Whether it is more food for the hungry, opportunities for our arts entities to nourish our soul with creativity or environmental groups to reconnect us with nature, all our nonprofit partners form a beautiful mosaic that makes our community so beloved.” 

Let’s Get Digital: Organizations were encouraged to “flex their creative muscles” by utilizing virtual strategies for their campaigns.

As all gatherings of more than 10 people were canceled, the prospect of pop-up giving stations and in-person events/fundraisers soon became a no-go. Organizations partaking in The Giving Challenge were thrown for a loop. They would have to step up their game and get resourceful and go virtual. From webinars, livestreams, chatrooms, digital trivia and virtual performances, organizations found ways to creatively connect the community to their mission, all while accommodating the evolving situation of our current reality. Activities of all kinds entered Suncoast’s cyberspace via YouTube videos, Instagram stories, Zoom and Facebook—including Mote Marine’s trivia night, Just For Girls’ bingo party and Dharma Footprint’s yogathon.

The founder of The Pops Orchestra channeled her inner James Corden, driving around town and recording herself singing car karaoke, while The Humane Society of Sarasota Co. posted hilariously cute photos on Instagram of dressed up pets on couches with popcorn and remote for movie night, hashtagging #DonateAndChill. Meanwhile, Operation Warrior Resolution taught us some mindful breathing exercises online, the WareHouse of Venice streamed a curbside cook-off, Manatee Literacy Council organized a scavenger hunt, and NewGate School and Harvest House hosted their own virtual talent shows. An organization that knows a thing or two about live shows is Urbanite Theatre. Normally, the most powerful promotional tool the small black-box theatre has for The Giving Challenge is their post-show curtain speech given by one of the actors. The brief, heartfelt declaration about why it’s so important is followed by postcard handouts with information as the audience exits.

“The biggest challenge we had this year was figuring out a way to get that personal connection, since all performances had to be canceled before we had a chance to start those speeches,” said Brendan Ragan, artistic director of Urbanite. Instead, the team offered free monologue coaching, free artist website critiques and free consulting to many artists in the industry. And in return, they asked if participants (and past volunteers) would share information on their behalf. “Making personal connections and establishing a small digital volunteer base made a big difference,” Ragan shared. “We didn’t want to simply ‘soapbox’ and post from our email and social platforms. It was critical to have a community of support advocating for us as well.” Nate’s Honor Animal Rescue usually focused on small, family-friendly events that celebrated its adopting families and working-class donors that support the rescue. “In years past, success in The Giving Challenge meant raising over $100,000 before the matching funds, said Nate’s Honor Certified Veterinary Technician Karissa Mayer.

“It meant teams of volunteers calling over 6,000 adopters every day for the two months leading up to the challenge, asking them to commit their support. This year, like so many organizations, we struggled with the knowledge that many of our donors may now need our support services.” Nate’s decided to scale back its campaign and focused on spreading positivity and sharing the successes it has made—including funny videos of talking cats and dogs, and videos of animals overcoming great obstacles. But most importantly, it kept its campaign to one simple ask. “We asked our community to take care of themselves,” said Mayer, “take care of their neighbors, and take care of the animals in the community.” And the Girl Scouts of Gulfcoast Florida? They’re nothing if not resourceful. In March, Girl Scouts sent cards, letters and drawings to local nursing homes/assisted living facilities to help brighten the days of residents isolated during quarantine.

While brainstorming for virtual Giving Challenge event ideas, the council felt inspired by this to organize a live, online sing-along for a nursing home—partnering with HarborChase of Sarasota and its residents. “It was the perfect opportunity to bring multiple generations together, sparking fond, old memories while making new ones,” said Patricia Ramthun of Girl Scouts of Gulfcoast Florida. “The Giving Challenge is all about bringing people together to celebrate philanthropy and giving back to the community, and the sing-along perfectly embodied that ideal. It takes more than a pandemic to dampen the Girl Scouts spirit!” First-time participants in The Giving Challenge, The Bay Park Conservancy developed a virtual campaign dubbed #IHeartTheBay.

“We shifted our focus to be social media-driven with a strong reliance on video content,” said A.G. Lafley, startup CEO, and Veronica Brady, director of Advancement, The Bay Park Conservancy. “We asked our volunteer fundraisers and board members to create videos telling viewers why they love The Bay and why potential donors should show their love.” The Bay also heavily engaged with all of its followers on social media throughout the 24 hours of the challenge, ensuring shared posts and hourly follower engagement. “The outpouring of support for all nonprofits in our region, especially during these difficult times, is truly evidence of our strong, resilient, philanthropic community,” Lafley and Brady said.

“We are thrilled to have been a part of this momentous day!” For The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 2020’s Giving Challenge was scheduled to include an on-site campaign with signage throughout the 66-acre campus, with a goal of targeting guests during the two-day period. In addition, it was going to utilize Ringling interns in videos highlighting some of the areas of greatest need. After its forced closure on March 17, it pivoted itsr entire outreach and education effort to a virtual platform. “We revised our campaign to focus on how we are actively engaged in protecting and maintaining Sarasota’s gem,” said Senior Development Director John Melleky. “The campaign now relied heavily on our email communications and was included in our weekly updates of our new virtual content, ‘Museum from Home.’” In addition, Ringling utilized Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn to promote The Giving Challenge.

“The results were outstanding,” Melleky noted, “We raised 67 percent more in total dollars compared to the 2018 Challenge, increased our social media presence by over 1,220 individuals and had an overall average engagement with our social media posts of 5.1 percent.” Meanwhile, The Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County went in another direction. Historically, the arts organizations enjoyed hosting an event at its gallery space during The Giving Challenge. “Due to COVID-19, events were no longer an option for us; however, we still wanted to create something that wasn’t virtual,” said Andrea Knies, communications director.

“We ended up having life-size cardboard cutouts made of our executive director, Jim Shirley. These ‘Flat Jims’ were able to move around town throughout The Giving Challenge and bring a smile to people’s faces.” Which they certainly did. As social distancing has left many of us craving to feel closer and more connected to our local communities, it’s meant becoming a part of something bigger that unites our entire region. “I think this serves as a timely reminder for us all,” said Jerde, “that the spirit of the 2020 Giving Challenge endures long after the ticker hits noon and the totals are tallied.” SRQ