News and analysis
March 20, 2015

March Madness Means Fundraising in Indianapolis and Louisville

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Brackets for Good is trying to capture some of the energy that goes toward the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, and favorites like the University of Kentucky Wildcats, and focus it on fundraising.

Louisville has caught March Madness fever.

Sure, people in Kentucky’s biggest city are thrilled that their state’s flagship college, the nearby University of Kentucky, is a top seed in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. But there’s another competition in town that’s riled up fundraisers at the city’s nonprofits: The Brackets for Good battle to see which organization can rake in the most money through donations and win the $10,000 grand prize.

Founded in Indianapolis in 2012, Brackets for Good is a nonprofit that hosts an online-giving tournament designed to tap into the energy generated by the annual college-basketball playoff’s high-stakes, single-elimination format.

The rules are simple: Every dollar donated to a participating charity earns it a point, and the charities with the most points at the end of each round advance until one wins the coveted grand prize, donated by a corporate sponsor. Eliminated charities get to keep all the money they raise.

And the returns are significant. Last year, the tournament raised $336,000 and 67 percent of the 2,513 people who gave were first-time donors to the organizations. The median gift was $30.

"It’s competitive giving: Everybody wins," said Matt McIntyre, co-founder and the only full-time employee of Brackets for Good, citing the organization’s slogan. Even if they don’t place first, nonprofits get "new donors, new marketing ability, a new way to ask, and awareness generated by competing against a more well-known charity."

New Group of Donors

This week is round three of the competitions, taking place in both Indianapolis and Louisville, and the 64 nonprofits selected to compete in each city have been winnowed down to 16. In Louisville, the city’s ballet is facing off against the Boys & Girls Clubs of Kentuckiana.

"This is a really great way to get people excited about philanthropy," said Charles Callihan II, director of development at Louisville Ballet. "We may not have a base really excited about March Madness, but they can get excited about us participating in something similar to it."

Having lived in Indianapolis, Mr. Callihan was familiar with the contest and was eager to apply when he heard it was expanding into Louisville. He has encouraged dancers and board members to ask people in their personal networks to give and is especially hoping to secure donations from people who might not otherwise contribute.

"It’s bringing a new sector of donors that might not ordinarily make a donation to our organization because they didn’t feel they could make a difference, but with this, they can," he said. "This is a great way to leverage a small gift for a really big gift."

Brackets for Good doesn’t just deliver dollars; it also provides information on new donors. Nonprofits get contact and demographic information about people who give, and Brackets for Good creates online "leader boards" with information gleaned from its data about donors’ age ranges, ZIP codes, and jobs.

And it’s not just new donors who want to get into the game.

"I thought this would be really targeted toward younger folks, but longtime donors are excited and want to help," Mr. Callihan said. "It captures attention and makes them feel like they can do something right now instead of waiting until December to write that $100 check."

Upping the Game

Brackets for Good embraces a sometimes-uncomfortable truth about nonprofit fundraising: It’s often a competition.

"In reality, they’re all competing, and no one would admit that," Mr. McIntyre said.

That starts with the selection process, which Mr. McIntyre acknowledges is partially subjective — much like the NCAA’s process.

"The same mysteriousness of the college sports Selection Sunday is kind of what we’re trying to emulate," Mr. McIntyre said.

More than 250 charities applied for the Indianapolis tournament, and nearly 100 applied in Louisville. To decide who gets to play, Brackets for Good asks applicants to fill out a survey about their "regular season" results, including their operating budget and programs. Additionally, the Brackets for Good board looks for applicants that are effective fundraisers and seem able to spread the word quickly about the tournament’s progress.

The organization tries to arrange the rounds fairly by creating divisions based on resource size, and it gives all participants access to what Mr. McIntyre called a "digital-marketing playhouse" with sample social-media posts, display ads, and referral tracking for links.

Mr. Callihan says the fundraising community in Louisville is enjoying the extra pressure the competition creates.

"I’m friends with my current competitor, the Boys & Girls club of Kentucky," he said. "Let’s see who can win."

And Jennifer Coffey, director of advancement at last year’s winning Indianapolis nonprofit, Partners in Housing, partially credits the stress for her organization’s victory. Including the grand prize, last year’s tournament brought Partners in Housing more than $70,000, which was 70 percent of its annual goal for individual giving.

"I am in competition with the other 63 nonprofits," Ms. Coffey said. "If a new donor goes to that page and is looking to see what all we are doing on social media, it makes me step up my game, be a better fundraiser, be a better steward of our donors’ money."

The suspense of watching the timer count down to 8 p.m. on Fridays, when the rounds end, seems to inspire donors, too.

"If you’re watching between 7:30 and 8 o’clock, I don’t know how a person can’t give," Ms. Coffey said. She attributes the fact that some donors give money during multiple rounds to that "last-minute need to win for all of us."

Organizations with that competitive spirit have proven most successful.

"To date we’ve always seen an upset, a Cinderella story," Mr. McIntyre said. "It’s never been the biggest organization that wins; it’s always been the most passionate."

In 2016, Brackets for Good has its eyes on expanding to three more areas: Cincinnati, the basketball-crazed Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area of North Carolina, and a third city yet to be determined.