We’ve all heard the spiel:

“We have a special opportunity for those of you who want to leverage your gift today! Thanks to a few generous donors, we are offering a match for all gifts over $150.  So if you can stretch to $150, that really means $300 for the organization!” 

It sounds great to double your money, but does this promise really hold up?  More often than not,  those “matching pools” are nothing more than a list of committed donors whose predictable (and fungible!) annual gifts have simply been counted towards some “virtual” matching fund.  If the major donors consent to be included, and if the gifts in that “fund” total more than the amount that comes in on the day of the lunch, the organization feels free to say that those luncheon gifts have been “matched” — even if those “matching” checks were already written, or would have been written anyway.  There are exceptions, but our experience is that most of the major donors advertised in a “matching pool” do not intend to give more based on what others gave at an event.

How do we know this happens? Because as donors, Julie and I have been asked to participate in matching pools like this many times — and more times than we would like to admit, we have agreed to take part. After all, everybody’s doing it…
Well, it’s true, this practice has become rampant.  And many donors will tell you they know most matches are fake.  But the fact that it’s common doesn’t make it right.

Isn’t this pretty much lying to donors?

Here’s how we see it:

The luncheon donor makes her gift with the belief that something significantly different will happen for the organization if she makes a larger gift.  And why does she believe that? Because someone just got up on the podium and told her it was true! But contrary to what they have just announced, in reality, the organization will likely receive no new funds as a result of this donor making a stretch gift.  How can this be ethical?  If good fundraising is really about relationship building, how can we treat our supporters, our friends, like this?

I first started thinking about this issue of “false” matching one time when my parents joined me at a fundraiser for an organization where I was on the board.  At that event, it was announced that gifts from new donors would be matched one for one, and my in-from-out-of-town dad stepped up, mentioning several times that he was thrilled that his gift would “actually be doubled!!”  Sitting there next to my excited dad and knowing that it wasn’t really true, I felt like I was being dishonest.   Julie and I have a theory about fundraising:  if it feels bad, you are probably doing something wrong.  And maybe since it was my own mom and dad it really hit home: this feels bad.

Three cheers for REAL matches

The real irony is that genuine matches are not only more ethical and honest, they are also much more effective at raising money.  Here’s why:  a genuine match, where one person writes a check for a different amount depending on what others have given, creates leverage in 3 ways:

  1. It creates an incentive for staff, board members, table captains or other “askers” to really beat the bushes to encourage the donors to attend and give at the event. After all, no one wants to leave that matching money on the table.
  2. Naturally, it creates an incentive for event attendees (like my dad!)  to give more.
  3. If the team is successful at #1 and #2, it results in a bigger gift than the “matcher” may have otherwise given – in other words, the major donor really stretches, just as everyone else at the table did.

A real match, therefore, is a “win-win-win”, with all three players (asker, donor, and matcher) putting themselves out there for the organization.  With fake matching, only #2 is operational – and only because we have misrepresented what is really happening!  Much of the potential power of the match is lost.

So if genuine matching is so much better, why don’t more organizations do it?  Probably because genuine matches involve a lot more work to set up: they require a special ask of a donor or donors, and then there need to be conversations about limits and conditions, not to mention dealing with the accounting after the fact, especially if you are dealing with a pool of “matchers”.  While that can all be complicated, remember that it also provides a unique opportunity to make a “stretch” ask of a major donor who might have been stuck at a certain level for a long time.  And the truth is, sometimes doing something the right way just takes a little more effort.

“When philanthropy is working, everyone is happier.”

This is one of our favorite quotes, and a match done well really proves its truth.  With real matches, your donors are happy that their gifts are doubled,  your “matchers”  are happy to be encouraging others to join them in the cause, and your organization is thrilled that everyone is stretching on your behalf.  And best of all, we can all sleep better knowing we’re being honest with our donors.

What do you think? Are we overreacting? Or are you ready to join us in a “Real Match Revolution?”