Jim Kenyon: The Charity Thunderdome, brought to you by Ledyard National Bank

Valley News Columnist
Published: 10/17/2021 7:34:15 AM
Modified: 10/17/2021 7:34:17 AM

Competition is healthy, right? Certainly when it comes to sports, political races and most industries.

But a competition that pits charitable organizations against each other for prize money? It sounds more like a reality TV concoction than philanthropy.

Earlier this month, Ledyard National Bank launched its “30th anniversary charitable contest” that features 10 nonprofits vying for $30,000 in cash, including $10,000 to the winner.

Ledyard officials handpicked the contestants, asking each nonprofit to submit a two- to three-minute video highlighting their mission and good deeds.

The videos can be found at ledyardbank.com, and the public is invited to “watch and vote” on Facebook. The nonprofit that receives the most likes before voting ends Friday captures the grand prize. Facebook users can like multiple videos, but cast only one vote for each nonprofit.

In other words, there’s no ballot stuffing. But that doesn’t guarantee a level playing field. I doubt that many people will spend the 30 minutes or so that it takes to watch all 10 videos before making an informed decision.

So instead of the winner being decided on merit (or at least, the nonprofit’s filmmaking skills), it’s shaping up as a popularity contest. The more successful a nonprofit is at rallying its base, the better its chances of winning.

The contest has a David vs. Goliath feel. Larger nonprofits such as the Upper Valley Haven and Listen are squaring off against Dismas House, Good Neighbor Health Clinics and a couple other lower-profile organizations.

Dismas, which has a 10-bed house in Hartford Village that offers affordable room and board to people coming out of Vermont prisons, is “up for challenge,” said Jeff Backus, Dismas’ house director.

Backus told me he’s heard “conflicting opinions” about whether the contest is a good idea. Some people are “reluctant to make nonprofits compete against each other,” he said.

In its video, Dismas was careful not to say that it wanted to “win” the contest, but was looking for support in helping “secure” the $10,000 top prize, Backus said.

“Personally, I like a little competition,” he said. “It’s a chance for us to show off our energy and enthusiasm.”

As of Friday, Dismas held a slight lead in the contest, which Backus credited to the organization reaching out on Twitter and Instagram to its supporters, asking them to “spread the word.”

While I see the competition as a cross between American Idol and Hunger Games, Ledyard Bank obviously doesn’t view it that way. Jeff Marks, the bank’s chief marketing officer, told me that it’s intended to be a friendly competition between community organizations that “all know each other.”

Ledyard has staged the event two previous times — on its 20th anniversary in 2011 and 25th anniversary in 2016. Both featured five nonprofits competing for less prize money. This year, the contest was expanded to include three nonprofits from Concord, where Ledyard opened an office in 2016.

The bank went into its first contest thinking it would be winner-take-all, but quickly figured out that “every organization should get something,” Marks said.

This year, second place is worth $7,500. Third- and fourth-place finishers receive $4,000 and $2,500, respectively. The bottom six get $1,000 each.

The bank is running radio spots that highlight each nonprofit and — let’s face it — pat itself on the back for being community-minded. (Ledyard has also bought advertising in the Valley News to promote the contest.)

To its credit, Ledyard limited the contest to nonprofits with a social bent, including a Concord soup kitchen and several other organizations that aid the homeless. Ledyard wanted the campaign to support nonprofits that “focus on the low- and moderate-income segments of our population,” Marks said.

Still Ledyard played it safe. With women’s reproductive rights under attack nationally, how great would it have been for Ledyard to include Planned Parenthood in White River Junction in the contest?

But in these polarized times, I imagine Planned Parenthood is too much of a lightning rod for button-down bankers. Why risk alienating any of their wealth management clients?

Although a contest that has nonprofits battling each other for much-needed dollars has too much of a cage-fighting vibe for my tastes, I’m sure plenty of people disagree.

Last week, I checked in with John Vogel, a retired professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business whose areas of expertise include nonprofit management.

I was curious to get his take.

“I did watch a couple of videos and have mixed feelings about the contest,” he wrote in an email. “I like the fact that Ledyard is celebrating its 30 years by giving away $30,000 to worthy nonprofit organizations. And maybe by watching the videos it will raise awareness of who these nonprofit organizations are and what they do.

“What troubles me is the amount of staff time that will be spent on this contest. I would rather have the staff focused on their mission of building affordable houses, feeding the homeless and caring for their patients.”

Instead of a Facebook contest based on who gets the most likes, Ledyard could have taken a page out of the Jack and Dorothy Byrne Foundation’s “playbook,” he said. The bank could have challenged the public to step up, offering to match dollar-for-dollar every $50 contribution by the first 600 donors.

Instead of splitting $30,000, the nonprofits could be divvying up $60,000.

That’s easy to like.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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