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The Panhandle Gives is a fundraising juggernaut. This nine-day charitable giving campaign, which concludes on Giving Tuesday each year, gives nonprofits a high-profile platform for end-of-year fundraising, along with an amplification fund to make each donation go further. 

Administered by the Amarillo Area Foundation, the 2023 campaign broke records, raising more than $9.6 million from 6,000-plus donors, exceeding the 2023 goal. And that’s after blowing past goals in previous years. The success has put the campaign on the radar of the global Giving Tuesday network, whose North America hub regularly brings in Foundation staff to talk about their work and the generosity of this region. 

In mid-December, Brick & Elm sat down with Amarillo Area Foundation leaders to learn how the campaign began and has evolved over the years. Participating in our discussion were Amarillo Area Foundation CEO Clay Stribling, Senior Vice President Keralee Clay, Marketing Director and The Panhandle Gives Campaign Director Broc Carter, and Amy Lovell, former AAF Director of Development who is now Executive Director of The Turn Center.

Their conversation—which began with the question, “What initially sparked the idea for The Panhandle Gives?”—has been edited for length and clarity.

Clay Stribling: We’d had conversations going back almost to the beginning of my tenure in 2011 about how we would be involved with Giving Tuesday and get a Giving Day going in our region. In 2014, we were really trying to raise money for the ACE scholarship program. [The Amarillo College program is now named Thrive]. We called it ACEgiving Day. We rented out the Civic Center and hired bands. We had a chili cook-off. We did everything. And in the end, it came across as very … gimmicky? And we didn’t raise much money, if any. Once we covered our expenses, it was nickels and dimes.

Broc Carter: Nonprofits were talking to the Foundation about Giving Tuesday in 2016. It had grown. Clay said, ‘We can do some kind of campaign, but we’re not spending any money on it. I have learned that lesson from ACEGiving Day.’ But it was still, like, Is this going to be a trend? We thought, what if we just sent everybody to the giving pages of each organization that was participating, and see what happened? That was the first year. 

Amy Lovell: That’s the year you branded it. You came up with
the name.

Broc: We came up with The Panhandle Gives and we did the hashtag. We were going to go with “Amarillo Gives,” but we serve all 26 counties of the Texas Panhandle.

Keralee Clay: We built a page on our website that basically pointed to [nonprofits’] giving pages. We were reliant on their tech. It was not a level playing field. It became whoever had the best online [donation system] for their organization. We learned if we’re going to do this right, we’d have to make sure everybody had the right tools.

Clay: This might have been the origin of me using the phrase “peppy and cheap.”

Broc: That is classic Clay. 

Amy: I was at the Armstrong County Museum at the time. We participated as an organization. We gave [AAF] our logo and a link. We were one of the tiny ones whose giving pages probably didn’t work as well as the more sophisticated online [platforms]. But it felt like a great opportunity for a small organization to join with larger, more well-known organizations.

Broc: It was literally just prompting people to give on Giving Tuesday. Just public awareness.

Amy: I didn’t even know what Giving Tuesday was.

Around 70 organizations participated that first year, but the Foundation was unable to track the total giving amount. By 2017, the Giving Tuesday campaign had become more organized. 

Broc: We didn’t even know how much money we raised that first year. We just wanted to see if this was the place for a giving day.

Clay: We saw potential but knew that relying on a [website] landing page was not going to do it. We were going to have to do something a little bit more in–depth and elaborate. That cost money. It definitely wasn’t “peppy and cheap.”

Keralee: It was peppy.

Amy: In 2017, we just took sponsorship money and divided it equally among the organizations that participated.

The 2017 campaign raised $172,000 for 55 nonprofits and distributed $10,000 in sponsorship funds. Lovell joined the Foundation and, in 2018, had become the organization’s Panhandle Gives leader. From a local bank, the team learned that Lubbock was hosting a Giving Day that used an amplification fund model. They were intrigued.

Broc: We had learned about Lubbock’s model too late to implement it, but we were talking about it for 2018. A lot of giving days do matches. But the problem with matches is that they’re gone [snap] like that. 

Clay: Even if you have a $200,000 match, that motivates people to put $200,000 in. After that, the motivation to get any bonus is gone.

Broc: The amplification model allows them to accrue dollars and percentages of gifts—so you never really know where that’s going to end up. 

Amy: We wanted to test it. Having just come from a tiny organization, I knew it would be equitable: The more you raise, the more you get. But the more you raise, probably the bigger you are and the more you need. 

The 2018 campaign took place over nine days leading up to Giving Tuesday. It brought in $865,120 for 108 participating organizations, with an amplification fund offering an extra 20 cents on the dollar. But another major shift happened before that year’s campaign.

Broc: In January [2018], we got a call from the Giving Tuesday organization. They had noticed our campaign—they were tracking #givingtuesday hashtags—and invited me, Keralee and Amy to Dallas for a community leaders conference. We didn’t know what to expect. It was bigger than any of us realized. 

Amy: “New power!”—

Keralee: One of the Giving Tuesday founders, Henry Timms, had written a book called New Power, and it really got us thinking. It was a shift for our entire organization that went beyond The Panhandle Gives. 

Broc: We were old power. It was literally in the book: Community foundations are old power. A few people control the flow of dollars. 

Amy: Ouch.

Broc: That does not feel good.

Keralee: [Timms talked about] that shift of how we get the power to the nonprofits to do the work themselves. It’s not us saying, “We can help you raise money.” It’s more about how can we empower you and give you the tools you need to do the work yourself?

Broc: One of the things they said at that conference that I quote to myself every year during The Panhandle Gives is “Leave your ego and your logos at the door.” How do we open the door for them to walk through it for themselves?

Amy: We let go of all control. 

Keralee: That’s when we created the logo for The Panhandle Gives, and we took the Foundation out of it.

Broc: We wanted the organizations to be the star. It was tough at first.

Clay: It also had the advantage of allowing us to have relationships with organizations who, for whatever reason, had tension or frustrations with the Foundation. Maybe we hadn’t awarded a grant to them—

Keralee: —or they were too small for a grant from us, or didn’t have the people power to do it.

Clay: Early on, I didn’t necessarily see the power of The Panhandle Gives brand taking over, but it was brilliant in separating the Foundation [from both the campaign and those frustrations].

Local television stations got involved in 2018 and local banks became partners with the campaign. In November 2019, The Panhandle Gives raised nearly $1.8 million for 132 organizations, with $300,000 given out in amplification funds. It was beginning to surge. Then the pandemic arrived. The Foundation spent 2020 giving emergency grants to keep essential nonprofits afloat as they met local needs. As the campaign arrived in late November, a deadly surge of COVID-19 cases put Amarillo in the national news. The Panhandle Gives still brought in a record $3.5 million for 154 participating nonprofits.

Clay: From my standpoint, the totals surprise me every year, but the year it absolutely floored me was 2020. 

Keralee: We’d already been doing so much disaster-relief funding.

Broc: We were all working from home. 

Clay: What I didn’t understand was that there was an enormous, pent–up desire to give during 2020 because we’d had no events. There’d been no fundraisers, no Symphony Ball, none of those things. There was a surplus of money, and it just flowed. It was unbelievable.

Broc: And that was the year organizations understood how to talk to their donors better, and to line up gifts in the fourth quarter, during the campaign, so they’d get amplification. That was the first year the amplification fund was over half a million.

Amy: COVID made it where people understood how to talk to their donors. They want to know what’s the need and how is my money going to help that need?

Clay: We got very used to digital commerce during that period of time. It was not a problem to log on and give to charity.

Keralee: That was the first year we covered [credit card] fees.

Clay: Paying for the credit card fees was an enormous jump [forward] because we were going to get so many online gifts, but also because it gave Broc the ability to message that 100 percent of what you give is flowing to the community. The Foundation isn’t keeping anything. Everything passes through. It was a powerful message.

Amy: It was the responsible thing to do to promote online giving. We were fielding questions like “Why are y’all doing this? What is the Foundation getting out of this?” It was driving it home that this is just to benefit the organizations.

Broc: [The campaign] costs a lot of dollars for us, but we do not make any money from it. It aligns with our mission to elevate philanthropy. Our mission is to—

Clay: [quoting] “Improve quality of life for Texas Panhandle residents.”

Broc: And quality of life is often elevated through nonprofit organizations.

The 2021 campaign broke another record with more than $5.1 million in gifts, followed by a blowout year in 2022. After the Foundation set a goal of $5.3 million, donors gave in excess of $8,892,000 to 214 participating organizations, with $819,000 in amplification.

Amy: To me, it provides such a nice balance [for AAF] because now there’s two ways to get money. One of them is to qualify for the areas they have chosen to support [through grants], and you go through a pretty rigorous process of reporting—and rightfully so. On the other hand, The Panhandle Gives [money] is unrestricted. We trust the organizations. We know you’re doing good work across the Panhandle. That’s the new power.

Broc: And I want to be clear about unrestricted dollars. There are very few restrictions on The Panhandle Gives dollars. You have to be an organization impacting lives, people, animals in the top 26 counties of the Panhandle. Grant funding is for a specific purpose, but “unrestricted” means they can use it at their discretion, if they need to add a program, upgrade technology—

Clay: —pay the light bill. It doesn’t matter.

Broc: And we already had a mechanism for vetting organizations, so when those organizations register for The Panhandle Gives, donors know that we have vetted them. It lowered the bar for people to come to the Foundation. We had organizations participating that we didn’t even know existed, and two or three years down the road, they’re getting a grant from our discretionary funding cycle.

Clay: It’s about escaping the perception of only being an old power organization, making them understand we’re not the stodgy old 1950s community foundation that you’re used to. 

Broc: The Panhandle Gives gave us transactional granting to relational granting because we’ve built relationships with these [organizations]. 

On the last day of the 2023 campaign, total gifts were still several thousand dollars short of the goal of $8.9 million. 

Broc: Every October, when Amy and I were working together, we were like, “I don’t think we can hit the goal.” I mean, we just panic. And it’s because I think for a long time, the goal had no science behind it. It was just—

Keralee: —do better than last year.

Broc: There’s still not a lot of science behind it. 

Clay: For years, I was frustrated with establishing a goal and then just blowing the doors off of it, but it’s just so uncertain. Genuinely, I woke up Monday morning [Nov. 28, 2023] and came in saying, “We need to work on talking points for when we don’t hit the goal.”

Keralee: We were like, “No! No negativity!”

Broc: It was very stressful. But we know one year, it’s not gonna grow. That’s the nature of things like this. 

The 2023 campaign surged on the final day, with a final total of $9,636,024 given to 207 organizations. Donations came from 45 states and the District of Columbia. 

Clay: The one thing it has taught me is how ridiculously generous this community is. Every year [the total] surprises me, and shame on me for being surprised. 

Amy: And from an organization standpoint [with The Turn Center], it’s not just the money that we raise. It’s a chance to tell our story. Everybody’s board is saying, “How are we going to get new donors? How will we get these younger people involved?” This is the way. We get more new donors in nine days than we do the rest of the year. That is very valuable beyond just the number of dollars you raise.

Clay: The way old power raised money was to find people with big bank accounts and ask them to write us a check. If you would have told me at the beginning that we would raise $9.6 million [in 2023], I might have been able to reconcile it by thinking maybe 16 people would give us half a million dollars [each]. I would never have believed we would have 10,000 gifts. 

Broc: We have 228 organizations participating and that’s a PR machine. The marketing doesn’t rest on our shoulders. It really has created its own culture.

Keralee: Even what it’s done for our staff. We joke that this is the little campaign that has outgrown our team. When we first started, it was just the three of us. And now this entire organization has to shut down for nine days. Everyone’s entering gifts. Clay’s on every news channel all day. We have lunch together. We all put the tally up on our big screen and cheer for it. Internally, it’s been such a cool, culture-building event.

Clay: One of the things we say internally a lot here is “Don’t be afraid to fail.” This campaign epitomizes that more than anything else we’ve done during the time I’ve been here. We’ve innovated it in small and large ways almost every year. We’ve made changes that had an enormous impact, and we’ll probably make an enormous change before next year. We don’t know what it is yet. But I think the fearlessness of trying to grow this campaign has led to a lot of the growth. We’re not afraid if we miss the goal. If you do miss the goal—as an organization or the whole campaign—you’ve still won.