Nonprofits Make Their Own March Madness

From apples to endangered species, the college basketball tournament has inspired groups to launch their own brackets for fundraising and awareness.

March can be a lonely month at the office for those who aren’t into college basketball. But even if you’re not following March Madness—which officially kicks off with Selection Sunday this weekend—you might be intrigued by how nonprofits are experimenting with ways to apply some gamification to their missions by taking advantage of the excitement stoked by the annual tournament.

Last week, for instance, the U.S. Apple Association launched Apple Madness, which pits 36 varieties against each other in a series of month-long matchups that will ultimately crown “America’s favorite apple.” To boost interest beyond Granny Smith versus Fuji or Honeycrisp versus Golden Delicious, USAA is also offering prizes during the event from some of its member associations across the country. In a release, the Washington Apple Commission’s Lindsey Huber called it “a great way to involve our domestic and international consumers in a fun U.S. sports tradition.”

We’re really making funds available no strings attached … because we know how hard it is for our community programs to raise funds.

Elsewhere, the Partnership for Better Health, a Pennsylvania wellness nonprofit, has launched Match Madness, which encourages 16 nonprofit organizations to compete to receive a portion of a $50,000 stretch pool, proportionately distributed based on the funds each organization raises during the event. PBH executive director Becca Raley told the Sentinel that the March Madness-themed activity is a way to make fundraising both simpler and more fun.

“For us, this is really different. Typically when we make grants to local nonprofits we require a grant application, interim report, final report,” she says. “For the first time we’re really making funds available no strings attached, and we’re doing that because we know how hard it is for our community programs to raise funds for core operating support.”

Such brackets have a history of fueling awareness and donations. Last year, the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International partnered with the group TakePart to create an Endangered Species Bracket Challenge, which allowed site visitors to vote among 16 species. Online votes for the winner (the Mexican grey wolf) brought $5,000 in donations to Conservation International. In 2014, Associations Now reported on one Indiana nonprofit whose “Grant Madness” event helped distributed $5,000 in funds.

March Madness-style brackets have been used to winnow down everything from bank CEOs to favorite characters from The Wire to saddest rock songs to favorite mammals, but there’s some serious business underneath all that bracketology. According to the American Gaming Association, last year’s NCAA basketball tournament prompted Americans to bet more than $2 billion on 70 million brackets. That can do a number on office productivity, but in 2013 we shared some tips on getting things done during the games.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!