Category Archives: Online Fundraising

When Crowdfunding Fails, It Can Fail Big

bees and hiveIf a nonprofit sends out a direct mail appeal for funding and no one answers it, who will ever know? Except for some long faces in the hallway and somber analyses at the next board meeting, the matter may attract little attention.

Not so with online crowdfunding. When you set that financial goal and try to rally community support and some social networking buzz around it, you guarantee that everyone will know — or at least be easily able to find out — whether you ultimately make it.

In fact, with some crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, you have to actually offer donors their money back if you don’t make the goal.

Unfortunately, even the big-name nonprofits are discovering that crowdfunding fails happen.

A recent article by Elizabeth Olson in The New York Times called “Soliciting Funds From the Crowd? Results Will Vary,” highlighted this issue in the context of  museums. The Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, for example, tried to raise $35,000 via Causes.com to support bringing one of Ai Weiwei’s sculptures in for an exhibit of his work.

A mere 14 people ponied up, with donations totaling $555. Ouch. (Funny, I couldn’t find mention of this on the Hirshhorn’s own website.)

Olson’s article offers what must be some of the pithiest quotes ever garnered on the frustrations of crowdfunding, such as, “Everyone wants to do it, but the amount of work involved is enormous, whether it’s to raise $10,000 or $100,000 (Yoonheung Lee, director of digital philanthropy at the Smithsonian) and ”It’s not just putting up a page on the Internet and hoping people will come” (Lesley Mansford, chief executive of Razoo).

Making a crowdfunding campaign work seems to require a combination of preparation, cleverness, and luck. No one can control the luck part, but you can work on the others, for example using the guidance in Nolo’s article, “Using Crowdfunding to Raise Money for Your Nonprofit.”

 

Three’s Not a Crowd After All!

iStock_000006257328XSmall-thumb-184x121I’ve got a great answer if people are asking you why your nonprofit hasn’t tried crowdfunding yet: Tell ‘em you’ve been waiting for others to put in the tough advance work — making the inevitable mistakes and figuring out what’s effective and what isn’t!

But guess what: A lot of that advance work has now been done. Crowdfunding is proving to be an important tool in the fundraiser’s kit, but one that’s best used after reading the instructions. You’ll find numerous useful insights from early adopters and other nonprofit experts in this article by Janna Finch, Managing Editor of Software Advice: “Expert Roundtable: How to Choose the Best Crowdfunding Platform for Your Nonprofit.”

Contributors such as Beth Kanter, Premel Shah, and Rob Wu offer tips on everything from evaluating features on the various crowdfunding sites to how to give donors a sense of participation in the project.

I asked Janna Finch which thoughts from contributors she found the most surprising. She says, “I was very surprised to learn just how much thought and planning needs to go into designing a campaign and choosing a platform. Go to any crowdfunding platform website and the process looks so simple–sign up, create a campaign, launch it, share it, get funded. In reality it’s not so easy. Anyone can create a crowdfunding campaign, but a solid strategy is required to create a successful one.”

Fundraising Kudos to: PFAW, for Emailed Holiday Wish List

fireWith all the “noise” of incoming emails from nonprofits and retailers alike, it’s a miracle that anything short of a fire alarm (plus smoke) can catch my attention these days.

But a recent email from People for the American Way (PFAW), with the subject line, “Holiday Wish List,” created just enough curiousity in my addled pre-vacation brain to induce me to click and open it.

And that already means they cleared a huge hurdle. The rate at which people open nonprofit emails is low — around 27%, according to a Silverpop survey for 2013.

Inside, I found the following message:

Holiday wish list:

  • A constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United
  • Good judges confirmed and the end of right-wing dominance of the federal courts
  • Full equality for LGBT Americans and their families
  • Safeguards for voting rights and women’s health
  • TEA PARTY EXTREMISTS DEFEATED AT THE POLLS!!!

Ilona, We’ll be working our tails off to fulfill these wishes in the coming year.

Help us do it by renewing your PFAW membership for 2014 with a generous donation now.

Its a mercifully short message, with some pretty compelling material. Here’s what I think the group did right:

  • Surprise the reader a bit — I was expecting a wish list like, “Please someone send us a new laser printer,” or “Our clients desperately need x-and-such.”
  • A hook to current events. Instead of just repeating their mission, they put it in terms of holiday wishes.
  • A concise, jargon-free reminder of their mission and work. This gets left out of nonprofit email messages more than one might expect.
  • An ask! (Gotta have the ask.)

Contrast this with an email I received from another nonprofit lately, which says only, “Pretty much of a donations disaster at this point, a record bad fundraising day. We need so few of you to contribute to make this work. Who will step up? Now is the time.”

Which group would you support, if you believed in both causes equally? (And I haven’t even named the second group, because I don’t wish to beat up on them.) Most donors would rather give to the group with an upbeat, clever message; which may, in fact, explain the second group’s “donations disaster.”

Do Donation “Discounts” Devalue Nonprofit Brand?

stormThere’s a winter storm coming in, and I’m not talking about the weather. It’s the relentless flurry of emails from both commercial and nonprofit marketers, all wanting to get my attention and hopefully the last of my end-of-year dollars for either gifts to people or gifts to charity.

They’re all starting to sound bizarrely similar, especially when it comes to “discounts.”  Taglines like “Adopt a wild animal for 50% off!” or “Membership half price through 2013!” are not uncommon.

I get it that, in some cases, you’re literally getting something for less, like a regular newsletter reporting on the nonprofit’s doings. But in others, the nonprofit is actually promising to provide the same service for less money. And that’s disturbing, when our whole notion of nonprofits is that when they ask for something, or tell us, “It takes $x to save a wild animal,” they didn’t build in a profit margin. They’re a nonprofit, after all.

I assume that someone out there is testing these supposed discounts, and that they work to get email readers’ attention. But what are the long-term implications of convincing donors that, like a for-profit company, your original “price” was just puffery, and you’re actually willing to do the job for less? I predict some rough sailing ahead.

Best Email Subject Lines From Nonprofits

pirate msgLast week’s pirate-themed email from Oceana has got me keeping a watchful eye on other nonprofits’ email subject lines, to see which can best capture readers’ attention without the use of pirate lingo. (It’s thematic only one day out of the year, after all. Arrr.)

I had to open a recent email titled, “It’s time to take care of the bottom‏,” from Shotgun Players (a Berkeley-based theater company). I thought the wording was some sort of faux pas, oops thing, but no, they’re raising money for seat cushions and a new toilet.  So, give them credit for humor, taking a chance, and curbing my “delete without reading” impulse.

“Your tax dollars at work — killing wildlife‏,” from the NRDC, was also one I had to click on. The heavy sarcasm caught my eye, not to mention that it raised a question to which I needed to know the answer. (In case you are similarly curious, the first line of the email explained, “A little-known government agency called Wildlife Services is killing thousands of wild animals every year — and you and I are picking up the tab.”)

“Big Tobacco: Get your butts out of our Bay‏,” from Save the Bay, wasn’t bad either.

From Greenpeace, the heading, “BREAKING: Russia holding Greenpeace activists at gunpoint in the Arctic‏” was one I certainly couldn’t ignore. If your nonprofit has news like that, post it while it’s fresh and you can speak in the present tense!

So let’s see, humor, sarcasm, humor, and urgency. There’s a pattern here, at least regarding what I respond to. As to what I don’t? Well, I still don’t know what’s in the email entitled “This will make you furious.” Yes, it raises a question (“What could be worse than what I’ve already heard?”) but frankly, there’s already plenty that makes me furious. I don’t want to add to the list.

Fundraising Kudos to Oceana, for Riffing Off “Talk Like a Pirate” Day

treasure chestOne of the first items to land in my email inbox this morning had the subject line, “Avast! Was your seafood caught by pirates?‏” As Oceana went on to explain (and anyone who’s on Facebook already knew), today is International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

The email went on to say that, “It’s all in good fun, but how can we celebrate when there are real pirates out there scooping up our fish?”

Oceana is dealing with an issue that’s ongoing — but it managed to use a topical, and even humorous hook to get readers to think about it in a new way. That’s an ongoing, even daily challenge for any organization trying to use email or social media to get its message out. Let’s hope their strategy brings in lots of pieces of eight.

Study of Kids’ Giving Patterns Raises New Questions

kidPlenty of surprising statistics can be found in the recent study known as Women Give 2013, New Research on Charitable Giving by Girls and Boys, conducted by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Most notably:

  • Nearly nine out of ten children between the ages of eight and 19 have given at least some small amount to charity in at least two of the previous several years.
  • Around six out of ten girls had volunteered at least once during the relevant time periods, and five out of ten boys.

Too bad we can’t predict how many of these kids will go on to become charitable donors in adulthood. I’d hazard a guess that the numbers will drop off as soon as they’re in college and facing tuition and other bills, but that’s just a guess. In fact, there are a lot of other things that we might wonder about but can only guess at, such as:

  • Why are giving levels so high among the young? Speculating about this isn’t too difficult — kids take part in numerous organized activities through school and church, and some of these may involve giving to a charity. Also, use of social media may mean their friends ask them to give to a cause.
  • Why do girls volunteer more than boys? One could easily speculate about adults — there’s a long tradition of women volunteering, based in good part on their history of staying out of the workforce for some period of time while raising children. But young girls are far away from such social structuredness. What’s up?
  • How can nonprofits foster continued interest in charitable giving among these children? One factor, unfortunately, is somewhat out of our hands: The study found that when parents actually talk to their children about charitable giving, beyond just modeling giving behavior, it made a big difference in the kids’ likelihood of making donations. But nonprofits can certainly remind parents, via social media sites or newsletters, to talk to their children about their reasons for giving.

Because this study is new, we don’t know whether today’s adults come from a similar history of childhood giving. But as the children in this study themselves grow up, nonprofits can act with the knowledge that the concept of supporting a good cause is not a new one for them.

Setbacks and Emergencies? Turn to Crowdfunding

One of the issues that established nonprofits sometimes have in taking advantage of crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter, Fundraise.comRazoo, or indiegogo is that most of their projects are ongoing. They lack the time-delimited, snazzy, “Hey, with your help, look what we can achieve!” allure of, say, an artist who’s trying to raise money for a film, or even a small group trying to raise enough to buy its first piece of equipment.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that you can’t be creative in thinking up bite-size portions of your work or projects that your social networks might support, as described in, “Using Crowdfunding to Raise Money for Your Nonprofit.” But there’s one type of occasion in which hardly any creativity is required: when your group has suffered some sort of setback, or has an identifiable, emergency need for a quick cash infusion.

dachsundThe Berkeley East Bay Humane Society (BEBHS)’s recent Razoo campaign to replace its stolen van provides a perfect example. This isn’t a case of a nonprofit that just ran out of money and thought Razoo could plug the leaks — the organization had a perfectly lovely, working van, which it regularly used to drive to local municipal shelters and reduce their animal populations by picking up dogs and cats for adoption via BEBHS.

That van was stolen, thus leaving the agency unable to implement a key part of its operations. The $25,000 needed to replace it is no small change for a small nonprofit already in the middle of a capital campaign to rebuild its fire-damaged structure — but a sum that could realistically be raised by enough contributions from concerned supporters. As of today, they’ve brought in $8,525 . . . not there yet, but a good start.

Why Your Nonprofit’s Next Fundraising Auction Should Set Earnings Records

boxesCorporate giving is up, according to the 2012 Giving in Numbers report from the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy.

It’s up across the board, to the tune of 42% or $4.48 billion between 2007 and 2012. That’s good when you want straight cash. But it’s even better when you want a non-cash contribution from a business, such as  a gift basket, hotel stay, case of wine, or other tempting item for your next charity auction.

Non-cash corporate contributions accounted for 69% of the 2012 corporate giving totals, up from 57% in 2007. We seem to be at a curious point in the U.S.’s economic recovery: Business profits are up just enough that owners feel comfortable increasing their donations to charity — but with sales on the sluggish side, they’re still ending up with excess inventory, which can go toward a nonprofit in need.

Of course, need alone isn’t enough to convince a business to hand over its goods. The savvy nonprofit will make professional requests that stress the attractive manner in which potential auction items will be displayed as well as how the corporate donor will be recognized.

For more on how to hold a great auction, see the article, “Twelve Steps to Preparing a Successful Fundraising Auction.” And while we’re talking about auctions, make sure your nonprofit isn’t making the common mistake of giving bidders an exaggerated idea of how high a tax deduction they’ll receive, as discussed in, “Is Your Nonprofit Overpromising Tax Deductions?

Real People Trying Crowdfunding Discover What Nonprofits Already Knew

coinThe field of artists, nonprofits, entrepreneurs, dreamers, freelancers, travel buffs, scientists, and folks in need who are trying out crowdfunding as a way to raise cash is getting a bit, well, crowded. Distinguishing one’s pitch from all the others takes all the creativity and marketing skills that one can muster, as seen in the article “Generation ASK,” by Lauren Smiley, in the May, 2013 issue of San Francisco magazine.

Experienced fundraisers will nod knowingly at the marketing lesson arrived at by one such seeker — Michele Turner, on her way to raising $14,000 to cover basic costs (rent, gas) associated with her time spent in chemo. In order to tap into people’s passions rather than mere guilt, Smiley explains that Turner needed to “sell[] benefactors on the experience of being part of her recovery, not just on alleviating her poverty.”

Sound familiar? In fact, the various crowdfunding sites advise people seeking funds to post updates and thank-yous, “keeping [donors] abreast of every morsel of good news.” As Smiley explains, “All this can be exhausting for someone fighting a serious illness.”  But the good part of this is that “With so many people invested in her recovery, [Turner] can’t shake the feeling that she’s on the hook to heal . . . .”

The parallels aren’t entirely surprising, but notice that, even when the first people who will be viewing the pitch for cash are your own friends and family, sheer neediness and desperation remain a turnoff. Hope sells, as does the chance to be part of the solution.

For more information on nonprofit uses of crowdfunding, see Nolo’s new article, “Using Crowdfunding to Raise Money for Your Nonprofit.”