Crowdfunding your Nonprofit: Our Top Five Lessons Learned

By Mitchell Sommers, Accountability Lab Resident in Washington DC

The Accountability Lab recently led a discussion at the OpenGov Hub in DC about new models for online giving. Panelists included Scott Williams from Global Giving, Clarence Wardell from tinyGive, and Laura Deming from Charitybuzz: three leaders in the crowdfunding space, each with a wealth of experience in online charity. The lively discussion caused me to reflect on the Accountability Lab’s shared lessons and experience with crowdfunding.

In order to preserve the integrity of its mission, the Accountability Lab does not accept any government funding. While this has proven a significant challenge in mobilizing financial resources for work in the field, it has also meant that crowdfunding has been a key revenue stream for us. By democratizing fundraising, crowdfunding helps us stay true to our core values, which require accountability and transparency in our work and in our use of resources.

Over the past two years of operation, the Lab has raised over $35,000 from online giving. We discussed lessons learned as part of the event with Global Giving, tinyGive and Charitybuzz. These include the ideas that crowdfunding is all about:

1. Hard work

Given the popularity and success of online giving sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo, it may seem that crowdfunding is a simple process requiring little more than posting a project to drive a donation windfall. However, we’ve found that assumption to be far from reality. Very few people will randomly find your campaign and give—donations are often hard-won and your success depends on the use of your existing networks. One must be invested in making a campaign successful, strategically engaging networks through personal emails and ensuring frequent promotion on social media.

2. More than donations

Although it may sound counter-intuitive, an organization that wants to run a successful online giving campaign should not view it simply as a vehicle to bring in income. Rather, a crowdfunding campaign should be seen as an opportunity to connect and engage with new and existing supporters. Crowdfunding provides a platform through which organizations can advocate for their cause, informing potential supporters of the work that they do. Thus, to make the most of your crowdfunding experience, your engagement with the crowd should extend beyond the duration of the campaign. You have created a community of people who not only know more about the cause but also feel personally invested in it—remember to send thank-you notes to donors and to provide them with regular updates to keep them engaged.

3. Integrity, Integrity, Integrity

People want to know exactly where their money is going and what it’s supporting.  The integrity of the fundraising process is integral to campaign success. As a leader in this field, Global Giving has made the transparency and accountability of contributed funds a major component of its crowdfunding platform by requiring registered organizations to report back to donors every 3 months, and by highlighting nonprofits that demonstrate significant learning, results, and impact. One technique we’ve found useful, both in promoting integrity and increasing engagement, is to provide donors with numbers demonstrating the exact impact their contribution will have (i.e. $10 funds a high school student to participate in an engaging, 6-month civic education program to learn hands-on about their rights and responsibilities; or for every $4, you’ll help save Liberians more than $8 in court-related fees and over a week of time that they can use instead to make a living and take care of their families.)

4.   Strategy around why donors give

The reasons people donate to charitable causes aren’t always clear cut or easy to predict. However, we’ve learned some useful approaches based on our previous campaigns.  There a lot of issues calling for people’s attention online so it’s important to make sure your content is as engaging as possible. Campaigns that use pitch videos raise 115% more. Forging an emotional connection between donors and your cause is extremely important. We utilized story-telling, pictures and videos with a human face, and social media tiles in one of our recent successful campaigns on tinyGive. 

Organizations can also leverage their own networks when crowdfunding for a project. We aim to get the first third of our total raised by our inner network before making it public, since people are more likely to support a winning campaign.

5.  Remembering that it’s not necessarily a competition

There’s a common perception among crowdfunding non-profits that money given to another, perhaps more visible organization’s project is sucked away from other causes. This notion is represented in criticism over the popularity of movements, such as the ALS ice bucket challenge, which have been accused of diverting charitable giving away from other, perhaps more deserving nonprofits. However, in reality, a dollar given to one charity does not imply that the same dollar would have gone to the latter if the former did not exist. Clarence put it best when he explained that “people don’t wake up every day with the intention of donating.” Laura commented on how Chairtybuzz puts an interesting spin on the issue by targeting people’s discretionary income rather than the amount they may have put aside to “donate.”, Instead of lamenting the possible loss of donations to “competition” organizations should focus energy on fostering passion for their cause. 

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