A growing trend in nonprofit fundraising has been to flip on its head the mainstay of appealing to a small number of major donors by attempting instead to make small asks of a much larger base. The concept is called crowdfunding, and thanks to the power of online giving, it’s never been easier to solicit support from the masses. But given the relentless wave of digital solicitations we’re each burdened with on a daily basis, being able to reach the crowd, and getting them to listen to you (much less fund you) often feels oceans apart.
You might think your classic college town would be the ideal place to engage in crowdfunding campaigns. We did. The reason should be obvious: you’ve got a good chunk of the population comprised of relatively-well-off, usually liberal, young people plugged into the internet. If every student enrolled at UVA last year donated a $2 bill to the University, the school would be sitting on a cool $45,610. Sounds simple right? A small enough ask, a close enough cause, a couple of campy campus (er, Grounds) references – voila! UVA would be raking in the theoretical dough. If every person in Charlottesville donated $1 back to the city, that would render a successful crowdfunding campaign to the tune of $ $47,000. I use my own alma mater as an example, but the giving potential of college-town-crowdfunding applies with equal strength from New Haven to Ann Arbor to Boulder and back. Nevertheless, moving the needle even a dollar’s worth is much tougher in practice, whether attempted through traditional or peer-to-peer fundraising, online or offline, reward or competition driven campaigns.
So when we were asked what the best way to crowdfund in a college town is, our honest-to-goodness answer is: there isn’t one. There isn’t ONE. There are plenty of strategies and approaches an organization might consider for launching a crowdfunding campaign, and you can find a slew of online articles that prognosticate about the best ways to do it (some of which we’ve included below in case our answer doesn’t satiate you). In our view, the devil’s in the details, and the answer is in the context. There is no one-size-fits all solution to running effective crowdfunding campaigns. If that lightning had been bottled, we’d just recommend investing in a few dozen pounds of ice and some plastic pails this summer. Instead, what we encourage organizations to do is employ the Scientific Method in order to determine the best approach. That’s right – the scientific method – the process we all learned in middle school, or you may prefer to work through the lense of the Effectuation Process.
Either way, after years of working on the ground with vastly different nonprofit organizations, trying to come up with creative ways to harness the power of the crowd, our best advice is to (1) research how organizations, that are as similar to yours as you can identify, have done crowdfunding successfully in the past (2) experiment, on a small scale, with the ideas you think may be the best fit, and (3) iterate on them until you’re either discarding bad fits or improving upon good ones.
At Totem we know what we don’t know; and we don’t know your organization better than you do. What we can do is provide your organization with all of the tools to try all of the things, quickly and cost-effectively, so you can identify through trial and error which modes of crowdfunding work best for you. Generally speaking, we have found in many cases that pairing tech and live events works really well. Because there’s no replacement for a good time, if you can reach people through technology in the moment when they’re most likely to share the love, that can be a powerful combination. Another fast-growing mechanism for crowdfunding is deputizing your supporters through peer-to-peer fundraising. It lessens the burden on your organization and increases the emotional appeal since some of the work is now being done by influencers within networks. However, we would caution against handing over the reigns to your influencers entirely, because again, even they don’t know you work better than you do. Finally, providing incentives to spur engagement can be effective when you have the right carrot for the right herd.
The point is, you’ll never know until you try, and our tools are designed to (1) move your organization from guessing to knowing as quickly and efficiently as possible, and (2) provide you with archival memory to maintain and improve about what you know works. Questions? Feel free to contact me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re happy to brainstorm with you.