Last month, I decided to run a fundraising campaign for Children of the Night, an independent non-profit organization which helps child victims of human trafficking in the United States. The event was ultimately successful. Collectively, we raised an amazing total of $1600 in just 18 days. However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing, and I wanted to describe some of the problems that came up to further help you with your future fundraising efforts. After all, one way to make a positive difference is by providing those in the trenches with the financial means to facilitate change. And the best way to set yourself up for success in those efforts is to learn from the mistakes of others, and make some decisions you might not have thought of yet ahead of time–so let’s get started.
Picking a Fundraising Platform
There are many different ways to run a fundraiser online. I chose to go through causes.com, because you can create a campaign which can easily be shared on facebook and other social media. I also liked it because I didn’t have to pay anything to start using it. However, the organization takes a percentage fee (4.75%), which is a bit of a bummer, as on
e would hope the contributions could all go directly to the charity you are raising funds for. However, every option I looked at (including JustGiving, MyCause, GoFundraise, NetworkForGood, and others) either took a percentage, cost money to use, or both. A good article describing 12 different online fundraising platforms is available on Mashable.
The only way I could find to avoid the fee altogether was to have people make donations to me personally, but I didn’t want to ask friends and strangers to write me a check which they’d have to trust me to give to charity. I think I’d hesitate to donate in that instance, no matter how much I trusted someone.
For some reason, I never considered the option of having people make contributions to the charity directly. In retrospect, I wish I would have had the discussion about fundraising platform with the charity ahead of time, instead of after the fact… and that’s what I’d recommend.
Were I to organize a fundraiser again, I would have a very clean story which would serve as an eye-opener for anyone who read about it. The less confusing and complicated, the better, so long as clarity is not used as a substitute for nuance (which led to the backlash for Invisible Children.)
Aside from raising funds, one of my goals was to draw attention to human trafficking, and build awareness to its prevalence in the U.S. This is a bit more difficult to quantify than dollars raised, though causes.com has statistics on who visits each campaign on their site, and Google Analytics can tell quite a bit. Anecdotal evidence, however, is very valuable in this instance. Reading e-mails and posts on friends’ sites about what people had learned that they weren’t previously aware of gave me a bit of a bird’s eye view of the effects of this campaign.
Another benefit to having awareness-building as part of a goal is that you may feel a little less defeated if the funds raised are lower than you’d hoped for. In my instance, it brought up a whole range of emotions, since my fundraiser was in memory of a friend who was killed–and nobody stopped his attacker. When I saw that hundreds of people were reading about the fundraiser and not contributing, all of the feelings associated with his death came rushing back. A few good friends helped me work through the wave of grief and helplessness, but I feel that it could potentially have been avoided by setting realistic goals, which included building awareness as well as raising money.
To Gift, Or Not To Gift?
One of my great ideas came to me from a friend and teammate. He told me that a good way to raise funds for a non-profit organization was to offer something back in return. As someone who has donated to Kickstarter campaigns, listened to a million pledge drives offering gifts for donations, and bought countless raffle tickets, the idea resonated with me. In fact, when I landed my first real job after college, I remember eating an extravagant meal one day a year–the only meal where I’d order an appetizer, entree, drink and dessert–during an event called Dine Out For Safety, where select restaurants would donate 20 percent of their day’s proceeds to the Southern Arizona Center Against Sexual Assault.
The first step was to gather gifts from sponsors. Luckily for me, people stepped up in force, donating their time and products. I was sure the donations would immediately come pouring in. Who doesn’t want to make a donation and have the opportunity to win these amazing things? And so I wrote up a blog post, with descriptions of all these cool things people donated that randomly selected winners could receive. I tagged people and their gifts on facebook and mentioned them on twitter. I got a lot of retweets and reposts… and only a handful of donations trickled in.
I received a few notes from people saying that they wanted to donate out of the goodness of their hearts, not because they felt sold to. And so I wrote a post with the real story behind the fundraiser. Who it was in memory of. Why I picked Children of the Night. How my friend and the charity I chose were related, which was a complex story. And the real reason why I felt people should donate–which had very little to do with nifty prizes.
The gift issue is a bit of a catch-22. Some people are offended by them, and some all but expect them. There is no easy answer, but in my case, I let people know they could always donate anonymously or refuse to accept a gift, if that’s what they wanted to do.
Another issue with gifts is what to do if a specific person doesn’t want something. Does it go back to the pot, or just get forfeited? Can they give it to a friend? And there’s the issue of what to do if there are more gifts than donors, which can happen if a lot of donations are anonymous. I abhor the idea of telling someone a donation they made was unneeded/unwanted, but I’m pretty sure some gift recipients never contacted the person who offered them their services, and I was not able to collect all addresses (etc.) ahead of time. I also couldn’t find certain donors who used a causes.com profile instead of a Facebook profile to donate and did not respond to group e-mails. (I couldn’t contact people individually, or see the names of anonymous donors, on causes.com.) Some didn’t respond to Facebook messages asking for e-mail or mailing addresses for prizes. In retrospect, I wish I would have told gift donors ahead of time that there was a chance their gift would not be used. Ideally, I’d also ask people for their contact info upon donating and whether or not they’d want to be considered for gifts, but I haven’t found a way to do that through causes.com. I’d also have the conversation with prize donors about whether their gifts are transferable, so there’d be a direct plan of action no matter what. (In my case, I had gift givers mail donors their gifts directly, but have heard of auctions where people donated gifts which the organizers kept when nobody bid on them! That doesn’t seem right to me…)
Whether people will like what they get is something that stressed me out a bit, as well. In the future, I might choose more generic gifts or ones with a very specific theme. I have different circles of friends online (writers, artists, athletes, small business owners, etc.) and one person might be thrilled with an item another wouldn’t care for. Instead of asking everyone I know to donate whatever they wanted, I would have been a bit more strategic. For example, I could’ve chosen books and documentaries directly related to human trafficking, which would have been of interest to all donors.
One more thing to decide ahead of time: who is eligible? I used a list randomizer to select winners, and my biggest fear was that my fiance would win a piece of jewelry that was donated, which would then be mailed to our address. I doubt anyone would think that I would use my own fundraiser as an elaborate scheme to get free stuff, but hadn’t specified in advance whether or not friends, family, etc. would be eligible. I breathed a sigh of relief when the necklace was won by someone else.
The gifts people donated to the fundraiser were not given by the charity, so dealing with taxes was a bit confusing. Whether or not donations to a charity are tax-deductible even after receiving gifts is a really complicated tax issue best handled by their accountants. Apparently, if an item is considered of token value or low-cost, it doesn’t need to be subtracted out of a claimed contribution. Low cost is, I believe, defined as $105 or less, but the tax code changes annually.
The big take-home here is not to tell anyone a donation will definitely be tax-deductible if there’s a chance it might not be. Luckily, I never did that. And whether you (or the organization you’re raising funds for) can provide receipts for tax deduction purposes for people making in-kind donations is something else to discuss with your lawyer or accountant.
Spreading the Word
As I mentioned, the first way I tried to spread the word about my fundraiser was through a post about gifts people could win if they donated. The second post, “Who Chris McBride Was, And Why You Should Care,” got 767 “likes” on facebook. I paid the 10 bucks to make this a “sponsored” post, which helped me spread the word. In addition, I posted information about this fundraiser far and wide, and because many donations were made anonymously, I wasn’t really sure were they were all coming from. I contacted people individually on facebook, selecting folks with whom I’d interacted with fairly recently. I asked people to read my post about the fundraiser, and if they asked how they could help, I’d ask them to consider sharing the post and/or donating.
I don’t know what people’s financial situation is, and don’t want anyone to feel obligated to do anything–or to feel that they had to participate in a specific way. I was sort of surprised when a few people wrote back somewhat defensively. It made me sad to think that some people thought I’d be making judgements about whether or not they donated. However, I knew that I was getting the most donations after messaging people individually on facebook, so I kept that up because it was so effective…and because I had no way to determine who would be receptive, and who wouldn’t.
I received seven requests for donations during the course of the fundraiser, and only gave to one charity (and sponsored one person in an event she hadn’t directly contacted me about) and said no to five people. I will probably say no to dozens more. Most people have to politely turn down some requests for cash, since we all have limited amounts of expendable income. The bottom line is that there’s no easy answer for asking people for money and not having certain people feel upset or defensive because of it–but that’s also no reason to stop fundraising.
It was, however, a strategic move on my part to simply ask people to read about my fundraiser. They knew it was a fundraiser (so I wasn’t tricking them to going to a post they thought would be something else entirely), were simply asked to check out a post (which is fairly non-committal), and if they asked how they could help, I’d tell them they could consider sharing the post with friends and/or donating. Spreading the word both raises awareness of the issue AND helps get funds, and gives people who don’t want to donate a way to get involved.
Celebrate Your Success
Everyone who donated to my fundraiser received a note letting them know how successful the campaign was. Thanking everyone–individually, if possible–is more important than it seems. Celebrate “The Power of We” by thanking those who helped make your fundraising campaign successful. After all, you couldn’t have done it without them.
*Research your fundraising platform options ahead of time, and discuss them with the charity you’re raising funds for.
*Starting with a goal that’s too small, and increasing it, is better than starting with a too-large goal.
*Use your fundraiser as a way to build awareness about the issue the charity you’re raising funds for addresses. That way, even people who do not donate can become more educated about the problem at hand, and maybe even help spread the word.
*Decide ahead of time whether or not you want to give gifts to donors, and be strategic about which gifts you choose. Keeping them all within one theme may be wise. Make sure to figure out what you’ll do if donors choose not to accept the gifts, you are unable to reach the donors, or if there are more gifts than donors… or if a friend or family member wins a prize.
*If you do choose to include gifts, speak with your accountant or attorney about what exactly is tax-deductible for both in-kind donations and donations of funds. Do not promise that gifts will be tax-deductible unless you are certain they will be.
*Plan how you’ll tell the story behind your fundraiser very carefully. People want to hear the back story, and why it is an important cause.
*Be aware that some people will be unable or unwilling to donate. This shouldn’t be a reason not to ask for funds, but it may affect how you choose to frame the message.
*Say thank you to everyone who helped you along the way.
Note: This post is my contribution to Blog Action Day, an annual event which “brings together bloggers from different countries, interests and languages to blog about one important global topic on the same day.” This year’s theme is the Power of We, “a celebration of people working together to make a positive difference in the world.”