Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Social Media Fundraising 101

By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors

Social media can be a powerful tool, but many nonprofits still struggle with how to use it effectively in fundraising. And quantifying its effectiveness and understanding its psychology is even more difficult.

However, one Indiana college raised nearly $500,000 in a 24-hour day of giving. And while the dollar amount is impressive, the lessons learned and applicability to nonprofits is more impressive.

Joe Klen, Wabash College’s associate dean for College Advancement, came away with two clear directives from his school’s effort: Start small and get a lot of people to help.

Before launching its campaign, Klen says Wabash studied what other schools were doing, noting that they had a least a dozen models. Wabash then narrowed its focus on Illinois Wesleyan University because of its similar size and alumni population. Wesleyan had its first online day of giving last summer, and Wabash’s advancement staff watched the reaction and interaction and then traveled to Illinois in December to learn more.

While the research was important, ultimately Wabash needed to jump in and see how an online campaign would motivate people.

Starting the process in February, Wabash pulled together a campaign. It selected a date, created logos, prepared several sample emails, tweets and Facebook posts and planned the school’s overall strategy. What the team knew it didn’t want was a slick campaign, but rather a grassroots vibe.

While April 30, its choice for the day of giving, had no particular significance for the small liberal arts college, it served as the theme. The plan was to secure 430 gifts on 4/30, a number it felt was a modest but realistic goal.

More important, though, was finding the right volunteers to ensure success. While having volunteers is nothing new to fundraising, social media is a different model. First, Klen’s department identified 300 potential online ambassadors or virtual volunteers, looking for well-connected individuals who were active social media users. After narrowing the field to 175, they spent April communicating directly with these alumni, phoning and emailing them, oftentimes getting new ideas about the campaign from this group.

Well-prepared, the advancement department kicked off the campaign at 4:30 a.m. with a first email to their entire alumni pool. They hit the first target – 430 gifts -- by 10 a.m., creating an online buzz.

“When we launched the campaign, these ambassadors would spread the word to their networks. That’s really what got the momentum going, and then once people starting giving, all types of goodwill was being spread across social media,” says Klen. Mainly, the school’s virtual volunteers used Twitter and Facebook.

But Wabash didn’t stop there. If the campaign reached $43,000, there were challenge donors ready to match the gifts. A second group of donors was lined up to do the same for the next $43K, and finally they had a donor who would give $43K, if they hit 1,832 gifts, which is the school’s founding year.

 “Other people who weren’t ambassadors jumped on board and spread the word to their people,” says Klen. “That’s what we saw happen in other institutions that were really successful and were more successful the second time around.”  

Klen says scale is key. “I think if we had started at 1832 donors in a single day, it would have had a much different feel. I think for a smaller organization that doesn’t have the constituent base, starting smaller is good.”

During the day of giving, Klen’s advancement team kept a light touch, sending four emails to alumni during the 24-hour period. These were to announce the campaign, key benchmarks and the results and initial wrap-up of the campaign.

An online honor roll gave peers a chance to see in real time who was contributing. It’s different from the infamous TV telethons because it was more than just a total, and potential donors could see contributors’ names. That’s where, Klen says, psychology has an effect.

Students and staff on campus also were giving online. It was the last week of academic classes. There were campus events, like a dunk tank, that created an on-campus buzz, but also an online buzz. There were alumni who said, “Oh, I wished I knew that was happening, I would have come over for lunch.”

Besides goodwill, Klen says, the biggest gains were introducing current students to the culture of giving and creating an online reunion atmosphere. In June at Wabash’s reunion weekend, alumni  were still talking about the event.

“There is some culture of philanthropy already engrained in Wabash’s culture. The good feeling that came out of the day by rallying around the institution on a single day is the greatest success of the day. Our students saw the kind of rallying support for the institution in a single day and that will stick with a lot of them for a long time,” says Klen.

“I think that’s true for most nonprofits. Not all generations have been taught the importance of philanthropy. In part what I think we’re doing in this kind of day is we taught our students on some level how private organizations and nonprofits really work and how they rely largely on private philanthropy.”

Klen noted that Wabash was not the only Indiana school with this type of campaign. In April alone, 10 other schools had campaigns, including Notre Dame, Purdue and Valparaiso.  “I don’t want to suggest that our day was the only day by any stretch of the imagination. St. Mary’s had similar numbers,” he says. Klen believes they can all learn from each other and draw from different constituencies.
What will Wabash do the second time around? It will study schools that have done these two and three times, see what they did differently and what new lessons they learned. And Wabash has already been thinking about how to steward those first-time donors.  


Applications for nonprofits

  • Line up online ambassadors who are passionate about your cause and can build an online social media presence. Unlike Wabash, finding ambassadors’ friends with no prior affiliation to a nonprofit who are introduced to the organization has great potential. 
  • For a nonprofit, competitions can work – Eastside versus Westside giving.
  • By 2 p.m. Wabash’s campaign (#Wabash430 hashtag) was trending in Indianapolis on Twitter. For Central Indiana nonprofits, that kind of exposure could be huge for getting their name out there to people who may not know about them. 
  • All organizations can benefit from single-day campaign. The greatest benefit beyond fundraising is creating excitement about the organization and getting people excited about giving back.



  • Don’t pre-sell. Keep the campaign organic, grassroots and non-flashy. Wabash created a simple logo and theme and sent sample tweets and emails to ambassadors to prime the pump.
  • Find the right volunteers. These needed to be individuals with large constituent social media networks who traditionally get responses to their posts.
  • Create an online donor honor roll. Unlike TV telethons, peers influenced peers’ giving.
  • Unlike other schools, Wabash used no raffles and hourly incentives, but rather had a cadre of donors ready to match, if the gift goal was met.
  • While there was no printing budget or postage, there were credit card processing fees, which at 3 percent, amounted to about $8,000
  • This type of campaign takes less planning time. Bucknell University, for example, created its campaign in nine days.
  • The next day, the advancement department sent a thank you with initial results and round numbers.  


By the numbers

  • 12,000 to 13,000 was the Wabash alumni pool
  • 2,329 gifts in a 24-hour period or $465,000
  • 2 gifts per minute
  • Nearly 100 percent online donations
  • Nearly 1,000 unique donors on the day
  • 900 donors made their second gift of the year
  • 370 lapsed donors contributed
  • 2000 to 2009: the alumni group with the highest number of donations
  • 1948: one donor, 10 or more donors from every class beginning with 1961

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