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May 19, 2010

Rock Star Fundraisers - Engaging the Diamonds in the Rough

SnshotRock star individual fundraisers are the equivalent of stumbling upon a $20 bill while walking down the street (or even a $100).  They are the ones who organize their schools, run across states, or do similarly unusual activities to raise money for the cause of their choice.  Nonprofit development teams love them, but can't rely on them because they don't know when or where they'll pop up and very rarely are their activities scalable. 

To a certain degree, development teams have identified some trends and scaled where possible.  Robust fundraising programs on and offline have popped up to support people taking on physical challenges such as 5Ks, marathons, triathlons, and so forth.  Others create special short lived fundraising events where people raise money to be named man or woman of the year.  Other nonprofits create basic personal fundraising pages in the case that someone decides to raise money on their behalf.  Few actually have any sort of active program to challenge people who want to creatively raise money in a way that is truly unique to the fundraiser his/herself - the reason again, most likely, is that is simply too difficult to scale.   

I want to draw a few examples to your attention though, because after some (very) preliminary research, I believe that some best practices are emerging that may increase the likelihood of capturing more of these rock star individual fundraisers in a way that is scalable. 

Kiss a Pig, Create a Smile (Total Raised:  $712)
In Spring of 2009 a teacher in Pierce City Missouri, gave her elementary school students a challenge - raise $240 for Operation Smile* and she'd kiss a pig.  ($240 is the cost of a cleft pallet surgery.) The kids went gangbusters and raised $712 - the teacher had to kiss the pig 3 times.  Everyone wins!  The experience was so positive that the school district set up a club and planned on turning it into an annual event.

10 Challenges in 10 Weeks to Stop Cancer (Total Raised:  $19,000 and counting)
A recent cancer survivor Josh Orenstein** wanted to give back.  Although he ran Division 1 track in college, medical issues dictated that he not participate in traditional event fundraising activities like running a 5K or marathon, doing an intense hike, or riding a bike for a long distance.  He needed a hook - something unique that could help him raise the type of money he wanted to raise.  After a bit of research, he honed in on Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's (LLS) Man/Woman of the Year program and decided to participate.  The fundraiser has a defined 10 week window where participants compete to be man/woman of the year.  For Orenstein, the stated purpose of the fundraising program was just a means to an end.  Although he used his official Man/Woman of the Year fundraising page online to collect donations, he dropped the official name in his communications and created his own campaign - "The 10 to End Cancer Challenge."  He then created 10 challenges that he would complete in 10 weeks to earn the support of his friends and family on behalf of LLS.  He communicated and organized primary through Facebook and email.  As promised, he revealed a new challenge each week through email and Facebook - some serious (bone marrow test), some funny (tap dancing lessons, trapeze lessons), and others taxing (reading War in Peace in 10 weeks).  After he finished each challenge he posted videos and photos on the dedicated Facebook page, while regularly asking for donations.  To date he has raised $19,000 and expects to reach his $20,000 goal from 250-300 donors, many of whom he has never met.  Several thousand dollars have come through friends organizing fundraisers on his behalf as well. 

Or Run from San Diego to Phoenix to Beat Cancer (Total Raised:  $26,000)
Then there is Ultramarathoner Mike Sheehy.***  After a friend was diagnosed with cancer he wanted to do something.  So he did what any normal person would do, he decided to run from San Diego to Phoenix (over 500 miles) in 17 days.  Along the way he'd stop by hospitals, talk to patients, and blog about the experience.  However, this effort didn't fall neatly into any of LLS' event fundraising programs.  Ultimately the effort was run out of the Cures Rock! effort with all dollars going to LLS through a fundraising page that LLS set up for them.  They also developed a simple site, wrote a blog, and did significant organizing on and offline.  When he crossed the finish line at the 17th day, he had raised over $26,000 for LLS.


So what is a nonprofit to take away from these fundraising rock stars?  Especially with the fact that none of these activities is scalable on their own.   The answer is to look at the concepts that are present in each of these examples:

1.  Create a Challenge or Let Them Create a Challenge:  A challenge gets the event fundraisers more involved, makes it easier for people around them to donate, and attracts a different type of donor.  The grade school kids wanted to see their teacher kiss a pig.   Orenstein's challenges attracted far more attention and support than he would have generated simply by asking for donations.  Sheehy ran 500+ miles.

2.  Fundraising Page:  Make sure you give them a fundraising page that they can customize for their unique fundraising efforts.  Duh.

3.  Have a Defined Timeline:   This is fundraising 101 - always create a sense of urgency when raising funds.  By giving your participants a defined timeline, it allows them to better organize their own challenges.

4.  Encourage & Reward Creativity:
  Kiss a Pig?  Trapeze lessons?  Run to 500+ miles in 17 days?  All of these challenges are unique to the fundraiser - doing what they believe will help them raise the most money.  You may not be able to scale any of these, but you can reward creativity and create a platform that encourages it.  Your nonprofit will undoubtedly reach all sorts of new people.  For example, one donor in the UK gave to Orenstein's effort simply because the donor was a huge fan of War and Peace. They did not know each other previously.  So in true Web 2.0 fashion, give your event fundraisers greater control over their fundraising page and how they market their effort on your org's behalf. 

5.  Identify and support the major fundraisers that emerge:  You may not be able to support everyone who participates in an online event, but if major or unique fundraisers emerge, they should be identified and supported.  So make sure someone is keeping track of what is going on.

6.  Encourage activities that support varied messages:  Cultivation is important and in event fundraising it's not in your control.  But the fact remains that you not only need your event fundraisers talking about their challenge (and your nonprofit), but, in the world of Facebook and Twitter, you also need them to have some variation in their messaging as well.  In this regard, Orenstein's weekly challenge stands out as a best practice - each week he provides several updates spread out between email and Facebook.  He tells his supporters about the upcoming challenge, which is always new, and makes an ask. He posts photos from each challenge. He promotes other events designed to help him fundraise and regularly communicates his fundraising progress.

7.  Social networking matters big time:   These types of challenges are unique and are perfect for viral distribution.  Provide a robust set tools and recommendations on how people can use social networks to get the word out.  If a blog would help them (see item 6), give them a blog on their fundraising page.  

*  Operation Smile is a Common Knowledge client
** Josh Orenstein is a close friend of mine.  Watching him develop and carry out his effort has been of significant interest to me personally as well as professionally.
*** I have been involved with the LLS' Team in Training program personally (not professionally) for the last year.  Mike Sheehy has been a teammate of mine during that time.  His latest endeavor is breaking the Guinness Book of World Records for the most miles run in a week in an effort to raise money for LLS.  More on it here.