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Lessons Learned From One Fund Boston: How to Crowdfund on Social Media to Raise Money


After the Boston Marathon bombings, there was an outpouring of support from people wanting to donate to the victims, their families and the first responders who worked tirelessly on behalf of the nation. In the wake of the tragedy, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Tom Menino announced the formation of The One Fund Boston, a nonprofit organized to help those affected most by the event.

The One Fund’s simple website reflects its sudden, unplanned entry into the world. Its sparse contents include a short, to-the-point paragraph explaining its mission and a single “Donate Now” button linked to a PayPal account—a far cry from the colorful, community-driven websites that new, high profile nonprofits more commonly launch.

So how does an impromptu nonprofit organization formed around a sudden tragic event use social media to raise much-needed funds?

One particular strategy—crowdfunding—helped The One Fund Boston raise over $20 million in less than a week and attract considerable attention. The nonprofit has received an outpouring of donations from organizations including shoemaker New Balance, Major League Baseball and Simon Property Groups, among many others.

Crowdfunding with Teespring and Pinterest

Here’s how it worked: a handful of individuals used a website called Teespring to design custom t-shirts. According to the site, Teespring, a Rhode Island-based startup, helps you “sell shirts that you design, leveraging crowdfunding and social media to help you sell your shirt and make money.” Forbes has called the company “the future of custom apparel,” and VentureBeat dubbed it a “kickstarter for t-shirts.”

Once several Boston-themed t-shirt “campaigns” had been launched on Teespring, online influencers stepped in to help spread the word. One of those influencers was Joe Waters, the author of Cause Marketing for Dummies and founder of Selfish Giving, a blog that teaches nonprofits how to fundraise using social media.

On April 18th, Waters’ blog featured a post titled “Pinterest Roundup: Support the Victims of the Boston Marathon.” In it, he pointed readers to a newly-created Pinterest board he’d set up to feature Teespring t-shirts and marathon-fundraising items available for purchase.

Waters’ Pinterest board has 679 followers (and counting), which led some of the featured items to spread like wildfire. In less than a week, a t-shirt campaign created by Emerson college students raised more than $40,000. Another campaign featuring a “Stay Strong Boston” t-shirt sold over 5,000 shirts and raised $98,000 in the same amount of time.

Waters believes Pinterest has a powerful role in nonprofit fundraising, but warns that nonprofits need to understand the site’s specific function. “One thing that’s important for nonprofits to understand about Pinterest is that it’s aspirational,” Waters says. “People tend to pin things that aren’t about what they’ve done or what they’re doing—they pin things that represent who they want to be. You wouldn’t want to use Pinterest to post 500 pictures from your fundraising gala. That’s just not a good use of the site.”

Here, we’ve put together five simple tips your nonprofit can use to successfully crowdfund online:

1. Act Quickly

The time to act is right after what nonprofit strategists call a “focusing event,” or one that stirs people’s emotions and inspires them to give. According to a report published by The Network for Good, an online platform for nonprofit donations, “By enabling people to react immediately—when they feel moved by the unfolding story—online giving likely increases the rates at which feeling is converted to charitable action.”

The window for action is small, however: online donations following a disaster quickly spike and drop within the timeframe of just a week. The more time that goes by, the less proactive and passionate people tend to be about giving, and so the first few days following major disasters and tragedies are crucial for setting up a platform for people to contribute to.

Individuals who cared deeply about the Boston tragedy wasted no time launching campaigns on Teespring. The One Fund Boston was created a mere day after the marathon bombings occurred, and the $20 million the organization raised in the week following indicates the effectiveness of quickly getting the site up and driving people to it.

Network for Good Disaster Donations

Source: Network for Good

2. Leverage Online Influencers

Once you’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign, identify allies with large social media followings. There are multiple Pinterest users with cause-related boards. Locate and email them about your campaign, asking them to pin an image with a link to your crowdfunding campaign.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, Waters said he was contacted by approximately two dozen people who wanted him to share items on his Pinterest board. Twitter user @iheartgarments used this short but sweet tweet to reach out to Waters to share the Hugs for Boston page:

"@joewaters Check out the campaign we are currently running to support the One Fund, I think you will HEARTit."

3. Use a Multi-Channel Approach

Although Waters’ blog pointed readers to his Pinterest board, he also tweeted about it and asked others to retweet and blog about the boards that had been set up to support the Boston Marathon victims.

“The important thing to understand about Pinterest is that it’s not a standalone site,” says Waters. “It needs to be used in conjunction with Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other social media sites. If you’re new to social media, you don’t just ‘start’ with Pinterest. That’d be like waking up in the morning and saying, ‘You know what, I’m going to get dressed and I’m going to start with just socks. Socks are pretty much all I need.’”

4. Use Hashtags

“I drove traffic to my Pinterest board with hashtags,” Waters said. “Interestingly, a lot of the fundraising that happens on social media for nonprofits happens around hashtags.” By serving as bookmarks that let people easily locate tweets about a particular issue or topic, hashtags are an effective way to raise awareness and consolidate online conversations.

Hashtags can also be used to raise donations to a cause or organization every time an agreed-upon hashtag is used. One such example is is #TeamAutism, which was used by Samsung and the Dan Marino Foundation in 2011 to promote the “Team Up for Autism” campaign. Every time someone on Twitter tweeted #TeamAutism, Samsung donated $5. This, together with additional efforts, helped raise over $100,000 in just three days. 

5. Get Visual

To fuel fundraising success, Waters suggests focusing less on social media tools themselves and more on the strategy being executed. Visual content strategies, for example, can be key. Why? Studies have shown that 83 percent of human learning occurs visually. Content communicated in a visual format is four times more likely to be shared and 43 percent more persuasive.

For example, take the Surfrider Foundation's "Rise Above Plastics" campaign. Consider the impact of a plain text tweet, such as the message "40% of bottled water is just regular tap water," compared to the impact of an image like the one below. Which is more compelling?

Surfrider Foundation Ad

An image from the Surfrider Foundation’s "Rise Above Plastics" Campaign

“People love visual content,” Waters said. “What matters for nonprofits is that they understand the types of visuals that work best on all the different sites. Pinterest is a place to store things, to showcase collections. Not all sites work that way. It’s important to pay attention to these different nuances.”

Crowdfunding can be a powerful fundraising strategy for nonprofit organizations that form in response to a crisis, and tools like Pinterest and Teespring can amplify individual fundraisers’ efforts. Has your nonprofit used Pinterest for crowdfunding? If so, we’d love to hear about it. Share your experience in the comments below.

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Stephanie Kapera

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Stephanie Kapera is a contributor to Software Advice.

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