look for 'crowd' assist
by Matthew S. Bajko
Raising money is an ever present, time-consuming task for any nonprofit. The calendar year is full with fundraising events both large and small, and agency leaders are trained in the art of asking for donations from just about anyone they meet.
In today's social media plugged-in and online connected world, nonprofits are beginning to use new tools to make their "ask" in high-tech ways. These digital donation platforms even come with their own branding, known as "crowdfunding."
Donations can now be made as easily as sending a text message, while a crop of new websites aim to make fundraising as simple as setting up a webpage. Like their mainstream counterparts, LGBT agencies are also looking to the "crowd" for a financial assist.
In late November the National AIDS Memorial Grove teamed up with AT&T for its holiday-timed gift giving ask. But in what is believed to be a first for a San Francisco-based LGBT nonprofit, the grove asked donors to send it $10 donations via text message.
The effort was dubbed the "A Time for Hope; A Place to Heal" Text to Donate campaign. Supporters were asked to text the word "HEAL" to a designated number before December 27 to make their tax-deductible donation. AT&T agreed to pay for any texting charges or fees regardless of the carrier people use for their mobile devices.
The grove, a wooded memorial to those lost to AIDS that is located in Golden Gate Park, hoped to raise between $3,000 to $5,000 generated from 300 to 500 text messages.
John Cunningham, the grove's executive director, said his and other nonprofits are taking the plunge into crowdfunding in order to connect with donors, especially younger contributors, in the spaces where they now operate.
"Before we had Facebook, Foursquare and all the rest, it was special activism on the street. The platforms for that information has changed," he said. "Really, this is a matter of reaching the next generation and giving them the option to take action on the platforms they are comfortable with."
In order to stay relevant, nonprofits need to embrace the digital platforms their constituents and targeted audiences are using, said Cunningham.
"Looking at texted donations, this gives us an opportunity to reach the next generation, the young people of today, on a platform they are on to drive them to this area of awareness," he said, referring to the grove and its mission. "Really, it is a matter of reaching the next generation and giving them the option to take action on a platform they are comfortable with."
The grove has yet to announce how much the texting campaign raised. Nonetheless, other nonprofit leaders have already inquired about its experience, said Cunningham.
"We will see where it all falls out after it is all set and done," he said.
From cellphones to Facebook's Causes, which allows users to direct giving to their favorite nonprofits, there are various new means for agencies to seek out funding from donors. In recent years a number of websites geared toward helping nonprofits fundraise have also sprung up, such as http://www.Razoo.com and http://www.Firstgiving.com.
"I think with today's technology world people are going to more and more be wanting to find easy ways to give online and use their mobile devices. It is inevitable we will see a proliferation of these sites," said Luis Chabolla, a spokesman for Community Foundation Santa Cruz County. "There is no shortage of entrepreneurial-minded people who see a market in philanthropy in helping donors raise or give money to nonprofits."
One of the better-known platforms is Razoo.com, which launched in 2007 and last summer surpassed the $100 million mark in the amount of money the website had raised for nonprofits. In the fall the company opened an office in San Francisco to bolster its usage by West Coast nonprofits.
It charges a 2.9 percent fee on donations, which is charged directly to donors' credit cards. CEO Lesley Mansford, who joined Razoo in 2011, claimed it is the lowest fee charged by such a site during an interview last fall with the Bay Area Reporter.
"We are seeing some really nice momentum as nonprofits become more aware of Razoo. They recognize it is not that intimidating and quite easy to set up an online fundraiser," said Mansford.
The site promotes itself as a tool to do "social fundraising," where by connecting giving campaigns to donors' Twitter and Facebook accounts a single $50 or less donation can be leveraged to incite that person's friends and followers to also give.
"Now, it is not just about a person's wallet and the $50 they have but the $5,000 or $10,000 their network has. Every donation can be a social donation," said Mansford. "If I send a mail piece, just one person reads it, whereas on Facebook multiple people read it. The beauty of online is you can have multiple touch points."
The site uses email and various social media platforms to connect with donors. As of now about 15 percent of donations through Razoo are made on mobile phones, while 25 percent come through Facebook.
"In the next couple years it could be as much as 50 percent," predicted Mansford. "Facebook is much more predominant in driving donations."
It is adding an app for iPads, so nonprofits can encourage people to donate at live events.
"Mobile is going to be very important in fundraising in the future," said Mansford. "We are continuing to look at ways to continue to be at the front of that curve."
Online fundraising campaigns can also take advantage of video messages that can be a powerful tool in connecting with donors, noted Mansford. It oftentimes leads to increased giving, she added.
Razoo's local office opened six months ago, and the company is working on doing an LGBT day with a large foundation in 2013. The idea would be to drive up giving over a 24-hour period to a certain LGBT organization.
Mansford said she was not able to announce what the partner agency would be, though she did say she had not spoken to the Horizons Foundation, an LGBT grant-making agency based in San Francisco.
One agency that opted to use the website for its end-of-year campaign was the Brown Boi Project. Seventeen days into its "30 Days of Brown Boi 2012!" fundraiser, the Oakland-based nonprofit for masculine-of-center LGBT and queer people had raised nearly half of its $20,000 goal.
According to its Razoo page (http://www.razoo.com/team/30-Days-Of-Brown-Boi-2012/share) Brown Boi had raised $6,232 ($4,694 online, $1,538 offline) as of Wednesday, January 2. The site includes a "leaderboard" listing people actively seeking donations and how much they have raised to date and from how many contributors.
Those involved can also post comments to encourage other participants or congratulate them. Razoo also makes it easy for people to spread word of the campaign via Facebook or Twitter, as well as to join in.
Brown Boi Executive Director B. Cole said she opted for Razoo this year over the site the agency used last year because it did not charge to set up the webpage. She also liked its low fee and use of various social platforms.
"We love it," said Cole, adding that other nonprofits should shop around when thinking of using a crowdfunding web tool, as "some of the sites are a bit on the scam side."
She also liked how Razoo makes it easy for Brown Boi to post photos about its members as it plugs the campaign, its biggest fundraiser of the year.
"More than just raising resources, it is building community and deepening investment in our work," said Cole.
Her agency, whose budget is $347,000, counts 75 members who are active fundraisers with an additional 60 volunteers. Going the crowdfund route makes sense for her agency, said Cole, because it has less than two full-time staffers and is dependent on having its members and volunteers be engaged in giving.
"For most of us, we don't fundraise every day," she said. "We do not have a full-time staffer dedicated to fundraising."
Because of its usage of the webpage on Razoo, Brown Boi last week learned it had been selected to receive a $10,000 matching grant from the LGBTQ Giving Challenge, giving it the potential to raise $30,000. If it meets its fundraising target by January 13, then Cole plans to hire one of its part-time staffers fulltime.
"It makes a difference if people know their small gift is going to be doubled," she said.
The giving challenge is a five-year effort to bolster grassroots giving to LGBT causes nationwide.
"We are interested in encouraging grassroots giving so that new dollars and new donors come to the movement," said Bill Lyons, the giving challenge's project director.
Fiscally sponsored by the New Venture Fund, the giving challenge's goal is to increase the number of donors giving $35 or more to LGBT nonprofits. Having first met Cole at a conference in early 2012, Lyons said his fund has been impressed by how Brown Boi harnesses social media sites to garner both volunteers and financial support.
"Brown Boi is an amazing organization. They have really robust grassroots support and their members are so driven to be participants in programs and champions of its fundraisers," he said. "That is something we love to see, and larger donors love to see organizations have that kind of buy-in. The tech tools help amplify that organizational capacity to use Facebook and social media to have the most significant online fundraising. The tools they use are some of the best."
Not for everyone
Not everyone is ready to embrace the giving websites. Some agencies have no need for them due to having staff that work fulltime on development and are using their own websites to drive online giving.
Nonprofit executives are also leery about the costs involved in using sites such as Razoo when every penny counts in bolstering their bottom lines.
AIDS Emergency Fund Executive Director Mike Smith said he is aware of a number of such websites and has been approached by a few of them. But he has his doubts about using them.
"They seem to think this makes it easer for people to give money to AEF. I might be old-fashioned but I don't think anyone has trouble figuring out how to give money to AEF. So we have steered clear of them," said Smith. "We don't need a middleman. And we don't know any of these organizations well enough to know whether we are being taken advantage of or not. We are wary of the whole thing."
The grove's Cunningham said he is also wary of using the donation websites due to the fees involved.
"There are a lot of added or hidden fees associated with those that can be incredibly high," he said.
Smith is watching to see how the grove's texting campaign turns out. For now AEF has not opted to use such a donation tool, but Smith said it may be beneficial in the future.
"My instinct says unless you have a really young hip donor base for whom texting is a primary means" of communication, said Smith, it doesn't make sense to launch a similar text-based fundraising effort. "It didn't seem like something our older, less tech savvy donors would do."
Yet in recent years AEF has seen more of its donors give through its website, which the agency set up through http://www.givedirect.org, a free service offered to nonprofits. Texting may be the next step, acknowledged Smith.
"I am going to be fascinated to see how it works for the grove," he said. "I am glad they are trying it. It could be the future wave."
The Santa Cruz foundation also is taking a wait-and-see approach to these new web-based fundraising tools, said Chabolla. Even if they become more ubiquitous, he doubted they would completely replace the face-to-face ask.
"Our sweet spot for raising money is not in large community campaigns or saturation. It is about building relationships with individual donors in our community," he said. "Nothing will ever replace you and I going out, sitting down over coffee or lunch, and talking. That is how we raise the bulk of our money; it is not through mass campaigning."
Mansford stressed that Razoo does not see itself as replacing the more traditional ways to fundraise.
"It is not all or nothing; this is another tool," she said. "It may work better with one set of donors than another. Clearly, the millennial generation is not only more comfortable donating this way but wants to donate and communicate with people through these kinds of tools."