The Internet has become a spontaneous, grassroots fundraising tool



About a year ago, I knew I needed to give my exercise routine a boost. I was stuck in a rut, and it had become too much of a thing I HAD to do instead of something I wanted to do.

So I decided to walk 1 million steps over the course of the summer to raise $1,000 for one of my favorite nonprofits, RAINN. Nobody told me to do it. Nobody even told me HOW to do it. I had never raised money for a cause before, aside from coordinating a raffle at my community college years ago and doing one of those "birthday wish" things on Facebook Causes. I just sort of figured it out, and ultimately raised $1,500 - 150 percent of my goal. And I couldn't have done it without online tools and a passionate grassroots base who cared about what I was doing and for whom I was raising money.

The explosion of grassroots fundraising

This month, examples of spontaneous, grassroots-driven fundraising are everywhere. A couple of weeks ago the web comic known as "The Oatmeal," in response to a lawsuit, decided to raise $20,000 to benefit the American Cancer Society and the National Wildlife Federation. People felt so passionately about what the artist was trying to do, they collectively donated $20,000 in 10 minutes, and now that total has surpassed $215,000.

Then last week, a video of a bullied, elderly school bus monitor raised such ire on the Internet that a campaign was created on Reddit to raise money to send her on vacation. That campaign has now raised over $650,000.

What this means for your nonprofit

Philanthropy has turned on its ear. Where previously people mainly donated to reputable charities who sent them donation requests, or in response to a disaster, now people are spontaneously giving to ad-hoc fundraisers online. Why is this happening?

People give because they have an emotional response to a story, and because they're asked to give.

In the case of The Oatmeal, people who were passionate about the web comic felt angry about the ridiculous lawsuit being levied against the comic, and then felt a sort of gleeful impudence at the thought of donating money to be thrown in the face of those who angered them. That's a compelling story, and not one that a lot of charities could successfully implement on their own.

When people saw the video of the bus monitor being bullied, they felt empathy and anger and the need to do something to make things better. When they were given the chance to help this specific woman get a well-earned vacation, they happily dropped a few bills.

The grassroots nature of these campaigns is difficult to impossible to plan or engineer from the nonprofit side. But what can we learn from these examples?

  1. Build passion. Passion isn't always "rah rah, yay [insert cause]!" Sometimes passion comes out of anger, empathy, humor or other emotions. Experiment with what emotions drive people to take action.
  2. Tell a compelling, personal story. This point gets beaten into the ground on every fundraising blog, but it's so true. These stories were about specific people who were being treated unjustly. The stories were told in a compelling, shocking way that made people feel something, passionately. They didn't talk about statistics. They weren't about the big picture. They were about one specific person and one specific need.
  3. Be willing to relinquish some control. Sometimes the people who can build passion and help you raise the most money don't work for your organization. They don't have your media playbook, your style guide, or any PR training at their disposal. Like in the case of The Oatmeal, their pleas may be accompanied by language or art your board might find offensive. I wouldn't recommend creating such things officially as an organization (though you can experiment with telling grittier stories), but when something like that happens, still say "thank you" publicly, and recognize that even though they may not be perfectly "on message," they're still doing very difficult work on behalf of the organization, and that's worth recognizing.