Higher Ed Online Fundraising and the Rise of “Money Bombs”

Arizona State: $3.059 million in 36 hours … Columbia University: $7.8 million in 24 hours (after raising $6.8 million just one year earlier) … Santa Clara University: 2,600+ donors in 24 hours – by far their biggest day for donor participation ever.

Thanks, in part, to a strong social media strategy, Santa Clara University saw record-breaking donor participation during their first ever "money bomb" online campaign.

Thanks, in part, to a strong social media strategy, Santa Clara University saw record-breaking donor participation during their first ever “money bomb” online campaign.

Short duration, online fundraising campaigns or “money bombs” are taking over higher education. But it’s not as easy as sending out an email and posting a few things on Facebook. The institutions that have had success have invested tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars in three main areas to prepare for these online events:

  • Well-designed, donor-centric online infrastructure (campaign landing pages, giving forms, mobile sites, etc).
  • A long-term online and social media strategy (not just for the campaign, but throughout the year).
  • Peer-to-peer or online ambassador programs.

If you’re interested in learning much more about the above suggestions, check out the following web chat from the Chronicle of Philanthropy (full-length chat posted below). In it, I’m joined by Georgetown’s Joannah Pickett (chief architect and strategist behind GU’s perfectly executed City Challenge online campaigns), Ohio State’s Chad Warren (one of the best online campaign planners in the business who has both Florida State’s Great Give and Dayton’s I Love UD campaigns under his belt), and the Chronicle’s Cody Switzer:


Are you ready to plan an online fundraising campaign for your institution? We have plenty of experience helping our clients achieve online fundraising success during these money bomb efforts. Click here for my BWF contact info or here for my LinkedIn to connect with me (Justin Ware) and learn more about how we might work together.


Average New Donor Acquisition During Online Campaigns – 40 Percent

Are you concerned about the future of your nonprofit’s base of fundraising support? Do you like the idea of adding new donors who are wealthy and well-educated? Then you might consider adding a robust online ambassador program and social media strategy, because simply put, nothing adds more new, wealthy donors more quickly than a well-run online ambassador campaign.

BWF did a quick survey of seven very different higher education institutions who recently conducted mostly online or online-only fundraising campaigns. The sample size was small, but diverse – schools included major public research institutions, small liberal arts schools, an Ivy League member, an internationally-renowned private, a small state school, among others. Of those surveyed, the average percentage of new donors during an online campaign was 40 percent. And the outliers were subtle – the lowest school had 27 percent, the highest 58 percent. And we’re not talking about 40 percent of a few dozen donors – most of the schools counted their donors in the thousands during these campaigns. This is especially impressive considering most of the campaigns were 36 hours or shorter.

Online ambassador campaigns lead to a huge influx of new donors.

Online ambassador campaigns lead to a huge influx of new donors.

Who are these newly acquired online donors? On average, they’re far wealthier than their peers who chose to give through traditional means like direct mail. According to a recent Convio study referenced below, those who give both online and off have the highest household incomes, followed by those who give only online. The distant third and least wealthy group are those who only give via mail.

Dual Channel Donors Income

If you want the wealthiest donors, look online.

To create online campaigns that help your organization or institution leverage the above trends, consider increasing your effort and resources in the following three areas:

  1. Develop a robust online ambassador program that identifies, engages, stewards, and leverages your most influential online supporters. Your message will go much further when it travels through this group of savvy Internet supporters.
  2. Invest in infrastructure. Unless you’re the Obama campaign, you can probably improve something about your organization’s online giving experience, Facebook applications, widgets, data recovery and storage, et al. Actually, I’ll bet even the democrats are thinking about how to improve things for 2016.
  3. Invest in personnel. Ultimately, ambassador programs and social media strategies are about managing relationships. To manage relationships, you need people.

To learn more about BWF’s online and social media fundraising consulting services, click here.

I Love UD – Another Online Ambassador Campaign Nets Million Dollar Results

ILoveUDHomepageBannerAnother online ambassador program has resulted in a 7-figure-plus fundraising campaign for a higher education institution. This time, it’s the University of Dayton and their I Love UD campaign. In addition to the spectacular fundraising haul and large number of new donors acquired (27 percent of the 3,016 donors were making their first ever gift to Dayton), this online campaign had a strong focus on donor retention. Chad Warren, the brains behind Florida State’s inaugural Great Give goes into detail about I Love UD’s donor retention plan …a plan that was built into the campaign. For specific tips on retaining new donors during online campaigns, start watching at about the 3-minute mark in the video below. Or, watch the whole thing to learn more about just how awesome the first I Love UD campaign was…

To learn more about building online ambassador programs that lead to successful fundraising campaigns, contact BWF’s Director of Interactive Communication Justin Ware, by clicking here.

Long Tail of Giving Follows Short Online Fundraising Campaigns

A new trend is starting to emerge that provides nonprofits with yet another reason to ramp up their online and social media giving efforts – the “long tail” of giving that follows those short-burst online fundraising campaigns. The roughly 24- to 72-hour, mostly-online or online-only campaigns have already proven themselves to be excellent tools for engaging new donors and boosting overall donor participation. Now, we’re starting to see the value in the “buzz” these campaigns create by the number of gifts that come in online AND off in the days and weeks immediately following the short online campaign.

Big Gifts Follow a Big Campaign at Columbia

GivingDayLogoEven without the post-campaign activity, Columbia University’s 2012 Giving Day was a big win for the institution and its alumni. In just 24 hours, Columbia’s supporters gave more than $6.8 million to the University through 4,940 gifts …all but 184 of which were given online. As is typical in short online campaigns, roughly 40 percent of those nearly 5,000 donors were making their first gift and more than half of the gifts originated on social networks (special apps allowed donors to start the giving process from blogs or Facebook pages. They were were then redirected to the main online giving website). But the giving didn’t end at midnight on Giving Day.

In the week following the Giving Day campaign, Columbia saw a significant boost to giving at all levels, with one story standing out. At an on-campus event, a major gift donor stood up in front of a crowd and pledged a seven-figure gift on the spot. The reason the donor gave for the spur-of-the-moment monster gift? They were proud of Columbia for taking such an innovative approach to giving and excited about all the activity around giving to the University they saw taking place online and, specifically, on social media. This is a direct example of social media buzz leading to major fundraising success for a university.

*Sidenote: multiple other institutions tell stories of seven-figure gifts coming in because a wealthy individual learned of the work being done at an institution on Facebook. That work mattered to the wealthy donor, causing them to reach out to the institution and make their first (very big) gift. Lesson? Social media is not just for the annual fund anymore.

UMassGives …and keeps giving

In late April 2013, the University of Massaschuetts Amherst conducted its first ever UMassGives – an entirely online, 36-hour campaign. The goal of UMassGives was twofold:

  1. Acquire new donors to UMass Amherst.
  2. Nurture the growing culture of philanthropy around the institution.

UMass Amherst accomplished all of the above raising nearly $84,000 from more than 1,500 donors. Roughly half of those donors were making their first ever gift to UMass – many of them students. Nothing says “expanding the culture of philanthropy at an institution” quite like engaging hundreds of students and young alumni in a buzz-worthy online fundraising campaign.


Twitter was a buzz with activity, helping virally spread the culture of philanthropy at UMass Amherst.

Twitter was a buzz with activity, helping virally spread the culture of philanthropy at UMass Amherst.

Again, the giving didn’t end with the 36-hour campaign. May 1-8, 2013 – the week immediately following UMassGives – saw twice the number of online gifts given and twice the dollars raised online when compared to May 1-8, 2012. This 100 percent increase to online giving is another example of the long tail following a short campaign.

Ambassadors drive buzz during and after online campaigns

Both Columbia’s Giving Day and UMassGives incorporated a peer-to-peer online communication plan. Or what we call at BWF, an online ambassador program. Ambassadors programs are built around the concept of having your biggest supporters do your communication work for your organization. Ambassadors share content on Facebook, post items to their blogs, tweet messages about your institution – they engage in activity that promotes your organization’s initiatives directly to their online connections. Simply put, ambassador programs are friends encouraging friends to support your philanthropic mission. It’s the age-old “recommendation from a friend” that is and has always been the most trusted form of promotion that leads to the most conversions – in the case of fundraising, that means more gifts given.

For Columbia and UMass, ambassadors were highly active during their online campaigns, igniting buzz in dozens of social media communities and spreading word of the campaigns. That buzz wasn’t extinguished the moment the campaigns ended. It carried throughout the days and weeks following the campaigns, helping to raise more dollars, acquire more new donors, and extend the culture of philanthropy for both institutions. The key is building a volunteer ambassador program for your organization so that you can influence that peer-to-peer activity and enjoy that long tail of giving, long after a short online fundraising campaign.

To learn about how BWF can help your organization build comprehensive online ambassador programs and prepare for online fundraising campaigns, contact BWF’s Director of Interactive Communication Justin Ware by clicking here.

Nielsen Study Shows the Monumental Importance of Online Ambassadors

According to a recent Nielsen study on which types of advertising or promotion people trust most, the top five in North America are:

  1. Recommendations from someone they know.
  2. Consumer opinions posted online.
  3. Editorial content such as newspaper articles.
  4. Emails they signed up for.
  5. Branded websites.
According to Nielsen, having a trusted source recommend you organization is the best form of advertising available.

According to Nielsen, having a trusted source recommend you organization is the best form of advertising available.

In other words, if you want someone to know and trust your organization your best bet is having someone they know post something about your org online. Let that sink in for a second and then ask yourself, “do we have a plan for encouraging our more active online followers to talk about us online?” In other words, do you have an online ambassador program? Components of a good ambassador program include:

  1. Ongoing identification of potential ambassadors for both awareness building and fundraising initiatives.
  2. Stewardship of those potential and approved ambassadors through good content and smart online conversation management.
  3. A plan for contacting potential ambassadors and officially bringing them into the program.
  4. A strategy for leveraging the support of your ambassadors.

We continue to see more examples of this approach leading to fundraising success. Two of our favorite examples are Florida State’s Great Give and Columbia’s more recent Giving Day. Both campaigns had a heavy reliance on some form of an online ambassador program. Simply put, a robust ambassador program could be the most important thing your nonprofit can do from a communications standpoint. So good luck building your program! Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

Justin Ware is a fundraising consultant who specializes in online and social media engagement at Bentz Whaley Flessner. To contact Justin, click here.

Obama’s Online Ambassadors – How It Can Work for Your Nonprofit

As someone who works in online and social media fundraising, I’ve been asked on more than one occasion “how did Obama do it?” The easy answer is to respond by explaining how different a presidential campaign is from most of the fundraising operations we work with …but that would be ignoring some very obvious and useful strategies that can easily be transitioned from Team Obama to your organization.

First, I would suggest you read two excellent pieces from Time‘s Swampland blog. The first, Inside the Secret World of the Data Crunchers Who Helped Obama Win by Michael Scherer and the second, Friended: How the Obama Campaign Connected with Young Voters also by Michael Scherer, tell the story of Obama’s data-driven network of online ambassadors and how they helped him win re-election. Below, I’ll take a look at the highlights from those two articles and offer suggestions for how the principles behind Obama’s strategy can work for your organization.

Identifying and Organizing Your Online Ambassadors

It’s important knowing who your online ambassadors are. (Remember, ambassadors are influential Internet users who are or likely would be vocal online supporters of your organization). Equally as important is knowing what your ambassadors like or, more specifically, what they like to do when they’re online. The following is an excerpt from Scherer on how Obama’s “megafile” of donors was divided into sub files based on what messages resonated with the people in those groups:

The new megafile didn’t just tell the campaign how to find voters and get their attention; it also allowed the number crunchers to run tests predicting which types of people would be persuaded by certain kinds of appeals. Call lists in field offices, for instance, didn’t just list names and numbers; they also ranked names in order of their persuadability, with the campaign’s most important priorities first. About 75% of the determining factors were basics like age, sex, race, neighborhood and voting record. Consumer data about voters helped round out the picture. “We could [predict] people who were going to give online. We could model people who were going to give through mail. We could model volunteers,” said one of the senior advisers about the predictive profiles built by the data. “In the end, modeling became something way bigger for us in ’12 than in ’08 because it made our time more efficient.”

After you’ve identified your first group(s) of online ambassadors, study their online behavior. What type of content do they retweet? Which posts from your organization’s accounts do they share? What gets those ambassadors talking with their online connections? Create ambassador profiles that stores and saves this information about their online behavior. It will help you hone a more effective content strategy and help strengthen your relationships with the ambassadors, because you’ll better be able to deliver what they want. All of this leads to your organization’s ability to better leverage those ambassadors when you need them, like during an online fundraising campaign.

Online Giving Must Be Easy

Especially when it comes to mobile giving, the process must be almost effortless. As in one click and you’re done. Literally. Why? Scherer explains:

Chicago discovered that people who signed up for the campaign’s Quick Donate program, which allowed repeat giving online or via text message without having to re-enter credit-card information, gave about four times as much as other donors.

“Buyer’s remorse” is a real problem that affects an unknown, but certainly significant number of nonprofits. It occurs when a donor intends to make a gift, but gives up halfway through the process. It can happen for a number of reasons, but one sure way to reduce buyer’s remorse is by shortening the online giving process so the donor has less opportunity to give up. Remove as many obstacles as possible at every juncture during the online giving process. Whether it’s your org’s online giving website or the mobile version, you’re sure to see more money come in online as a result.

Build Infrastructure to Enable the Support of Ambassadors

From Scherer’s piece…

Online, the get-out-the-vote effort continued with a first-ever attempt at using Facebook on a mass scale to replicate the door-knocking efforts of field organizers. In the final weeks of the campaign, people who had downloaded an app were sent messages with pictures of their friends in swing states. They were told to click a button to automatically urge those targeted voters to take certain actions, such as registering to vote, voting early or getting to the polls. The campaign found that roughly 1 in 5 people contacted by a Facebook pal acted on the request, in large part because the message came from someone they knew.

I am constantly suggesting to clients that they make investments in improved infrastructure to boost fundraising. Sure, Facebook and Twitter are free, but the possibilities are endless with, for example, custom-built Facebook applications. Determine what it is you need your Facebook page to do, then pay someone to build an app that does exactly that for your organization. It could be the quickest and surest way to measurable fundraising ROI using social media.

Justin Ware is a fundraising consultant who specializes in online and social media engagement at Bentz Whaley Flessner. To contact Justin, click here.

Facebook for Fundraising Done Right

A recent Africa-focused charity just completed a Facebook campaign that should serve as the blueprint for how to run a successful online campaign. Childfund International ran a contest that increased the transparency of its operation, energized donors and supporters, drove up social network activity, and – perhaps most important – created online ambassadors for their mission.

In short, Childfund ran a campaign that allowed its Facebook fans a vote to send one of five finalists to Africa to witness firsthand the work being done there. The winner was David Levis – a California school teacher and Childfund sponsor since 1999 (info from this Chronicle of Philanthropy article). This online voting and recognition campaign is a brilliant way to engage and use your Facebook fans in your overall communication, stewardshop, and acquisition strategies. Here’s why…

A Window into Your Organization

Online media is a great way to pull back the shades and open your organization up to supporters and donors. Videos, photos, blog posts, and other digital media can deliver news and information about your org quickly and effectively. This helps your constituents feel more connected to your mission. The following quotes from the Chronicle story show just how effective this campaign was at opening a window for Childfund’s supporters to peer through:

“The nicest thing about it was to really see how the system worked,” Mr. Levis says. “It seems like this small, little amount of money focusing on one child, and the reality of how they have it set up is so much bigger than that.”

While Mr. Levis traveled the country, he shared his experiences through blog posts and Facebook messages to “bring all of the other sponsors, in a sense, with us.”

It’s Authentic

Here are Mr. Levis’ words on the communication he sent back while in Africa:

The trip was to “put as much communication out there as much as possible to tell the stories as real and impassioned as possible each and every time.”

There’s nothing over the top or fake about a donor telling the story of an organization in their own words. Childfund also sprang for a well-produced video to help tell that story, but the entire time the voice was Mr. Levis. Being and feeling “real” is priceless in modern communications – having a donor tell the story in their words contributes to that feeling of realness.

Creating Online Ambassadors

The success of your online efforts depend, more than any other single factor, upon the size and enthusiasm of your volunteer online ambassadors. This is the army of people who support you and are vocal about their support of your organization both online and off. The Childfund Facebook campaign created an ambassador out of Mr. Levis…

Mr. Levis said his family hadn’t been public about its charitable donations in the past, but the trip gave him a chance to talk about ChildFund with his friends, family, students, and others.

Since he returned from the trip, five of his friends have signed up to sponsor needy children…

Consider your fans and followers in social media. If even 5 percent of them brought another five supporters into your organization, what would that do to your donor acquisition numbers? Maybe that’s why we keep  hearing so much about the potential of online when it comes to acquiring new donors.

For more information on how an online strategy can boost your fundraising programs, visit BWF.com.

Online Giving Leads to Bigger Gifts and More First-time Donors

As online giving continues its yearly explosion in popularity, we’re starting to learn more about what Internet giving means to our fundraising efforts overall. One of the lessons seems to be that online is a great way to introduce new donors to your organization.

First, have a look at this recent Blackbaud study on Internet and multichannel giving. Among the many findings in this study are the statistics that show a growing number of first-time donors are finding organizations through the Internet as opposed to direct mail. In fact, more donors made their first gifts online than via direct mail for every age group under 64 years old. The study also says online-acquired donors make much larger gifts than direct mail-acquired donors.

For a real-world example of an online campaign leading to new gifts, check out this post on the recent, 36-hour, online-only campaign conducted by the annual giving team at Florida State University. Not only did FSU receive $186,000 in online gifts in just a day and a half, but of the 1,100 donors who gave, 380 of them were first-time donors to the university.

The End of Direct Mail?

No. Not yet. Not even close, because direct mail, according to that same Blackbaud study, is where the majority of first-time donors give their follow-up gifts after they’ve made their initial online gift. And the reverse is not true. Only a tiny percentage of those who give their first gift via direct mail make the switch back to online. Of course, it’s highly likely that we will eventually see the day when direct mail is no longer part of the game, but according to the numbers, that day is decades away.

Social Media for Stewardship

So we know the Internet is a great way to bring new donors in and we hope we can then transition those new donors into lifelong supporters. It also appears that once those donors make the transition over to consistent supporters, the majority of them no longer use the Internet as the primary vehicle for delivering their gifts to the organizations they support. So does that mean that the Internet should be pigeon-holed into an acquisition-only tool? Most definitely not.

Have look at some of the written responses submitted at the end of the recently completed Cygnus Donor Survey. As I read through this list, every request could be satisfied through smart online tools or an integrated social media strategy…or both. Let’s take a look at a few of those written responses (in bold) to serve as examples…

…giving loyal donors feedback about their accumulative giving to a cause over five, ten or even fifteen years. Often donors who make big, one-time gifts are featured and thanked, but other donors like myself who give what we can but do so year after year are not appreciated in the same way. Being reminded of how long I have been giving and what that has added up to over time would, in itself, be a new incentive to giving more.

A nonprofit could easily build the infrastructure that allows for this type of information. I would advise that you make it part of a social network – perhaps a custom-built Facebook page could link to this information stored on your organization’s server? Or maybe your org offers supporters a private social network where this information could be stored?

…knowing someone personally who is involved in a not-for-profit. This heightens my desire to support them in their work. This is especially so when the person is a volunteer who is passionate about the cause – both my heart and my wallet are more likely to open. That said, I’m also open to giving to a paid employee. I just made a donation to Unicef because their canvasser – who I’m sure was paid – was extremely well-informed as well as very passionate about what Unicef does for children.

Having an integrated social media plan that everyone in your organization understands and is aware of makes it possible to utilize your entire staff (and volunteers) in managing your daily online conversations. It’s one of the best and easiest ways to use your existing staff to open a window into your organization for supporters to peer through.

…knowing that my giving produces results. I have increased my support to Ceasefire in Chicago because they are so good at providing measurable results. Also, I increased my support for my university when someone from the Development Office took me out for coffee to tell me what they have been doing with donors’ contributions. She did not ask for money. I was impressed and became a larger, more regular donor.

Use your website, email, and social media to convey the good news about your work on a daily basis. Also, have conversations with your supporters through social media.

…having greater confidence that the not-for-profits in which I take an interest really achieve sustainable progress. For example, some NGOs trying to help poor children in Africa and Asia seem to increase their dependence; it’s like keeping a whole continent in childhood. It’s nice and very honorable to try to help, but only if it results in increased independence and sustainable growth. As a young donor and recent university graduate, I also think it is my job to be informed about the impact that charities make with donors’ contributions. We’re both responsible.

One of the most effective examples I’ve seen to date at providing this type of stewardship is A Child’s Right – an international clean water charity. Check out their “Proving It” blog to see online stewardship at its best.

Once you’ve acquired a donor, next comes the relationship building. Modern, online communications – specifically that which is rooted in social networks – is about forming relationships with those who matter to your organization. Use the tools Mark Zuckerberg and others have made available to you as a method of both attracting new donors and stewarding existing donors. As this Blackbaud study confirms, your fundraising efforts will grow as a result.

For more on social media in philanthropy, visit BWF.com.

Florida State Wins Big with 36-hour Online Fundraising Campaign

LogoIn August 2011, BWF had the good fortune of being invited to conduct a social media strategy workshop at The Florida State University. After the workshop, Chad Warren – Director of Annual Giving, set to work applying the principles we established during the workshop. Within a few months, plans were in a place for an online-only giving campaign that would take place over a short period of time – 36 hours, to be exact. Chad and his small team of three, with a budget of less than $10,000, worked hard using social media, email, traditional media (TV, print, radio), and direct mail to promote the 36-hour campaign in the days leading up to and during the event.

The results speak for themselves – $186,000 given by 1,100 different donors during the 36-hour period. Of those 1,100 donors, 380 had never given to FSU before and nearly 90 percent of them had never given online. Chad talks more about how the FSU “Great Give” was conducted in the video below… And about how the successful promotion of the Great Give through digital channels could translate into big savings thanks to no longer having to rely as heavily on traditional, more expensive annual fund tactics like direct mail.