June 01, 2010

Guest Post: A Social-Media Experiment Raises Big Money for Small Charity

Estrella Rosenberg didn't set out to raise money when she began experimenting with the social-networking site Foursquare in April.

Ms. Rosenberg, the founder and director of Big Love Little Hearts and One Hundred Squared, in Chicago, was simply trying to see if the location-based social-networking site could be used to stimulate some conversation about her cause, which focuses on congenital heart defects.

But her experiment — hatched in just nine days with no budget — exceeded her expectations and attracted a previously unknown benefactor.

Below is Ms. Rosenberg's account of her effort. You can read more of her writing on her blog, Adventures in Philanthropy.


By Estrella Rosenberg

I’d seen some good (and not-so-good) examples of how nonprofit groups had used Foursquare to raise money. But could Foursquare be used for awareness and advocacy?

I began thinking about this question on April 1 related to my work with Big Love Little Hearts, a nonprofit group that focuses on congenital heart defects. And I began framing that question around some basic statistics about these diseases.

One in 100 children are born with a heart defect. When was the 100th day of the year? It happened to be April 10. Could I come up with a campaign in nine days, launch it, and have it be successful?

I had no idea. But I’m not afraid of failure so I set out to create a Foursquare experiment.

We created a hashtag, #100X100, which stood for 1 in 100 on the 100th day of the year. I created a Web site to explain what it was and why it was important and to set the action steps we wanted supporters to take (spread awareness with the hashtag and call or write their representatives asking them to support the Congenital Heart Futures Act). We also created a Facebook fan page and Twitter profile.

Then we recruited volunteers to commit to a guerilla, grass-roots effort to use Foursquare to spread our message.

On the evening of April 9, a few dozen Big Love Little Hearts volunteers added the following as a “tip” to 600 Foursquare locations: “1 in 100 children are born w/ a heart defect. Pulse-Ox screening saves lives – you can too! Check in with the hashtag #100X100”.

We also embedded a link in the tip to the One Hundred Squared site. We chose what we thought would be the most checked-in locations on a Saturday — airports, Starbucks and Target stores, gyms, etc. — in major cities around the U.S.

One of the benefits of using Foursquare as an origin point is that most people who use it sync their check-ins to Twitter and Facebook. This meant that one person checking with #100X100 had the possibility of being viewed across three platforms with three audiences. Talk about bang for your (time) buck!

Did it work? Better than I could have possibly imagined. My goal with this experiment was simply to see how social media worked for advocacy and awareness.

But something extraordinary happened.

I began Foursquaring/Tweeting/Facebooking about #100X100 at 12:01 a.m. on April 10. Big Love Little Hearts supporters followed.

By 7:30 a.m., an angel who was following one of our followers on Twitter (but not us) noticed our hashtag. It turned out that she is an adult with a congenital heart disease who was not diagnosed at birth and who is alive today because she received lifesaving surgery.

Her passion for our work led her to call me and commit to donating $1 for every time someone used the #100X100 hashtag until midnight on April 10.

How much did we raise? She gave me a cap of $25,000. I knew the moment she said it, that our group, which was not quite 10 months old, wouldn’t reach the cap.

But, much to my surprise, our supporters were so engaged that we made it almost halfway to that goal. By 11:45 p.m., the hashtag had been used 11,703 times across all three platforms. Our donor was so impressed that she donated the full $25,000.

That money was enough to pay for 12 surgeries for patients in developing countries. Twelve lives saved in 24 hours. Not bad for something we didn’t even plan for.

That’s great, but did it work for advocacy and awareness? A resounding yes!

What was the advocacy we wanted to accomplish? On April 22, about 100 people from various congenital heart-disease groups were set to meet in Washington for CHD Lobby Day.

We wanted to plant a seed for people who had used #100X100 on April 10 to call their Senator or member of Congress and let them know that they supported measures that would greatly improve the lives of the two million people in the U.S. with congenital heart diseases.

On April 22, we again used the hashtag via Twitter, Facebook, and Foursquare to remind our supporters of our goal. By noon, more people had visited our Web site than had come to the site during the entire day on April 10.

I had seven appointments with senators and members of Congress from Illinois that day. There wasn’t a single one I walked into in which an aide didn’t inform me that constituents had been calling about this all day. People from other states text-messaged or called me to relay similar messages.

More than 500 people let me know they had contacted their representative. Some 300 more contacted the Big Love office to do the same. I cried with pride the entire day.

What was the benefit of using Foursquare as our social-media springboard? The tips we left are still there and will stay there perpetually. For several locations, our tip is still the most recent and therefore what shows up when people check in.

One last nugget—all of this was free. We raised $25,000, saved 12 lives, and set the stage for millions of lives to be changed. If you work at a nonprofit group and don’t feel like you’re using Foursquare, Twitter, or Facebook to its potential, e-mail me: