As demonstrators took to the streets of Baltimore at the end of April to protest the death of Freddie Gray, the Maryland governor’s office made a call to the area’s United Way branch. Create a fund for people’s donations, officials urged the organization. Call it "Maryland Unites."
The United Way of Central Maryland liked the idea and launched an online and mobile campaign within 24 hours that eventually raised more than $570,000.
"We’re a really trusted organization in the area, and the government knew once funds came in we’d have a stringent process in place to determine distribution of those funds," said Danielle Hogan, director of marketing and communications for the United Way of Central Maryland.
People quickly began to donate online and with smartphones. As money rolled in, it soon became apparent that the original goal of $20,000 was too low.
"We had to put this together so quickly, we really lowballed our goal," Ms. Hogan said. "We had surpassed that and raised $100,000 within 48 hours."
Over the course of a few weeks, the organization increased the goal, first to $250,000, then to $500,000. A local television station helped spread the word by running a free public-service announcement advertising the fund.
Individuals also promoted the campaign. The nonprofit used a platform developed by MobileCause that combines crowdfunding with peer-to-peer soliciting. People create their own fundraising pages on the platform and share personalized appeals via text messages. The nonprofit already worked with MobileCause, making it easier to quickly launch the new effort.
"Mobile is the best impulse-capturing device ever invented," says MobileCause CEO Sean MacNeill.
The organization kept its appeal general at first, saying that the money would be used for humanitarian relief and emergency support in Baltimore neighborhoods affected by the unrest. After a steering committee made up of community leaders and government officials analyzed grant applications, it awarded money to 23 local nonprofits and churches at the beginning of June.
The United Way used contact information it collected from donors to follow up with them by email and text message to explain how the money was going to be used.
"When we first launched the campaign, we didn’t make mobile phone numbers a requirement," Ms. Hogan said. "We learned we had to capture that information."
She hopes that the Maryland Unites donors will contribute to the United Way of Central Maryland in the future.
"They’ve become part of our donor base that we’ll communicate to on a regular basis," she said.