March 20, 2011

Raising Money When Your Cause Just Isn't Sexy

How do you raise money online for your organization when it's important but not "sexy"?

In other words, what do you do when you don't have cute cats or dogs or groups of smiling kids to grab people's attention? What if your cause is fighting colorectal cancer or protecting the watershed system in New York or ending child prostitution and trafficking?

Simple: Build an online community focused on the topic.

That's the suggestion of Susan Gordon, director of nonprofit services at Causes, a technology platform that is used primarily to raise money through Facebook. She offered her ideas at the Nonprofit Technology Conference this week in Washington.

Campaign for Cancer Prevention, for example, is not the easiest cause to promote because it focuses on research, not helping cancer patients.

A doctoral student came up with the idea to raise money for a nonprofit hospital in Boston that he thought was doing great cancer research. He called on his classmates to join him in the cause, and shared the hospital's story on Facebook. As a result, he raised $318,800 from more than 6 million donors.

Many charities approach online fund raising with the same strategies used in direct mail. That's the wrong approach, Ms. Gordon says.

Social networks require a more personal and interactive type of fund raising, she said, one that makes people who give feel connected to others.

Last week, for example, the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California used Causes to raise money for the Japanese earthquake and tsunami disaster-relief efforts.

The 35-year-old organization serves the neighborhood called Japantown in San Francisco. It raised $150,000, or 60 percent of what the American Red Cross has raised on Causes.

Although its e-mail list is not large, the people who have signed up to help the group care deeply about the organization and have a "strong offline community" that could use social media well to reach out to friends and relatives interested in making donations to help the disaster victims, Ms. Gordon said.

Once a community of supporters exists, the best way to keep it strong is to offer people a chance to do something meaningful, Ms. Gordon says.

Employees of the Love Without Boundaries Foundation recruited 75 volunteers from all over the world to help it respond to its supporters on Facebook.

The charity, which helps children in China who are orphaned or from needy families, assigned volunteers little tasks they could do to expand the organization's presence on Facebook, such as thanking each donor who makes a gift and welcoming new Facebook fans.

"Social media is made for nonprofits that may not be the sexiest cause but have people who really, really care about it," Ms. Gordon says.