Guest post by Jesse Noyes
The outlook for the Statue of Liberty was bleak in 1885.
Construction of the statue had been completed the year before in France, but efforts to construct a pedestal in New York ground to a halt. The committee in charge of fundraising was short on cash. Efforts to appropriate money in state and national legislatures were defeated. And the press scorned the fundraising effort.
Except for Joseph Pulitzer. The publisher of the New York newspaper the World, Pulitzer used all his influence to launch an aggressive fundraising campaign that bypassed the rich and instead solicited donations from average residents. He promised to print the name of every donor in his paper. In only six months, more than 120,000 donors – from children to recovering alcoholics – sent in donations of typically less than a $1. The resulting total reached $102,000.
A little over a year later, President Grover Cleveland presided over the dedication ceremony. Ironically, he had vetoed a bill that would have provided $50,000 for the pedestal as governor of New York.
We Call it Crowdfunding
This kind of mico-funding approach remains alive and well today. We see examples in the ongoing success of Kickstarter, in the record number of small donations President Barack Obama collected during his 2008 campaign and, humorously, in the manner Stephen Colbert has solicited funds for his satiric Super Pac.
It’s taken on more techie monikers like crowdfunding or micro-funding as advances in social media and tools like PayPal have made collecting small donations from a wider base of supporters more accessible than ever. Despite these advances, many nonprofits are reluctant to jump on board, perhaps because so many are entrenched in the traditional means of fundraising.
According to Blackbaud’s annual State of the Nonprofit Industry Survey, the three fundraising sources cited as the most effective are gifts from major donors, special events and direct mail. New models like social networking and text messaging rank near the bottom.
But I would argue that the crowdfunding model is as old as the pedestal the Statue of Liberty stands upon, and that most nonprofits are missing the critical step that makes a crowdfunding campaign successful.
Pairing Fundraising with Influencers
Crowfunding has existed long before the term was coined. But to pull it off organizations need to think beyond platforms. They need to build relationships with influencers who will trumpet their cause and campaigns.
Take the example of the Pulitzer and the pedestal. Pulitzer took a personal shining to Lady Liberty. He had a platform and an audience. And he bypassed the traditional fundraising models that were failing the cause (think government grants and giant corporate gifts for our context), promising New York City residents to print their names in his paper regardless of the size of their gift.
Today Stephen Colbert is virtually replicating this crowdfunded experiment with his Super Pac. Using TV as his platform, he scrolls the name of every donor during his show. Both efforts are successful because they are paired with influential people who can use their sway and platforms to raise large sums of money in small portions from a wider base of people.
For anyone who claims this is an extreme example, consider Geoff Livingston’s “Punish Geoff Fundraiser.” Geoff’s blog is influential, but hardly on the scale of “The Colbert Report” or Pulitzer’s newspaper. The point is that crowdfunding is not all that radical or difficult if the cause teams with influencers who are willing to use their online influence to drum up support.
Influencer marketing might be a new term for many nonprofits, but the concept isn’t. It’s about finding those within your networked community that will act as passionate advocate for your cause. Fortunately, sites like Klout, PeerIndex and Edelman BlogLevel are making it easier to identify and build a relationship with these champions.
Very little has changed since Pulitzer was around. Influence can still make or break a charitable campaign. But technology has made those influencers more accessible, even to nonprofits large and small.
Jesse Noyes is the corporate reporter at Eloqua and his writing is featured on It’s All About Revenue. He was previously a reporter for the Boston Herald and the Boston Business Journal, and has written frequently on issues impacting the nonprofit industry.