Yes! ...and Harder Than It May Seem
by Adam Copeland, Director of the Center for Stewardship Leaders at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota
Crowdfunding has quietly become a multi-billion-dollar industry. In fact, if you grace the pages of GoFundMe you’ll also get the sense it’s become much more: an online community for generous souls, a curation space for dreams, even a stand-in social safety net. For faith communities, the potential of inviting gifts in new ways—and perhaps from new audiences—can be really appealing. But, as sometimes happens with technological change, our existing practices actually hold back the technology’s potential.
First, let me be clear by what I mean by the term “crowdfunding.” Generally speaking, crowdfunding is goal-based fundraising ventures, conducted by groups or individuals using the Internet, that seek small contributions from a large number of people. Crowdfunding campaigns are often hosted by websites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, GoFundMe, even Facebook. Chances are, if you use social media at all, you’ve seen a crowdfunding campaign. At their best, these campaigns offer a great opportunity for non-profits or congregations to make a fundraising appeal. But just because they offer the potential for a new funding opportunity doesn’t mean crowdfunding is easy.
I recently completed a large crowdfunding research project and the results were fascinating. Working with nine faith-related organizations as they planned, organized, and launched crowdfunding campaigns, I found that even well-run organizations really struggle when it comes to crowdfunding. Despite careful work and laudable goals, six of the organizations I followed eventually decided not to launch a campaign after all. Of the three that launched, none met their fundraising goals.
Yet, that’s not to say I—or my research partners—am down on crowdfunding. In total, those three organizations raised over $35,000 via crowdfunding or directly related invitations to give. That’s “real money” as they say, and all the organizations that launched campaigns were really grateful they did so. In fact, the organizational learnings that came out of the crowdfunding process were sometimes as valuable as the actual financial gains. Before your faith-related organization jumps to crowdfunding, though, I suggest contemplating these four keys:
- Campaign Goal is Paramount – Most non-profits tend to think about big, mission-oriented, aspirational goals. That’s great but crowdfunding only works well with very specific targets. I’ve found many non-profits like the idea of crowdfunding yet get stuck pretty early in the process because they can’t find an appropriate goal. If you’re not used to fundraising for very focused, tangible, time-sensitive aims, it can be really hard to change organizational culture and select a powerful crowdfunding goal.
- The Audience (Won’t) Surprise You – Intellectually, at least, crowdfunding seems like it should expand the potential audience of a non-profit or congregation. After all, the internet sure does reach a lot of people, right? In reality, though, the vast majority of campaigns are supported by people already known to your organization. Sure, you may get a few new donors to support a crowdfunding campaign (e.g. a pastor’s old friend, a neighbor) but, overall, the audience of crowdfunding campaigns run by organizations doesn’t expand much beyond already-existing relationships.
- All-or-Nothing is All-So-Difficult – Much of the lineage of crowdfunding comes from business-based crowdfunding campaigns with an all-or-nothing approach to them. In these campaigns, the pitch includes a claim that, “Only with your help can we make this happen.” If the goal isn’t reached, the campaign doesn’t move forward. While charitable crowdfunding campaigns are rarely run in a true all-or-nothing style, this only if approach can be really powerful rhetorically. People will often give to all-or-nothing campaigns more than once because they want to make sure the campaign reaches its goal. In contrast, non-profits usually have a we’ll-make-do approach. Sure, they’d love to hit 100% of the goal, but they could make do with anything. This attitude (which I completely appreciate from a leadership point-of-view), cuts against the best of crowdfunding’s pitch potential. It’s really difficult for non-profits to think in all-or-nothing terms, but these are exactly the sorts of campaigns that are most effective.
- The Humble Invitation – Crowdfunding campaigns succeed when they’re accompanied with robust communication and marketing plans. These use lots of existing networks, email lists, and face-to-face invitations to give. They get the message out again and again. My research found that many faith-related non-profits showed a hesitancy to spread the good news about their campaigns. Or, while they might make a video and post it to Facebook saying the campaign exists, they didn’t always make the connection – this exists, and I invite you to give. Nothing goes viral on its own.
Faith-related organizations aren’t known for their speedy embrace of technology. When it comes to crowdfunding, we have a lot of room to grow. That noted, crowdfunding as a form of invitation to give isn’t going away. So, let’s improve our practices so our supporters can step up their giving.