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Nonprofit Crowd Funding Success Formula: Robust Planning, Networks, and Blessings

This article originally appeared on "Beth's Blog", a blog teaching connected nonprofits how to leverage networks and data for social change by author Beth Kanter.

Dalai Lama Foundation campaign featured in New York's Times Square

I’m always on a higher path of learning. So, I reached out to Brian to learn more about the inside story of their success and lessons learned.

The mission of the Dalai Lama Foundation is “to support the development of our shared global capacity for ethics and peace, based on a non-dogmatic ethic of compassion.” The Foundation was established, with the Dalai Lama’s endorsement and advice, by friends and students who have known and worked with him for many years.  The Foundation is involved in developing a three-phase project that celebrates the Dalai Lama’s legacy called “The Living History Project.”   The project is the centerpiece of the Foundation’s programs, so it was an obvious choice for a crowd funding campaign.   Says Brian, “While we have several strategies for fundraising for this project, part of the appeal of crowd-funding is that it becomes a project for everyone, all of the donors, promoters, sponsors and endorsers.”

They started planning the fundraiser in June for an October launch, starting with the fundamentals – setting short-term and long term goals beyond the dollar amounts,  recruiting a campaign team, collecting collateral materials, figuring out dollar goals and donor perks, and selecting the Indiegogo platform.  

“Our perks were donated by the various artists, companies and other sponsors. We focused heavily on digital perks at the lower levels of sponsorship as they are easiest to fulfill and at the higher levels, most of our partners shipped the perks directly to the donors.”

Actress Amanda Wyss asks fans to support the Dalai Lama Foundation

Pulling together a campaign team is really critical to success.  According to Indiegogo’s data, campaigns run by two or more team members raise 94%more money than campaigns run by single individuals.   The campaign started with in-house staff and an outside consultant.     They recruited some pro bono volunteers to create a video, editorial, and public relations – to help pull together the pitch and endorsement videos, and to help pitch the campaign to media outlets. As they collected campaign materials, they reached out to photographers that could participate in the campaign and donate their images of the Dalai Lama for promotion.  They strategically expanded their campaign team with champions who were familiar with to the foundation and could leverage their online networks to reach an audience that was not in their typical donor base.

The champions included people well-known and aligned to the Dalai Lama Foundation’s mission:

- Jack Kornfield – Buddhist teacher and author who narrated the pitch video

- Thupten Jinpa – His Holiness’ English translator and DLF Board Member

- Amanda Wyss – actress (best known for several 80s movies: Nightmare on Elm Street, Better Off Dead, Fast Times at Ridgemont High)

- Gingger Shankar – musician/composer

- Tenzin Tethong – DLF founder and first prime minister of Tibetan Government in Exile

- Peter Coyote – actor and Zen Buddhist teacher

- Michael Fitzpatrick – musician/composer

- Paul Blackthorne – actor/director (Arrow, Lagaan, Dumb & Dumber To)

Being as organized as Martha Stewart when it comes to developing and distributing campaign content for champions and aligned partners to use.   The Dalai Lama Foundation had a robust marketing strategy that capitalized on social media, traditional media, and aligned organizational partners and networks.   They reached out to all of the Dalai Lama related organizations, other Nobel laureates, Tibetan organizations, and our board members.  They provided them with materials to help them reach out to their networks, including sample status updates, tweets, newsletter blurbs, and blog posts.  They re-purposed their content for different audiences.

Did the Dalai Lama participate?   Brian admits, “As you can imagine, His Holiness is a busy man and when you have time with him, you only have so many requests you can make. We had his blessing on the overall project as well to raise money for this project, but asking him to take the time to be actively involved just isn’t realistic. Of course, we had the Dalai Lama name associated with the project and many images to use to promote, so it definitely still helps. We also involved Thupten Jinpa and Tenzin Tethong, both of them whom gave us the legitimacy we needed within the Tibetan and Buddhist communities.”

The campaign dollar goal was $115, 000, but when they surpassed it they added a stretch of $125,00 which they exceeded.   Brian says since it was the organization’s crowd funding campaign, setting a dollar goal involved finding just the right amount – not too high and unrealistic and too small to fail.  Getting pre-launch donation commitments as you would in a capital or endowment campaign is also key to success.  

Says Brian, “There is a lot of psychology that goes into your planning, we wanted the campaign to look successful right off the bat. We actually had commitments from some donors before the campaign launched so that we knew in the first 24 hours, we would look successful. This is important for a few reasons. Donors tend to want to donate to successful campaigns. Early successes also get noticed by the Indiegogo algorithm and your campaign will be featured more on their site and in their social media.”

Another important consideration is having a match, which definitely spurs more donations if used strategically.   The Dalai Lama Foundation had the match commitment in hand prior to launch, but  did not incorporate into the campaign until they reached a plateau mid-way.    As Brian says, “The biggest reason we wanted a match was that it gave us “news” – a reason to reach out to everyone with something new and exciting during our midway point when donations were starting to plateau. The stretch goal was similar to this. We added the stretch goal as a way to reach out to our donors one last time with news.”

The Foundation also strategically leveraged a giving day, Giving Tuesday.  “Giving Tuesday as a big push to wrap the campaign because we used it as our ending deadline.”   Brian notes that it did not impact their annual campaign in a negative way at all.   “Historically, the bulk of our fundraising at the Dalai Lama Foundation has been through a traditional end of year mailing. One of my primary responsibilities has been to expand our online giving and this was one of the ways we did this. Because most of our donors give during our mailing, Giving Tuesday doesn’t really impact those donors one way the other.”

It may be because most of the people who donated to the Dalai Lama Crowd Funding campaign were new donors.   Says Brian, “85% were new donors. The majority of those were converted from Facebook, then Instagram (which was also surprising) and finally Twitter.”

I did not know when we made the decision how much I would LOVE Indiegogo. They were amazing through the whole campaign. We actually chose them because they have a good track record supporting nonprofits, and they had a program where we could keep any donations whether or not we reached our goal. The platform is very easy to use and integrated well with FirstGiving which was ideal because then they handled all of the thank you’s and proof of donation letters.

Brian says that the Indiegogo platform support was really helpful, including a review of their strategy, video pitch script, and advice from their PR team.   “They were always available for trouble-shooting (and believe me, there were a couple of issues) and they checked-in on our progress.”

Overall, the campaign was a success, even beyond the dollar amounts.    The foundation saw an uptick in their social media following, in people wanting to volunteer for the organization, and regular donations.

Brian’s advice for other nonprofits:

- Take the time to plan, don’t just jump into it

- Utilize staff and board as champions

- Robust marketing plan

- Reach beyond your traditional donors and leverage the networks of champions and aligned partners

- Crowdfunding is not easy money – it takes time, work, and planning

Is your nonprofit planning a crowd funding or has just completed one?  What are your tips for success?


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