by Joanna Pachner
Special to The Globe and Mail
Published on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009 12:00AM EST
Late last month, some 25,000 people in 75 cities across the globe gathered in groups to walk a dozen kilometres - some of them meeting at dusk and sleeping outside in parks or on public lawns, then rising at 5 a.m. to make the trek back. They were replicating the journeys made by northern Uganda's "night commuters" - children who each evening travel to safe towns to avoid abduction by guerrillas during the night.
The event, called GuluWalk (after one of the Ugandan towns that serve as the children's destination) generated media coverage, blogs and Twitter streams from participants, and raised $125,000. Since it started in the summer of 2005, the annual event has raised almost $4-million for Ugandan charities through online pledges. And until last year, it was all managed by two men working on laptops at their kitchen tables.
Adrian Bradbury, co-founder of parent charity Athletes for Africa, says nothing like this could have been organized on such a scale and with so few resources before the dawn of social media. His organization provides volunteers around the world with online toolkits that help them set up Web pages to promote and fundraise for the event.
"For me, the biggest advantage is how inexpensive it is and how easy it is to get it going," he says.
Tiny non-profits like GuluWalk have been some of the biggest winners in the Web 2.0 revolution, but online fundraising is growing in importance for charities of all sizes. While only about 10 per cent of Canadians have donated online to date, according to a study by Ipsos Reid, that's up dramatically from the 4 per cent who reported doing so last year. In fact, as the downturn bites into charities' donation totals, direct-mail expenses grow while ROI declines, and telemarketing is curbed by do-not-call lists, the one area where fundraising results are improving is online.
That the boom in social media such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter would be a boon to charities shouldn't surprise, says Philip King, president of Artez Interactive, a Toronto-based developer of online tools for charities.
"Social networking was going on in fundraising from the very beginning, in volunteers raising money by walking to neighbours' doors. All we've done is taken that model and accelerated it through digital technology. The difference is how fast and how broad the impact."
The potential of online fundraising was vividly illustrated by Barack Obama's presidential campaign. He raised about $500-million (U.S.) through online contributions.
As Sharon Avery, a vice-president with Unicef Canada, pointed out in a podcast earlier this year, the campaign has become a model for charities by showing them the gains possible "through small donations and small interactions." It also provided lessons in how to do it right: with a simple message, great storytelling and an open forum where anybody could say anything and engage with the cause.
The biggest strength of the online model, however, lies in the ability to turn supporters into fundraisers. Mr. King's message to his clients is: "Charities, don't go searching for donors, search for fundraisers. Don't try to blast the donors with direct mail. Try to share the message, so they'll modify it and spin it out for you."
Artez, for example, offers charities Web templates they can provide to supporters, who in turn customize them into websites through which they can seek sponsors for runs or attendees to events.
"Most charities don't have capacity to build their own systems," notes Mr. King, so his company and others like Convio offer their products as software-as-a-service. Aside from pre-designed Web pages, the systems function as secure e-commerce sites through which charities can gather and process donations.
While large charities have been using online tools for years to issue electronic receipts and attract younger donors, they have been cautious about widely exploiting social networks. Fears around complexity in dealing with new technology combine with worries about security. An Ipsos Reid study found that information-security concerns have kept more than 40 per cent of donors interested in giving through the Web from doing so.
But charities' biggest reservations centre on ceding control. Louise Bellingham, vice-president of marketing at United Way Toronto, says her organization has a proprietary online system to help run its workplace campaigns, and uses Twitter, Facebook and other social media to spread the word about its campaigns.
"Canadians are very net-savvy. There's an expectation for charities to be available and reached in this manner," she says. But she acknowledges that it's harder to manage the message once you venture into social networks. "You need to be more open to dialogue [with your supporters] and be monitoring that dialogue, and choose when you want to participate in that dialogue."
Charities are terrified of bad publicity, and so want to closely manage anything that happens under their logos, lest offensive language or other abuses tarnish their brands.
"The brand is almost everything for charities because it's all about trust," Mr. King says, but he notes that modern communications give charities no choice but to let go a bit. "The change you fear has already occurred, and charities need to get ahead of this curve."
Mr. Bradbury of GuluWalk understands the qualms. "You do give up control - you're letting your supporters tell the story," he says. "But people give to people they know, so asking a friend or colleague to give is an easier ask [than for an unknown organization]."
In the five years he's been running GuluWalk, he has yet to hear of anyone doing anything untoward. "That fear, I don't know how real it is," he says. "Yes, there's much to lose by letting go of control - but so much to gain."
HOW TO RAISE MONEY ON THE WEB
Know your demographic
Who are your top supporters? Past patients? Socially conscious students? University alumni? Build on your success with them by studying what worked, then segment your appeals based on age, gender, income, interests and level of involvement.
Make call to action
Donors need to be asked to give, show up or volunteer, and in a way that makes it easy for them to respond. Put the "Donate Now" button at the top left of the Web or e-mail form, or make it a banner. Philip King of Artez recommends showing your fundraising site to someone new and watching as they try to make a donation. How many steps to complete the transaction?
Keep it simple
Campaigns need a direct message so people get who you are and what you want.
Understand the media
Facebook, Twitter and other social media are tools, but don't assume that followers will translate into donors and volunteers. "You still need a good story, a good event," GuluWalk's Adrian Bradbury says. The fast-paced Twitter may not work for campaigns where you need people to feel engaged with your story.
Don't look like a spammer
You never know when someone may tag your appeals as junk mail. Send e-mails sparingly and make them interesting. "Fundraising organizations have some of the most inspiring, compelling stories," Mr. King notes. "Make sure those stories aren't smothered under a pile of text."