Online fundraising

How to target potential donors when using personal stories isn’t an option?

I’m insatiably curious.  Mostly that’s been an asset for the kind of work I’ve done, but particularly in intercultural relations I am reminded that it’s a trait that can really work against me.  The training for working closely with immigrants and refugees emphasizes this:  do not ask about their pasts.  At all.  Unless they discuss the past, everything is from this moment forward. The more I’ve worked with immigrants and refugees, the more dimensions this has taken on, and the more it begins to make sense.   But sometimes I forget.

I was on a seminar in Sweden for a few days with people from countries around the world, but mostly from Europe and North America.  Out for lunch one day, I was sitting with a Swedish woman who worked in municipal communications, and a former journalist from Burundi who’d immigrated to Sweden a few years before as an asylum refugee.  They had been friends for a couple of years.  They were telling me about the asylum refugee approval process in Sweden.   I’m forgetting some of the details of this story now, but she said that for something like 95% of the people asking to stay in Sweden as asylum refugeesare sent back for a very long wait while their application is put in queue and their circumstances are evaluated.  In almost every single case, that was the process — for 95%.  But not for him, she said.  He was in the five percent.  At his initial asylum-claim interview, he was given asylum status on the spot.  We were out for lunch in casual conversation in a casual environment, I was itchily curious, and I couldn’t not scratch it.   “How come?”  I asked him.  “What was it that put you in the five percent?”   He became still, looked like his mind was racing for a response, and said very firmly, “I am not obliged to answer that.”

I swore at myself, rolled my eyes internally — how stupid – the experiences he had in Burundi were over that vast chasm.   When someone lives in a world so so far removed from horrific acts of war, places where journalism is often a dangerous profession, where corruption is complex, where caution develops as an eighth sense and where justice is iffy, it can be difficult – too impossible – to communicate across that chasm.   Plus, where did I get off having any expectation that he’d answer that?  Damn. I know better… but it was like the curious part of me was drooling.  It was none of my damned business.

We have this North American openness and willingness to reveal personal information to strangers fairly quickly.  That’s our reality, but it’s not the reality for many people.    There are lots of people who aren’t comfortable talking about things they feel or personal experience with people they hardly know —  not just culturally, or emotionally, or across a chasm where they were forever changed,  but also for those who remember there can be real life-and-death dangers in telling the truth to strangers.

I’m reflecting on this today:

Assume for a moment that personal stories are necessary as part of communications materials in order to make the work of charities or humanitarian organizations real and concrete, in order for fundraising to compel donations, in order for these organizations to help beneficiaries or to give them the money enabling them to help themselves.

What happens if a humanitarian organization needs a campaign to raise massive public donations, but the nature of the personal stories are so awful that those affected can’t tell them or write them or in any way re-live them?

There is no possibility of ‘profiles of people we’ve helped’ stories on their websites or in their publications (not even anonymous profiles), no one available for media interviews (even anonymously), no one who has directly benefited from such important work.

Can social marketing offer anything in the way of potential solutions?     ‘Social marketing’ takes marketing strategies and formulas usually applied to business and applies them to social challenges, usually in some way trying to affect behaviour change.  One aspect is the idea that people have to pay something – cash or other – in order to be invested in a behaviour change initiative, to feel that it has value.  For example free malaria nets may be less likely to be used for health prevention than malaria nets that cost something.

So is it possible to in any way apply social marketing to fundraising?    Could the target for behaviour change be shifting someone from being a non-donor to being a donor?     Could ‘social marketing’ apply if the exchange is for the individual to receive compelling, deeply-moving stories of transformed lives, a break from the flatline routine of their daily lives, and a hormone boost from altruism… in exchange for giving a donation? Could it be a social marketing campaign if the target was perhaps identified as upper middle-class 30 to 60 year-old Lower Mainland residents who annually donate $200 and up to humanitarian causes, in which case the ‘behaviour change’ if it could be called that would be asking them to shift their philanthropy, or to give as well to this new agency?

I’m no expert on social marketing by any means, just find what I know of it to be fascinating, very chewy.  Nedra Weinreich and Craig Lefebvre are people I do consider to be experts on this and from whom I learned a great deal by reading their blogs and following discussions on great knowledge-sharing social marketing listserv.  I think that they would be able to correct me on these fuzzy areas above, and that they would likely have some really interesting perspectives – lightbulbs going on in a dim room.

Tonight I’m going to a house dinner that will raise some small funds for a Lower Mainland agency that most people are surprised exists here, called VAST – Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture.  I’ve never done work with them or even met them, but I’ve been interested in them for many years and I know they are very minimally-funded and are very very under-resourced in providing support and counselling for the very many asylum refugees who arrive in Canada and try to somehow resolve incomprehensible experiences and find a way to step forward in relative isolation.   I’m thinking I’ll ask how much bigger the demand for post-torture counselling is than the supply right here in the Lower Mainland.    I want to learn how they approach communication for fundraising.

Back again to the dilemma of creating communication campaigns where there is no option of finding and telling the personal stories of those helped by an agency.

This is my big question I am mulling today:

If telling personal stories – of a few people whose lives have improved because of a charity’s work – is not possible, what other fundraising strategies could work to raise funds?

Also, what other fundraising strategies (besides telling the personal stories of people affected) have been proven effective?   Or forget ‘proven effective’, and go blue sky – crowdsourced brainstorming –

How can a humanitarian NGO raise awareness of their organization, reach out to potential donors and raise funds when it is not possible to know the specific personal stories of the people who benefit from the service?

I know there’s supposed to be a blogger accountability standard that you never edit a post only add to it, but I’ve never really felt that I buy that.  Anyway, I’ll likely drop in and edit this post-post, do links to the literature if I feel inspired.  I won’t change anything that says I believe X to I believe Y.

I would be interested in other ideas and perspectives and philosophies and marketing strategy thoughts and development communication considerations and input on related studies/evidence and just plain brainstorming.

It’s filled with chewiness.

Grassroots fundraising for civil society and community-based organizations

I’ve written before about Nata Village blog, and about fundraising for Small Village, Anywhere, via your own website.

I’m less convinced now that it’s the most effective way to go, and it was a while back that I shifted in that direction, when I met with Tom Williams of

If I, Potential Philanthropist, were at home with my credit card in one hand and my heart in the other and I wanted to donate knowing that my money would actually do good and not pad a salary or buy fundraising envelopes, I might be drawn to donate to somewhere like Nata Village. But how would I know that it isn’t someone with some nice photos and a decent website, sitting at home in a recliner chair looking to receive to their open wallet? By no means do I think that of Nata Village. But how would I know? becomes that credibility filter, that guarantee.

The other things I like about it is that you can raise for specific things, and for small amounts.

This is what I was thinking about today:

For small community-based organizations working to affect change in countries that are ‘fragile states’, they might have great energy and work ethic and communications ideas and media savvy. It’s frustrating that organizations like these – that could do so much with a video camera, a great still camera, an audio recorder, maybe even a computer and software to edit on – don’t have them.

The potential for how media produced by them could be used is so enormous. Increased international awareness for their issues. Increased interest from that country’s diaspora. Potential donations to their organisation from people of their nationality, around the world, who want to help. Perhaps increased media coverage by their own national and regional TV or radio stations, who may be understaffed, and thirsty for produced content. Even, as media production skills build, outsourcing their skills – as  India’s Video SEWA has done.

More about Video SEWA and other international ‘community media’ successes, at this earlier post on participatory media.

Curious, I emailed Tom Williams for clarification about what options are available for community-based organizations outside of North America that might be interested in fundraising via his site.

Here’s the thing. is only able to issue tax receipts to Canadian and American donors.

Tom explains:

The challenge in international charity … is that the requirements that the Canadian and US governments now put on foundations and charities sending money overseas is very onerous.

Can’t community-based organizations do their own fundraising directly, instead of needing the involvement of a Western/Northern organization? Can’t they somehow prove their own legitimacy or credibility, so they don’t have to wait for the donated funds to filter over to them?

The community-based organization can fundraise directly through

There’s one downside from fundraising via the site without the involvement of a North American organization, and that’s that donors to you would not be eligible for tax receipts. For some considering very large donations, that could potentially be a deterrant. On the other hand, people who really care about your cause and your country, may want to help no matter what, and may like that the money goes to you directly without having to have a North American organization involved.

If your group decides to take the leap and use the site for donations, how do you begin?

All you need to do to start is create a project proposal which you can do simply by clicking “Start Now” from the GiveMeaning homepage. Before we accept projects for fundraising, we first require a proposal to be approved (which is what you create by clicking Start Now). The ideal proposal speaks to the who/what/why/how of what you want to fundraise for.

A proposal is approved by you collecting 100 online votes. A vote is in no way a financial commitment. It’s just our way of ensuring that there is sufficient interest and support for your project before making it eligible to receive donations.

If your project gets the required votes, we can try and find a qualified charity on your behalf but certainly, if you know of one here in Canada or the US that would be willing to receive funds [ on your group’s behalf, that works too. ]

So, for clarification …

You are involved with a civil society or community-based organization. You would like to fundraise, to invite donors to help your cause. To use my example, you are a grassroots organization working for peacebuilding in a country that is in conflict. You want to increase the presence of peacebuilding in media by building your own media-producing capacity. You need the media production equipment (and perhaps, funds for media training) in order to do this.

If you want to use, you have two choices.

If you want to receive donations directly to your own organization, and are willing to risk potentially less fundraising income (some North American donors potentially unwilling to donate without tax receipts), you can create a project proposal on the site yourself.

If you want your potential donors in North America to be eligible for tax receipts, you can find a North American organization willing to receive funds on your behalf, or ask Tom and his colleagues to help you find such an organization.

The site creates another fundraising option for nonprofits, removing some of the dense layers of bureaucracy and agonizing waiting often involved in complex funding applications. It allows for a more direct connection between individual donors interested in supporting a specific cause, and the groups that have a plan, are ready to act, and can directly use those donated funds.

If you’re considering posting a project for donations, Tom adds a reminder:  December is the peak time of year for cause donations.  He suggests you take advantage of this burst, by listing your request no later than the end of November.