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Small charity success stories

Originally published: August 2017

Crowdfunding isn’t easy: it demands significant resources and time, and often new skills. For small charities that can be challenging. But it's not impossible, as these three nonprofits prove.

Detailed planning can "create a crowd": Tree of Life for Animals

Tree of Life for Animals (TOLFA) rescues over 5,000 animals from the streets of India every year. Based in Rajasthan, they have 50 staff and an annual income of £120,000.

After around seven weeks of planning, TOLFA launched its first crowdfunding campaign in late 2016 to build 27 kennels for stray dogs. It ran for five weeks and was part of GlobalGiving’s Gateway Challenge, a training and support program for small nonprofits wanting to crowdfund (the Gateway Challenge has since been replaced by the Accelerator).

Managed by their one staff member based in the U.K., with colleagues providing content and updates from India, the campaign brought in £11,000 from 225 donors in 35 days.

In July 2017 TOLFA followed up with a time-limited T-shirt campaign, selling 128 T-shirts (the initial target was 50). This form of rewards-based crowdfunding worked well, explains U.K. executive director Clara Nowak: "We had wanted to produce T-shirts for a long time but never had the funds to buy stock that could end up sitting in boxes. This way, they were all made to order and shipped by Print Social, so we had no outlay and didn’t need to handle the stock." (While the charity retains 100 percent of profits, this doesn’t count as trading for tax purposes — though they can’t claim Gift Aid — meaning it’s an option for any charity.)

Success factors

TOLFA’s first campaign benefited from GlobalGiving’s advice and support as part of their Accelerator program.

Crowdfunding specialist Jessica Bailey, who was part of the GlobalGiving support team during TOLFA’s first campaign, attributes its success to clarity of the project (building 27 kennels), having a very detailed plan with assigned responsibilities, consistent posting on social media (their hashtag #27kennels did well on Twitter), and — as she puts it — "cute animal content.”

For Nowak, an important factor was achieving 30 percent of the target in week one, which boosted the team’s confidence and motivation. "I kept repeating the mantra 'you have to create your crowd'" she says, "so spreading the word far and wide was central, as well as timely thank you emails and updates to donors — several even donated again as the campaign was closing." Video appeals featuring hospital staff and animals also helped create a personal connection between beneficiaries and potential donors.

The T-shirt campaign (again supported by Bailey, this time as a consultant and founder of Crowdfund360) was helped by a sense of urgency: the campaign was live for just 30 days, and T-shirts would only be produced if a minimum sales target was reached, creating a stronger incentive to order. "The design was only available for this campaign, so it really was limited edition," says Nowak.

Lessons learned

Nowak says: "You can’t leave it and think that people will just find your project and donate — you have to build your crowd. We used social media, email and influencers to push the campaign. It’s also important to keep an eye on the amounts people are donating and to increase your target strategically."

A strong network: Bristol Refugee Rights

Earlier this year Bristol Refugee Rights, a charity with 9.5 full-time equivalent staff and an annual income of around £370,000, had less than five weeks to plan their first crowdfunding campaign, which they managed via Fundsurfer.

With just one part-time staff member running the campaign and annual leave reducing her time available even further, they still attracted donations from 342 supporters totalling over £34,000, smashing their target of £20,475 in 43 days.

In the lead-up Ruth Soandro-Jones, part-time fundraising and communications manager, took Bailey’s online course in crowdfunding for beginners.

"I spent about four hours a week working on the campaign in the five weeks before it was launched," says Soandro-Jones. "I also had three volunteers supporting me and staff helped with things like posting on Facebook and getting radio interviews."

Success factors

Working through Bailey’s course helped Soandro-Jones define her organization’s story and message, and clarified how to communicate this and to whom. "Working with a professional film-maker to make a campaign video was also great for them," says Bailey.

"I think the video touched heartstrings and really helped to convey the need of the families we work with," adds Soandro-Jones. "It was good to have mothers, children, volunteers and staff all involved in the video because this is really who the campaign was about; it was important for the people using the service to convey what it means to them and to know they were helping to keep the project open."

Bristol Refugee Rights could draw on a strong support network, with over 100 volunteers and around 500 other supporters asked to share the campaign. The charity also benefited from the public mood of the time, with many people wanting to do something positive for refugees. "We had people supporting us from different parts of the U.K. Local radio and online news were keen to promote the campaign too."

Lessons learned

Soandro-Jones says: "A key thing we learned was to keep supporters engaged — sharing photos and information about the project. This was quite time-consuming but did keep people informed. At a recent event we attended, several people came to our information stall to say they'd seen our crowdfunding campaign."

Would she do it again? "Definitely… but next time I would recruit a larger team of supporters to help with social media and would try to allow for more time to plan so that it would be easier to manage alongside other work."

From concept to follow-up: Hollaback!

Hollaback! is an international movement to end street harassment (well-known for their video showing a woman walking around New York for 10 hours and the comments she attracts — it’s had a whopping 44,000,000 views to date). The nonprofit raised US$20,000 from 572 backers via Kickstarter in 2015 to set up HeartMob, a new platform aiming to combat online harassment.

Success factors

The HeartMob fundraiser was highlighted in a recent report from Social Misfits Media, Make It Rain: Tips and tricks for crowdfunding success. The authors say Hollaback!’s success was helped by two aspects of preparation. First, the team thought carefully about their target audience, choosing language to appeal to the gaming world (with levels of support named things like 'Novice,' 'Apprentice,' 'Journeyman' and 'Expert') and to convey a sense of humor. Second, the extensive FAQ section gave donors confidence in the campaign and suggested a product that had been well thought out. Indeed, months of preparation had gone into developing the concept.

Hollaback!’s large social media following helped boost support, but they also benefited from good timing, program and development coordinator Jae Cameron, who worked on the campaign, told Social Misfits Media. "People were ready to move on online harassment, and we hit on a nerve. It was something they could actively contribute to, and HeartMob’s focus on advice and intervention really spoke to them."

Lessons learned

Cameron says it was "really eye-opening" to figure out the balance between speaking to a certain group, yet checking your appeal to a larger audience. While preparing the concept, the team sought plenty of feedback, and "had to continually check our messaging to make sure it was accessible — to make sure it wasn’t excluding people, because women aren’t the only ones who experience online harassment. We made sure everyone could relate to it at every level — and always getting that outside perspective was really valuable."

And while three staff members spent about a month intensively preparing the campaign launch and two or three weeks managing it when live, the follow-up actually took the longest. That included sending out perks, answering questions, cultivating new donors and making sure that supporters were updated and ready to engage with HeartMob when it finally launched.

Read the full Hollaback! case study, plus others, in the Make it Rain report.

Photo credit: TOFLA

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Writer/editor focusing on all things nonprofit and social enterprise. Youth media trainer. Storyteller through words and pictures.