Do you want to launch a viral fundraising campaign for your non-profit?
We’ve all seen the successes of huge viral fundraising campaigns… things like the Ice Bucket Challenge, Movember, and even viral crowdfunding campaigns like the effort to send Karen the Bus Monitor on a vacation after a video was posted online that showed her being harassed on her daily bus ride… a campaign that raised her over $700,000 and allowed Karen to not only take a vacation, but to retire all together.
Each of these is an example of a viral fundraising campaign that went national or international, but there are also thousands of smaller campaigns that go viral every day inside local communities – whether that’s inside a local city or town, or among alumni of a certain school, or as part of a county-wide fundraising effort. And the good news is that every non-profit… including yours… can launch a successful viral fundraising campaign in their own community.
What is a Viral Fundraising Campaign?
A viral fundraising campaign is a fundraising effort that is launched by a non-profit or its supporters and that snowballs on itself, quickly gathering attention among a particularly community. The campaign gets widespread exposure for a short amount of time, allowing the organization to generate a significant amount of donations, a rapid increase in community awareness, and a large number of new donors, before the campaign peters out and leaves the public consciousness.
Viral fundraising efforts, when they work, are usually of a relatively short duration, but they can still be very powerful for a non-profit, because of the large amount of attention, the influx of dollars, and the new donors they produce. Once the campaign dies down, it is extremely important that the organization work to steward those new donors it has generated to turn them into longer term givers to the organization, as well as to capitalize on the widespread attention generated for the non-profit.
National vs. Local Viral Fundraising
It’s very important that you recognize the difference between mega viral fundraising campaigns like the Ice Bucket Challenge and successful local viral fundraising campaigns that happen every day in communities around the world. Any non-profit can create a local viral campaign – and some of those local campaigns might… given the right set-up, circumstances, and luck… turn into mega (national) campaigns.
You might launch a viral campaign to help the homeless in your community that turns into a nationwide viral movement over the course of a couple of weeks… or you might set up a lemonade stand to raise money for childhood cancer research, and have it turn into a national fundraising powerhouse over the course of a decade, like little Alex Scott did before she succumbed to cancer, leaving the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation as her legacy.
Or, more likely, you can launch a local viral fundraising campaign in your own community, or among your particular donor universe, and raise lots of money and bring in lots of new donors without the campaign ever going viral nationally, even though it did go viral in your own hometown or among alumni from your school. Either way, launching a successful viral fundraising campaign can be game changer for your non-profit and for the people you serve.
The Basic Rules of Successful Viral Fundraising
If you are going to set up a viral fundraising campaign, you want it to be successful. Far too many organizations see the success of things like the Pink Ribbon Campaign or the St. Baldrick’s Foundation’s head-shaving events and try to launch their own campaigns without ever thinking through how to set up a campaign that succeeds. There are three primary goals for your viral fundraising campaign – you want to raise money, reach new donors, and raise awareness of your organization. These basic rules will help you do all three:
Rule #1 – Have a Plan in Place Before You Begin
It is important to understand that even though viral fundraising campaigns sometimes look like they were just thrown together on a whim, the vast majority of them are not. Most successful viral fundraising campaigns are planned out in advance to make sure that they have the highest possible chance to succeed.
If you want your fundraising campaign to go viral, you need a plan. Before you begin your viral effort, sit down with your team and write out a three or four page plan for how you are going to implement the campaign. Think through not only the type of campaign you are running and your message for that campaign, but also think through how you are going to help people hear your message and spread the word about your fundraising effort. We’ll go into detail about those things below but for now just know that you need a plan – a short but real written plan for your viral fundraising campaign before you launch it.
Rule #2 – Your Viral Fundraising Campaign Must Start with Your Own Donors and Supporters
Many non-profits think that they can launch a viral fundraising campaign without really getting their current donors and supporters involved, and have it succeed. Nothing could be further from the truth. In order to be successful, your viral fundraising campaign must start with your own current donors and supporters, not only to give donations, but to help you spread the word about your campaign.
Much of the early money raised during your viral fundraising campaign will be from your current donors, staff, volunteers, board members, friends and other supporters – most of the early buzz you get for your campaign will come from the same group – you will need those who are already close to you to “seed” the campaign by getting them to donate early on and to tell their friends about the campaign – this will make others take note of the project.
Once your friends and donors are involved and participating, you will ask them to get the word out about the campaign to their friends and colleagues. This will generate a new round of donations and excitement from folks who may not have made a donation to your organization were it not for this campaign.
Then, you’ll work hard to get those people to spread the word about the campaign to their own network. As you can see, successful viral fundraising campaigns are hard work. Sometimes, campaigns catch fire and just start spreading on their own… but, for most non-profits, the key to successful viral fundraising is not only designing a great campaign, but also working hard to make sure it succeeds.
THUS, if you are hoping to run a viral fundraising campaign and fund it 100% through new donors without getting your current donors, board members, volunteers and other supporters involved think again – it WILL NOT WORK.
You absolutely must seed your viral fundraising campaign with donations and support from your own donors, volunteers, board members and friends.
Then, you must get those donors, supporters, volunteers, board members and friends to go out and spread the word about your campaign to their own network of friends and colleagues… and so on and so on.
Rule #3 – Set Up a Hub and Spoke System for Your Viral Fundraising Campaign
The best viral fundraising campaigns are set up on a hub and spoke system – this means that your campaign will use lots of different outposts, or spokes, to generate buzz for the campaign, but that each spoke will then direct people back to a central hub for more information and to make donations.
Because much of your viral fundraising activity will occur online, it is my suggestion that your campaign hub be on your own website – this means setting up a page on your website where people can learn more about the campaign and can click a big old donate now button to make a donation to support the campaign. Then, everything you do as part of your viral fundraising campaign can include a link to that page – you can tell people that in order to participate and make a donation, they can go to that page.
I’ve seen some attempts at campaigns in the past that were far too nebulous about their fundraising hub. Sometimes, non-profits will offer multiple ways to donate, saying things like, “to participate, click here to make a donation online, or go to our crowdfunding page on GoFundMe, or you can mail a check into us at this address.”
This is way too much. Your goal on social media sites and elsewhere should be to get people to click over to the campaign hub on your website to make a donation. If you want, you can include information on how to mail in a check on that hub page, but don’t include that information anywhere else. People are busy – you need to make it as easy as possible for them to participate in your fundraising effort, so give them just one task – clicking over to a specific page on your website to make a donation as soon as possible.
Rule #4 – Never Call it “Viral Fundraising”
This is a quick and easy rule – you and I, as fundraising professionals, can call it “viral fundraising…” – we know what that means. We are trying to design a fundraising campaign that spreads like a virus, multiplying quickly, getting people to donate and then spread the word. Your donors, board members, volunteers and other supporters, though, probably won’t know what “viral fundraising” means, and may get confused by the term. For that reason, never tell your donors or supporters that you are launching a “viral fundraising campaign.” Instead, just tell them you are launching an exciting new fundraising campaign, and leave it at that. No need to confuse them.
Rule #5 – Treat it Like a Campaign
It is essential to remember that a viral fundraising campaign is a CAMPAIGN, not a one-off fundraising tactic. If you treat it like a one-off tactic, the same way you would with sending out an appeal letter, then your viral fundraiser is doomed.
Instead, treat your viral fundraising campaign the same way you would a capital, planned giving, or annual giving campaign – that means, you need to plan it out, put committees and structures in place, design a short case for support for your viral campaign, and most importantly, give the plan time to work.
Anyone can hold a viral fundraising campaign that fails to reach its goals – all you need to do for that to happen is slap up a video and a donate now button and then forget about it for 6 months. When you come back, you will have raised the same number of dollars as the number of hours you put into planning and executing your campaign – ZERO. Holding a successful viral fundraising campaign that reaches its goals will take writing a plan, holding meetings, making calls, making asks, being omnipresent on social media and e-mail, and much, much more. Just like a successful capital campaign.
Rule #6 – The Key for Viral Fundraising to Succeed is Finding and Motivating Sneezers
If you really want to have a successful viral fundraising campaign, you need to understand the concept of “SNEEZERS.”
Not all of your donors, supporters, board members and friends are created alike. Some will decide to make a donation to your campaign never tell another soul. Some will discuss your campaign with friends and family. Others will support you with a donation, and then try and convince others to do the same. The key to designing a successful viral campaign is to spread the word about your campaign to the “right” people – meaning donors and friends who are going to, at the very least, tell other people about your campaign, and hopefully not only tell them, but convince them to support your non-profit as well.
It is important that your viral fundraising campaign – your message – reach as many donors as possible, as quickly as possible. Your non-profit is not going to be spending money to advertise your campaign on TV or the radio. Instead, news about your campaign is going to be delivered to them by a friend or family member or other trusted source.
The most effective referrals, the propositions that people listen to and respect, come from people they trust. These trusted referrals may come from friends, family, vendors, clients etc,– anyone who has earned the trust of the listener. This is why earned media (a newspaper endorsement, for example) is always more potent than an advertisement, and why an e-mail from a friend is always read, while an email from a business is often deleted unopened.q
In designing your viral campaign, you must have in mind those supporters, the people that I call the sneezers , who will not “break the chain,” by keeping your campaign to themselves, but who will pass your message along to as many other donors as possible. They take your viral campaign and sneeze it to other people… the same way that someone with the flu might sneeze the flu virus on to other people, a portion of whom will also catch the virus. Your goal is to find your donors and supporters who are most likely to pass your campaign on to those they know, and to do so effectively.
Rule #7 – Don’t Be Cheesy
When creating a viral fundraising campaign, it is very, very tempting to make it cheesy. Things like the ice bucket challenge and the St. Baldrick's campaigns border on the cheesy, without crossing the line. I’ve seen campaigns cross that line though, and it often hurts them. When creating your viral fundraising campaign, take the ideas that you and your team are tossing around and test them out on other people – see how your friends and family react. If they say things like, “I would never want to do that” or “I’m not sure if that is something our friends would want to participate in” then reevaluate your planned campaign.
Ok, now that we know what viral fundraising is and understand the fundamental rules of a successful viral fundraising effort, it’s time to turn our attention to actually designing your viral fundraising campaign. Most successful viral campaigns share a number of common components.
The 5 Essential Components of a Successful Viral Fundraising Campaign
In my experience, here are the five essential components of a successful viral fundraising campaign:
#1: Your Campaign Message Must Be Simple
When designing the message for your viral fundraising campaign, you need to make sure that it can spread fast – this means you need to make sure that people can easily explain not only your campaign but your organization and funding needs quickly over social media, in short conversations in the elevator, and in videos posted online.
If your campaign message is hard to explain, it will be hard to spread. If your campaign message is easy to explain, it will be easier for it to spread.
For example, let’s say you work for a homeless shelter that wants to raise more money to care for the homeless in your city. Someone from your non-profit suggests running a viral fundraising campaign where people are asked to sleep on the floor for one night and take a picture, posting it to challenge their friends to do the same. The point of this campaign is for people to get just a small taste of what it is like not to have a bed to sleep in. After they post the picture, they are asked to donate $25 to pay for one person to have a clean, warm bed for one night. That’s a great campaign – it’s easy to understand, and can be encapsulated in a simple tagline like, “I Traded My Bed for The Night.”
On the other hand, maybe someone from your organization suggests running a viral campaign where people are asked to observe a moment of silence for the homeless every day at 4 PM. The explanation is that that’s when your homeless shelter opens its doors every day, usually with a line of people waiting to get in. After observing the moment of silence, people are asked to send an e-mail to their friends asking them to do the same and to donate $10 to your shelter.
That’s a campaign that’s harder to explain and to spread. What’s the connection between homelessness, the $10, and the 4 PM moment of silence? How can you take a picture of a moment of silence? How can you explain this campaign in a 140 character tweet?
Keep your viral campaigns simple and easy to understand, and they will be much more likely to spread far and wide.
#2: Your Campaign Must Have an “Ask” for Every Participant
Remember what we said above… you are running a viral fundraising campaign to accomplish three main goals. You want to increase awareness for your organization, you want to generate new donors, and you want to raise lots of money for your cause. Because you want to raise money and find new donors, and not just raise awareness, you need to include an ask in your campaign for every single participant.
This is one big area where the Ice Bucket Challenge actually got it wrong. While the ALS Society did raise tens of millions of dollars from the campaign, for the most part the campaign was that people should either dump a bucket of water on their head OR make a donation to the ALS Society, if they didn’t accept the challenge. The ALS Society raised a ton of money because they got international exposure AND lots of people dumped a bucket on their head, posted the video, challenged other people and also made a donation. They lucked out.
My personal belief is that they would have raised a lot more if the people who started the campaign (and it was started by supporters, not by the ALS Society itself) had made it so that you dumped a bucket AND gave a donation. Particularly if when your donation went in you got a button that said “I survived the ice bucket challenge” mailed to your door.
For your campaign, you want to make sure that you are asking for a donation from every single participant. In our homeless shelter example above, you would want to ask people to sleep on the floor and post a picture of it AND to donate the $25, not to only donate the money if they refused to sleep on the floor.
#3: Your Campaign Ask Must Be “Bite-Sized”
If you want people to spread your message, and that message contains an ask for a donation, then people have to feel like it is a reasonable amount. If you ask people to donate $100, people are going to feel weird about posting an ask of that size online for their friends and family.
If you want people to spread your message, you have to make your ask “bite-sized” – that means asking for a small, round number that makes sense for your organization. Generally, your ask should be for something in the $5-$25 range.
You may be thinking to yourself, HOLD ON, that sounds like we’re asking for too little. What if we only get 500 donations out of a campaign that goes viral in our town… that might only be $10,000! We need to raise more than that!
Remember, your goal here is for your message to spread easily. Some people will give more than what you are asking. Some might actually give much more. And – if you steward them correctly, many of the people that give to your viral campaign will become longer term donors to your non-profit, meaning that while they may only give $25 to your viral campaign, they may start giving $100 or $200 per year to your non-profit every year. So don’t put the cart before the horse. Get your message out there, get people to donate something – anything – to your non-profit, and then work on building a relationship with them and turning them into lifelong donors to your organization.
#4: Your Campaign Must Have a “Hook” and Be “Spreadable”
We talked earlier about the importance of getting sneezers to spread your message to their friends, family and coworkers. In order to get people to want to talk about and share your message, it needs to include a hook that makes it spreadable.
What is a hook? It is something in the campaign itself that makes it fun and makes people want to share it. For the ice bucket challenge, the hook was that after you dumped the bucket on yourself, you picked three people you knew and publicly challenged them to do the same. That was fun and innovative, and made people want to share the message and take the challenge.
With Movember, the hook is that it’s a guy think. Growing facial hair is a guy bondING type of thing, and because it’s just for one month, lots of guys who have thought about growing a mustache think hey, why not do it just this month, then shave it off at the end?
For Alex’s Lemonade Stand, the hook is that it is something kids can do – and that kids ALREADY WANT to do – any parent with kids can tell you that at a certain point in their lives, every kid wants to have a lemonade stand. I’m not sure why, but it’s true. AND equally true is that most of the work for that stand gets done by the parents. Holding an Alex’s Lemonade stand together is a great way for parents to spend time with their kids, for kids to get to hold the lemonade stand they want to hold, and for parents to feel like they are making a difference, even if it is a lot of work.
As you plan out your own viral fundraising campaign, think through what type of hook you can include in your viral fundraising effort to make it fun and exciting to spread the message, participate and donate to your cause.
#5: Your Campaign Must Have Great Visuals
The fifth and final essential component of a great viral fundraising campaign is that your campaign must have great visuals if you want it to spread easily. This means that you need to make sure that your campaign can be explained and shared in photos or videos online.
People love to share videos and photos, and it makes people more interested in your campaign if they can see their friends and family participating through a short video or an iphone picture that is shared through e-mail, Twitter or Facebook.
When designing your viral fundraising campaign, be sure that it includes a component that has great visuals, like dumping a bucket of ice on yourself, shaving your head, wearing something pink that you normally wouldn’t wear, etc.
How to Market Your Viral Fundraising Campaign
If you want to launch a successful viral fundraising campaign for your non-profit, it is absolutely essential that you focus on marketing your campaign. You need to build momentum – and that will require you to actively promote and market your fundraising effort.
Building a Viral Campaign Committee
The first thing that your non-profit absolutely has to do to generate momentum for the viral campaign, but which most organizations who try viral fundraising don’t do, is build a viral funding campaign committee.
Gather your most ardent supporters who are also the most active online – those with huge Facebook followings, or who are on Twitter all of the time, or who are connected to lots of other folks either online or offline – and get them to join a committee to lead your viral campaign efforts. Add in some people who are really good at spreading the word offline as well. Remember, you’re looking for sneezers to spread your message both online and offline.
The goal of the viral campaign committee is simple – they are responsible for building the initial buzz for your project. This means that they make a donation to the campaign, no matter how small, and e-mail, tweet, and post about your project over and over again, encouraging their friends (both offline and online) to get involved, make a donation, and spread the word.
The campaign committee is a key step in building an ongoing level of buzz for your project. You should hold a meeting with your committee, keep them updated by e-mail, and generally treat them with the same appreciation and give them the same level of responsibility that you would offer an event host committee.
Think of your viral campaign committee just like a host committee or fundraising committee for a fundraising event you are holding, or a leadership committee for a capital campaign – while the donors on your viral campaign committee may not be making mega-donations to your campaign, they should be willing to invest a significant amount of time to spread the word about your campaign within their own network and to get their friends and colleagues to donate to the campaign.
Marketing Your Campaign
Once your committee is in place, and your campaign is launched, your organization will need to do lots of marketing to keep the dollars coming in. Viral fundraising campaigns require constant marketing and outreach in order to maintain momentum. Once the outreach calls, e-mails and social media work stops, the campaign will effectively be over. Be vigilant and ready to constantly market your viral fundraising effort.
Some of the ways you can market the campaign include:
Send out e-mail blasts mentioning the campaign to your entire list.You’ll need to work hard to get everyone on your e-mail list to hear about your campaign, visit your campaign page, and make a donation to your viral fundraising effort. This means spending time in your e-mail newsletters and in solo blasts explaining the campaign and making an ask– asking people to click on the link in your e-mail to go and donate to your viral campaign immediately, as well as asking them to keep spreading the word about your effort.
Mention your campaign regularly on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and any other social networks you are active on, and encourage your followers to forward those updates on to their own followers.
Remember to link back to your viral fundraising page on your website often in your social media posts and use the viral campaign to build up lots of excitement and urgency for your supporters to make a donation to support your organization. Remember that a viral campaign should be fun, exciting and interesting – so act like it, rather than posting dull “Remember our campaign is currently active” type social media posts.
Put a link to the campaign front and center on your organization’s homepage. If you have the technological capabilities at your organization, post a fundraising thermometer on your homepage showing the progress of your efforts. Make sure people visiting your website can’t miss the fact that you are running a fun and exciting viral fundraising campaign, and remember to make a direct ask on your website to ask people to go donate to your campaign right away by clicking on the button or link you have posted.
Remember also that on your website, and in social media and elsewhere, your campaign is always essentially making two asks. Or, to put it a different way, you’re making one ask, which is for people to get involved with the campaign, and when they do, they need to do two seperate things – they need to make a donation as part of the campaign, and then spread the word to their friends, family and coworkers.
PR / Public Relations
Try to get the local newspaper, news radio station, or other media outlets to run a story about your viral fundraising efforts.Many viral fundraising campaigns are great for generating local press coverage, particularly once you start getting critical mass with a number of people participating.
Another great way to generate press coverage is to get some local celebrities to participate in the campaign. You may not be able to get national or international superstars to participate, but you might be able to get your local weatherman, the mayor of your town, and the second baseman from your local minor league baseball team to participate. These are great ways to generate buzz on social media as well as to generate press coverage for your campaign.
Mention your campaign at offline events, in your snail mail letters, etc. And be willing to make fundraising calls and even do some meetings to ask people to participate in your viral campaign. Just because it’s a viral fundraising campaign doesn’t mean it can’t have a significant offline component.
Consider setting up some matching campaigns with donors during the middle of your campaign, ($ for $ match if we raise another $5000 during the next 36 hours… etc.) – think like your local public TV or radio station – set up challenges between different donor groups (PA vs. NJ donors, San Diego State vs. University of California San Diego donors, etc.) Be creative to keep people engaged.
Remember to also keep posting updates on your campaign page, including videos, text content, and links to news stories about your viral campaign. You’ll also want to stay on top of your campaign committee and other supporters and remind them to keep e-mailing out about the campaign as often as they feel comfortable.
REMEMBER, the goal here is to treat your viral fundraising campaign like a campaign – not like ongoing, annual fundraising. It’s an all hands on deck effort that should be fun and interesting for your donors. You should be focused on getting people involved, getting them to donate, and then getting them to spread the word to their own friends and contacts. You need to keep up the pressure during your campaign and constantly be reminding people to go donate and to spread the word.
A Timeline for Launching a Successful Viral Fundraising Campaign at Your Non-Profit
There is no hard and fast rule for how long a viral campaign should run or what types of activities you should be doing during your campaign. Each campaign is different, just like each non-profit is different. That being said, here are some basic guidelines on things you should be doing and timing for running a successful viral fundraising campaign:
At Least 4-6 Weeks Before You Launch Your Viral Campaign
- Explain your upcoming campaign to your board, program staff and organization management, if necessary
- Develop a prospect list for your Viral Fundraising Campaign Committee
- Develop a short marketing plan and case for support for your viral fundraising effort, as well as any materials you will need to carry out the campaign.
2-4 Weeks Before You Launch Your Viral Campaign
- Begin calling through your prospect list to ask people to join your Viral Campaign Committee
- Create your Viral Campaign Committee materials
- Have your staff and board pre-record videos or take photos that they can use on Day 1 of the campaign to seed the social media efforts.
- Seek out opportunities for matching gifts and other fundraising enhancers that you can use throughout the campaign
1-2 Weeks Before You Launch Your Viral Campaign
- Hold your first Campaign Committee meeting
- Create a press release announcing your viral campaign
The Week Before You Launch Your Viral Campaign
- Create a page on your website detailing the viral campaign – this is the campaign hub with the DONATE NOW button on it. This page should not go live until Launch Day
- If possible, add graphics and links to your website’s homepage leading people to the viral campaign page page. Again, these graphics and links should not go live until Launch Day
- Encourage your Campaign Committee, staff and board to make a list of people they will reach out to on Launch Day to generate buzz for the viral campaign – you want to hit the ground running
- The organization should also create a list of people who will get phone calls during the first week of the campaign to ask them to participate in the viral fundraising campaign
- Send the board, staff, and Committee sample tweets, e-mails and status updates with links to your campaign hub page so that they are ready for Launch Day
On Launch Day
- Make your viral campaign page go live on your website
- Send out your campaign press release to all local media outlets
- Send an e-mail to your Viral Campaign Committee, board, staff and volunteers letting them know that the campaign is live, asking them to make their personal donation to the campaign, and then to send out an e-mail to everyone they know asking their network to get involved with the campaign by donating and spreading the word
- Post information and links about your campaign on all of your organization’s social media outlets. Ask your Campaign Committee, board members, staff and volunteers to do the same
The Week After You Launch Your Viral Campaign
- Work through your call list and call each of the people you identified as strong prospects for the campaign to ask them to donate
- Remind your board and Committee to continue asking their friends and business colleagues to donate to the campaign
- Continue to post information about the Campaign at least twice per day on each of the social media networks where your organization is active
During the Length of Your Viral Campaign
- Hold at least one more Campaign Committee meeting to keep your troops motivated and engaged
- Send out an solo e-mail blast about the campaign at least once per week to your entire e-mail list, and include information about the campaign in every newsletter or other e-mail you send out
- Post something about the campaign at least twice per day on each of the social media networks where your organization is active
- Call each of your board members to personally ask them to send out another e-mail to their entire e-mail contact list asking their friends and colleagues to donate to the campaign
- Launch any mid-campaign matching fund efforts or other campaign enhancers that you have prepared
- Post updates on your viral campaign page at least weekly
- Respond to any comments people have left on your viral campaign page
- Consider posting an update video or additional pictures of your work on your viral campaign page sometime weekly during your campaign.
And of course, for the length of your viral fundraising campaign, be ready to thank your donors profusely, ask them to spread the word, and steward them into becoming lifelong donors to your non-profit. You can do this. I know you can, and I know it will make a major difference for your organization.
Photo Credits: Product School, Tina Franklin, and Dylan Gillis