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Strength in funders

Crowdfunding isn't magical, but it could work for your organization's animals

From Animal Sheltering magazine November/December 2014

What do you do when you’ve got a special project in mind, one that you think would do wonders for your animals, but you don’t have the budget? Or when you’ve got an amazing, adoptable animal who simply has the misfortune to have some serious (and expensive) medical issues?

Some animal welfare groups have started to wade into crowdfunding, through which you can raise money by promoting your project or goal to a large group of people. The enormous reach provided by the Internet has made crowdfunding a model that can really work, allowing people from all over the world to kick in small amounts of money that can add up to an enormous sum. If you’ve heard of Kickstarter, you’ve heard of crowdfunding. And if you’ve heard about the guy who used Kickstarter to ask for $10 to make potato salad and ended up with more than $50K from amused donors, you know that projects far less “worthy” than yours can occasionally get some crazy levels of support!

A host of crowdfunding websites now allow an organization to post a project or cause and ask for smaller donations from a larger pool of donors. The sites feature many social media sharing options and—as occurred with Mr. Potato Salad and many other projects—the potential for a cause to go viral. Say, for example, your organization used a crowdfunding site to raise money for an injured animal; ideally, not only would the approach help cover the costs, but also attract new supporters to your overall mission.

The money is certainly out there. According to loveanimals.org, a free crowdfunding site, during 2012, crowdfunding platforms raised $2.8 billion—an increase of 63 percent in three years and 91 percent since 2011.

Alicia Wright, public relations director of the Connecticut Humane Society (CHS), says her shelter got the idea to start crowdfunding from a new development director, who wanted to explore ways to tap into a younger donor base and stretch dollars by fundraising more efficiently. CHS has been using the platform give2gether.com to supplement its other fundraising efforts, and has found it to be a great success so far.

Wright says CHS integrates crowdfunding with its regular campaigns. “We set up a campaign for every mail appeal that we put out, and we run it for the full length of the mail appeal, so for example if we’re not doing another mail appeal for another couple of months, the [online] campaign stays up for those two months and we do regular e-blasts to encourage people to give to the campaign.”

The result is constant opportunities for donors to give, and that translates into cash for the shelter. According to Wright, it’s resulted in a 10 percent growth in new donors, the return of 30 percent of lapsed donors, and multiple converted donors who used to give via snail mail, and now turn to the Internet. Before the shelter used crowdfunding sites, its average online campaign typically brought in $2,000 to $3,000; CHS’s most recent campaign brought in more than $5,000, with an average gift of $83 per donor.

To avoid donor fatigue, CHS removes people from the series of e-blasts after they donate, and uses the contact-frequency options suggested by Raiser’s Edge, a fundraising and donor management system. But based on the marked increase in donations since beginning crowdfunding, Wright thinks that most donors appreciate the frequent updates from the shelter. Crowdfunding has been “a wonderful addition to our fundraising toolkit; we love it, and we would strongly encourage shelters to consider it, because it’s a wonderful way to use modern technology to reach more donors than perhaps you’ve ever been able to reach before.”

Be aware, though, that crowdfunding is not magic. The Humane Society of Indianapolis (Indy Humane) has had a less positive experience. Chief development officer Jeremy VanAndel describes the group’s experience crowdfunding for a mobile vaccination clinic as “probably one of the hardest fundraisers we have ever done.”The shelter’s fundraising team had to constantly promote and monitor the campaign in order to keep up the momentum, he explains, and Indy Humane experienced a donor lull in the middle of the 60-day campaign that had the staff on pins and needles.

In addition, the site the shelter used, IndieGogo, offers the option of donor incentives proportionate to each donor tier (many other sites do the same). Incentives can include everything from T-shirts bearing the shelter’s logo to goods and services donated from community partners. Anyone want free dry cleaning for a month?

VanAndel says fulfilling Indy Humane’s incentives was “a lot of work to stay on top of.” Keeping track of the dozens upon dozens of donors and managing to stay in contact was challenging, VanAndel says. “The hardest part, however, was simply finding the time to order, sort and ship the packages once they were assembled. … Adding the assembly line for the crowdfunding incentives was a burden for everyone, and keeping up with both the incentive delivery and the things we have to take care of on a daily basis was a neat little juggling act to keep going.”

In the end, Indy Humane raised about $19,500 of its $25,000 goal—and not all of that came from the crowdfunding site, which made the cost and time spent for fulfilling donor incentives seem higher. Indy Humane isn’t swearing off crowdfunding in the future, but VanAndel says it will likely wait a few years before trying again.

In addition, be aware that some crowdfunding platforms pay out only if you reach your goal or a certain high percentage of it; otherwise, the donations are returned to the contributors, which can lower morale at the shelter and make a donor less likely to contribute in the future. Even if the platform doesn’t simply return funds to the donor, not making your goal can still affect how much you raise. For example, IndieGogo takes an initial 9 percent cut of funds raised, and if you reach your goal, the company returns 5 percent to you. This is independent of the fees charged by Paypal or your credit card company, which can range from 3-5 percent.

Sarah Timms of loveanimals.org advises that the duration of the campaign really does make a difference. While your instinct may be to leave a campaign open for a long time in order to assure full funding, Timms says that, surprisingly, the effect can be the opposite. Shorter deadlines create “a sense of urgency” which in turn “creates crucial momentum for any campaign.”

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She recommends a series of smaller campaigns rather than one big one, and notes that the national average for a campaign (in any sector, for-profit or nonprofit, across all platforms) is $7,000. For a nonprofit, that amount is generally lower—in the region of $4,000. Nonprofits can run much larger campaigns, she says, “but they must consider the preparation involved in order to reach their goal.”

Lindsay and Brian Driver of animal­loverfunding.com, who began their site after their own puppies had extraordinary vet bills they were able to pay through crowdfunding, have the following advice for campaigns: “Promote, promote, promote!” Do daily social media updates on how the fundraiser is going, as well as updates on the fundraising page itself. Remember the importance of imagery: Add new pictures and video of the pets being helped by the donations.

The Drivers also recommend sharing from personal pages with your own friends and families, not just the shelter’s donor base. If you’re fundraising for an animal with a noticeable breed, such as a pug, try to promote the page on pug-specific social media pages and online groups. (But make sure not to promote your fundraiser on another rescue’s page—this is a potential way to step on toes.)

Other tips include starting off publicly with a strong showing. Pitch your board of directors and other top donors, and make sure you have some money in the pot—so that other donors can see that the project is already moving along successfully. Success breeds success, and people are more likely to contribute when they see others doing so. If your campaign does hit a lull, a great way to reenergize it is to offer a matching gift promotion. Plan ahead for this, so you’re not scrambling to find a matching donor. In fact, advises VanAndel, planning the fundraiser is very much like planning a special event. You have to prepare for each facet of every possibility—that the goal might be reached earlier than anticipated, later than anticipated, or not at all.

About the Author

Shevaun Brannigan is a former Production/Marketing Manager at The Humane Society of the United States.