Online Fundraising for Tiny Nonprofits: A Case Study

Nonprofit fundraising is never easy, but it’s a special kind of difficult for tiny, all volunteer organizations.  The people responsible for fundraising in these organizations generally have little or no experience or training to support their efforts.  It’s also difficult to teach themselves the skills they need since fundraising training resources tend to focus on organizations with professional staff and a donor base far beyond their own.

Therefore, I’m always excited to see examples of tiny organizations coming up with creative ways to start raising the money they need to move up into the “small nonprofit” category.

This is one of those stories.

Background

Kids Are Heroes founders

Kids Are Heroes Founders: Gabe and MaryMargaret

Kids Are Heroes is a A non-profit based in Frederick, Maryland that empowers, encourages and inspires children to become leaders through volunteerism and community involvement by showcasing and supporting children who are changing the world through their selfless acts of giving

As part of his research into ways this young nonprofit could raise money, Gabe O’Neill, co-founder of Kids Are Heroes, discovered on-line “Donor Walls,” where people can buy “squares” or “bricks” on a website “wall” for a relatively low amount of money.  In return, the donor gets to have their picture on the square, along with some text and a link to their website.

Gabe, who supports his 12-year-old daughter MaryMargaret as the founder of Kids Are Heroes, doubles as the webmaster and instantly loved this idea when he heard about it. Since he is also a programmer he saw the opportunity to get a jump on things and build one of these walls himself.  He calls it the Kids Are Heroes “Foundation Wall.”

The Rest of the Story

The public story of how the donor walls came to be is inspiring on its own, but does not give other nonprofit leaders the information they need to determine if a similar fundraising strategy might work for their organizations.  To that end, I asked Gabe to share the “behind-the-scenes” experience of launching the walls.  I started with the basic questions–please continue the conversation with questions of your own in the comments!

What was your inspiration for the online donor wall?

I had seen that companies are coming up with this concept to deliver to both for and non-profits, charging 15% plus fees. The idea hit me right away as something that really could work. I hate asking for money but this not only makes it fun, I am giving something of real value in return. We invite our 31k+ Twitter followers to see who is on the wall on a regular basis. So for a very little amount of money a person or company can get some great exposure.

What worked better than you expected?

I guess the walls itself. When I think I have a great idea they always don’t work out that way. We had tried many different ways of asking for donations on Twitter. Charity gift cards, magazine subscriptions, MaryMargaret and I even did Twitterthons on Friday nights where we would send out songs by request and have trivia contests. Some people really enjoyed them, others complained we clogged up their twitter stream. Nevertheless, few people donated any money at all. The walls seemed to take off right away. So far we have made over $1000 in our first three weeks. To some that might not sound like a lot, but it is pure profit and all it takes is tweeting the walls out on occasion.

Which seemingly easy parts of the project turned out to be difficult?

I didn’t use a company to do the walls. They were still in beta when I discovered them and I wanted to get started. So being a software developer by trade, I built them myself. I love the freedom it gives me to react to any trends I might see, and to brand them any way I see fit. The walls were really not that difficult for me to build. What I found surprising was that people in the beginning tried to hack them so they would become disabled. The walls were never really in danger, but since it happened on several occasions I had to add extra preventative code to combat their efforts. That seems to have quieted down quite a bit as of late. It was very frustrating to me to think that someone would stoop to that level to harm a charity.

How have the donor walls  impacted the organization–in terms of revenue, exposure, mission etc.?

We are a small non-profit. Up until we built the Donor Walls we were running on fumes, basically ones supplied by us. As I stated before I’m just not that good at asking for money. The walls have given us a lot of hope. They may have slowed down from the beginning (as I expected), but I am now learning from one of our ambassadors how to establish relationships with donors. I will always try to keep the walls fresh and exciting, as evidenced by our addition of a second link to one’s Twitter account that each premium brick can now enjoy. We will develop walls for certain events, like our big Tweetup in May and Kids Are Heroes Day in October. I haven’t seen much evidence of new exposure obtained directly from the walls, albeit I expect that some people may have found out about us through them. It is a delicate balance though. It is so tempting to tweet about them all the time, but then I would be spamming. I really have to control myself and be patient with them.

What advice would you give other organizations considering a similar campaign?

Be as innovative as you can. Try and make it as fun as you can. Keep the values low enough so that your donors get real value. Think out of the box. We are working with one of our heroes on a partnership basis. They are a young rock band that has raised more than $100K for Haiti. We plan to roll out a live wall that can be projected at the event where people can buy bricks with their smart phones and we will update the bricks in real time. I am really looking forward to seeing that in action. But be careful not to tweet your wall(s) out too much or people will get tired of it. Try doing it at different times of the day to attract a new audience.

A final word from Gabe. . .

I honestly don’t know how long these walls will last as far as staying productive. We are trying to do something different with them as much as we can. But until the fun runs out, we will keep working with them.

Your Turn

What did we miss?  Ask your questions about Kids are Heroes or the Donor Walls in the comment section and I’ll ask Gabe and/or MaryMargaret  to stop by and answer them.

P.S.

Looking for more fundraising ideas for tiny nonprofits?  My free fundraising guide might help.

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11 thoughts on “Online Fundraising for Tiny Nonprofits: A Case Study

  1. We recently started using donor walls, too. I always had the concept in my head, but I’m not a programmer. As an all-volunteer org, we can’t justify paying for that type of programming. We were one of the beta walls using Supporter Wall (www.supporterwall.com). [Thanks to Gabe for the referral.]

    Our donors appreciate the ease of using it. They pick a backpack to sponsor and within minutes the entire transaction is complete. They also like the idea that they can put up their picture, business logo or choose to remain anonymous. We made sure we had different donation levels so that everyone could be a part of the wall.

    I think the donor wall concept is innovative and engages the supporter in a new way. They can now put their face on the cause they’re supporting, as opposed to a mere mention on a long donor listing at the back of the annual report.

  2. I really like the creative aspect to this story. Great stuff. I would be curious to know, for those of us who are not software programmers how much it would cost to build one of these into a non-profit site. How much expense are we talking here?
    technologically ineptly yours, JM

  3. Hi Jenny,

    Well for me all it took was a little programming “elbow grease” so my cost was nothing other than my time. As Menachem mentioned earlier, there is a company called Supporterwall that will supply a vanilla version of what I have at no initial cost (I believe) and charge you 15% (from what I hear) of all proceeds. I am in partnership with one non-profit (levarfisher.com). I built a wall for them, branded it the way they wanted, manage it for them, and am splitting the profits evenly. This makes sense because we have been partners for over a year now and we both are involved with kids.

  4. Hi everyone, Jeremy here. I am the technical co-founder of SupporterWall, the company that Gabe and Menachem have mentioned above. (Thanks for the mentions!)

    We love what Gabe has done and had big smiles on our face when we found out that he was so excited he couldn’t wait for us to come out of beta. We totally agree that fundraising for small groups is hard, and we are working hard to help make it easier using the internet.

    Just to clarify on fees, we definitely do not charge 15%. Right now, we are only asking for a $10 donation towards our costs and then giving you a free account with no charges at all. Once your wall is setup, the money raised goes directly into your paypal account.

    Companies like Menachem’s Operation Kid Equip (http://operationkidequip.org/?page_id=834) and Habitat for Humanity Sarasota (http://habitatsrq.org/Wall.html) are already using us to raise money for their cause and are really enjoying how easy it is to get started.

    My mother has been involved in non-profits and charities my whole life and we really want to make donations and fundraising easier for everyone. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. Our official account is http://twitter.com/supporterwall and my account is http://twitter.com/jhubert

    Warm regards and happy fundraising!
    Jeremy

  5. [...] If you’re a small, mostly volunteer-run nonprofit, don’t think you can’t fundraise online. It just takes a little creativity as the Maryland nonprofit Kids Are Heros found out. Read their story as shared by Maureen Carruthers: Online Fundraising for Tiny Nonprofits: A Case Study. [...]

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