Part 2: A New Approach To Digital Fundraising

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In my last post, I discussed how we crowdsourced short video entries from University of Virginia students showcasing an individual display of talent. From these submissions, we selected 12 finalists for a Digital Talent Show competition that functioned as a component of a 36-hour fundraising event themed around Thomas Jefferson’s Birthday Celebration (#TJBDAY).

A vote for one of the Digital Talent Show finalists required a gift of $10 or more; $1 equaled one vote. The student whose video received the most votes (dollars donated) won a $1,000 gift Google+certificate to the UVA Bookstore. #TJBDAY for Scholarships, the digital fundraising event itself, occurred on April 10th and 11th. Money raised was specifically designated for need-based student scholarships.

#TJBDAY had more fundraising vehicles utilized than just digital, and that mix was ultimately what made it more successful. We had a weekend long Phonathon with student callers that raised almost $22,000 from 147 donors. Our partners, the UVA Bookstore, very generously gave 25% of their profits from in-store purchases to #TJBDAY as a gift to student scholarships as well.

Below are five takeaways from our #TJBDAY Digital Talent Show concept as a fundraiser for scholarships.

1) While there was an initial flurry of donations for individual entries when the scoreboard went live, it became clear that most donors just voted for all the entries, spreading their dollar amounts evenly across the twelve finalists. This was particularly true for faculty and staff donors.TJBDAY scoreboard

2) The most played videos did not win the Digital Talent Show. This was interesting and perhaps understandable given that donors were free to give whatever dollar amount they wanted. Although most gifts were in the $10-50 range, the winning videos (we had a 2nd place winner too) were the ones that each received one large gift of over $1000. A secret society at U.Va. called the “Seven Society” gave $1,743 dollars to Finalist #7. Mr. Jefferson, of course, was born in 1743.

3) Visitors to the event website did not watch more than a couple of the videos. A few of my teammates advocated for fewer finalists for this very reason. I advocated for the 12 finalists thinking that each student’s individual social networks were critical for rallying support for their entry, and ultimately, tapping their networks would lead to more gifts. Over 2,100 unique visitors checked out the event website during the contest period but only averaged about 4 minutes per visit. Each Digital Talent Show entry was two minutes long. Simultaneously, the student finalists did not execute a robust social sharing effort themselves despite being given pre-written tweets, emails and FB posts to use along with graphics to share. I’m not entirely sure that the student finalists understood how important it would be for them to ask their networks to vote for their video and give to scholarships. Something to think about for next year…

4) We asked alumni, students, faculty and staff to change their social media profile pictures and avatars to #TJBDAY specific graphics we sized appropriately and made available on the contest site. We attempted to make #TJBDAY “go viral” through this mechanism and heavily marketed the concept. Ultimately, very few people were willing to affectively “become #TJBDAY” for two days. I was surprised by this fact and anticipated that more people would spend some of their social capital on the fundraising event. God knows, I spent all my personal brand equity on the event. (Insert smiley-face here). Although few people switched avatars, many did share the graphics.

5) Supplying pre-written content for social sharing to colleagues around the University of Virginia was very effective. I’ve received the most positive feedback on making it easy for colleagues to tweet or post to Facebook and Linkedin by sending examples out in advance. During #TJBDAY the hashtag was used 649 times by 360 different contributors.

In the end, the digital component of #TJBDAY raised $17,000 from just shy of 200 donors. This included a group that didn’t vote in the Digital Talent Show but just gave to scholarships through the website. When combined with money raised from Phonathon and the UVA Bookstore, we raised over $60K which was matched 1:1 by a challenge grant. Given that this was new territory for us in many ways, everyone was happy with the collaborative effort and results. Admittedly, I was hoping for the Digital Talent Show piece would have been more robust from a fundraising conversion standpoint. That said, we learned a TON and look forward to making adjustments next year.

Ryan Catherwood is the Director of Engagement Strategy at the University of Virginia and Co-Host of “Advancement Live.” You can follow him on twitter @RyanCatherwood and connect on Linkedin.

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