The Secret to Grassroots Fundraising

Posted by on March 22, 2010 in Featured, Funding, University

My organization, Sparkseed, recently ran a successful grassroots fundraising campaign. Most of the legwork was done in just three weeks and we raised over $20,000. After crossing the fundraising finish line I reflected on the experience and realized that a great question to ask at the start of any campaign is, “How can we use leverage to increase our results?”

The word “leverage” has become a bit of a cliché, but the concept is as important as ever. Leverage is about using something (technology, capital, influencers, etc.) to get expanded results. Below are a few things you may want to leverage in your next fundraising campaign.

1. Leverage challenge grants

At the beginning of the year a very generous donor approached me about supporting Sparkseed. There was an opportunity for Sparkseed to receive a $10,000 grant on the spot. These no-strings-attached grants are rare, and therefore very tempting. As the conversation progressed, we both decided that we wanted to leverage this opportunity to raise more money, attract new donors, and give past donors a new reason to give during a particularly slow fundraising season: the first two months of the year. We accomplished all three goals by making the contribution a challenge grant. We turned the original $10,000 into nearly $21,000, attracted 35 new donors, and saw our veteran supporters become energized by the challenge that they helped us win. It was a great success for everyone.

2. Leverage a team of fundraisers (with guidance)

Perhaps the greatest lesson that any fundraiser can learn is that development is not about asking for money, but rather about giving people the opportunity to make a difference. Everyone likes to make a difference, but most of time you have to present the opportunity rather than waiting for people to take the initiative. If you understand the power of this principal with donors, it’s time to apply it to your fundraising team. I gave five people the opportunity to fundraise. Everyone accepted my invitation and raised a substantial amount of funds. Most of them exceeded their goals – sometimes with just one ask! In retrospect, I wish I had invited even more people to fundraise.

Here’s how I supported my fundraising team:

  • We brainstormed to create a list of their prospective donors.
  • I provided templates they could copy and paste into emails & Twitter.
  • We celebrated our successes often to keep the momentum building.
  • I called them to make sure they were on track and felt confident.
  • We broke down the possible ways they could reach their goals so it was less daunting.

3. Leverage the Internet (more than you already do)

Most of us take for granted how powerful the Internet is. We know we should use social media, online payments, and email newsletters, but how often do we take the time to use these strategically? What I learned about using the Internet in this campaign is that it allows you to diversify the way you reach out to prospective donors. You can be very targeted (direct email, Facebook message, etc.) or your can just put the opportunity out there (Twitter, mass email, posts on your web site, Facebook fan page, or blog). There were multiple times when I posted on Twitter and within minutes received a donation. So make sure you’re not limiting yourself. Every donor will resonate with your messaging differently, so you should employ a variety to media to reach them.

And make sure you use a fundraising thermometer so everyone can track your progress. We created this fundraising page for free using this fundraising thermometer widget.

4. Leverage urgency

You’ve probably heard people who leave things to the last minute say, “I work best under pressure.” This is something to remember when you consider donors. Whether you are approaching your deadline or certain milestones (e.g., “10 days left!” “Half-way there!”), you want to explain why people should give NOW. I did not initially make our fundraising campaign public because I knew that urgency would drive most of the donors to give in the final weeks. I did reach out to a handful of donors early and let them know we had an urgent need for them to build a strong base, so when we did launch the public campaign there was already a good deal of momentum. This worked well because everyone understood that they were making a significant contribution exactly when it was needed.

5. Leverage big gifts

People love to point to successful micro-giving campaigns, like Obama’s presidential campaign or the Red Cross in Haiti, to say how you can raise tons of money with small donations. Unless you have a huge donor base, you’ll need big donations to carry you over the finish line. If Sparkseed had tried to raise $10,000 with only $25 donations, we would have needed 400 donors. Instead, we raised over $10,000 with 55 donors. The median donation size for our campaign was $100. The $1,000 and $500 donations made our job much easier, so it was great to have some of these lined up early in the campaign.

This fundraising campaign was fun and empowering because we constantly thought about how to maximize everyone’s ability to contribute. Leveraging the Internet, urgency, key people, and big gifts made all the difference.


Mike Del Ponte is the founder of Sparkseed, a nonprofit that identifies, incubates, and invests in the top social innovators in the U.S.

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