Development officers know how to prepare for the uptick in giving that accompanies planned events, but sudden and unexpected surges in publicity like the one that hit the Bard Prison Initiative following its debate victory over the national-champion Harvard team last October can send staff scrambling to capitalize on them before the moment passes and people’s attention shifts elsewhere. “The vast majority of nonprofits don’t consider what will happen when something unexpectedly goes viral,” says Justin J. Ware, Vice President for Digital Fundraising Strategy at ScaleFunder, a Los Angeles-based digital fundraising platform for universities and nonprofits. “And when it does happen, they don’t know the first place to start.” Ware says that nonprofits can avoid that problem by taking three steps right now.
- Ensure that you have, or can call on, enough people to staff up in response to a surge.
- Develop a formal response strategy that identifies who is responsible for doing what and when.
- Employ a multi-channel communications approach for mobilizing stakeholders and staying in front of the story as it spreads.
“When you build that capability, it’s not just there to catch lightning when it strikes,” explains Ware. “It should be part of a comprehensive plan that involves direct mail, phones, social media, a strong crowdfunding platform, and other resources.”
That plan should include taking photos and even video of events. Not only will you have something to distribute through your own social media channels, but you will also have something ready for the press should it come calling. Also, prepare background materials such as participant bios and histories of the organization and its mission to hand out when needed. The responsibility for curating these materials should lie with a person whose is tasked with anticipating media needs.
Ware understands that it’s not easy for development and communications staff to make a winning case for developing a strategy to respond to extreme-case scenarios that may never come to pass. In an era of tight budgets, “better safe than sorry” just isn’t persuasive enough. Ware counsels clients to try buttressing their arguments with persuasive data, such as the overlap between the organization’s programs and popular trends, or accounts of recent media attention elsewhere.
To illustrate, Ware shares what can happen when you have the staff, strategy, and outreach tools in place to capitalize on an unexpected opportunity. Following the 23-17 victory of the University of Mississippi’s football team against longtime rival the University of Alabama on October 4, 2014, jubilant fans stormed the field and tore down the goalposts, resulting in a $75,000 fine against Ole Miss Athletics, which it promptly paid. Hours after the event, however, Ole Mis Athletics director Ross Bjork tweeted a photo of the celebration and joked that the people in the photo should help cover the expense. The tweet went viral, and donations immediately started flowing in, accompanied by significant media attention. The Ole Miss development office decided to capitalize on the response by launching the Victory Celebration Fund campaign on the fly.
Fortuitously, at that moment the development office was putting the final touches on its new crowdfunding platform called Ignite. “We had to hurry up and finalize everything for the launch of the campaign,” recalls Angela Avery, annual giving coordinator at Ole Miss. “We finalized the layout and testing of the platform on Monday, October 6th and we started planning the campaign with the Athletics Department at 3:30 pm the same day. The project launched the next day at 1 pm” — less than 72 hours after the game had ended.
The results were impressive: the $75,000 goal was met in less than four hours, and when the campaign was suspended two days later it was funded at 140 percent.
Taking advantage of the campaign’s momentum, the department simultaneously launched another campaign, “I Wear 38” (after the jersey number of the late defensive back Roy Lee “Chucky” Mullins) to raise funds for the Chucky Mullins Memorial Scholarship Fund, which provides scholarships to students with physical disabilities or exceptional financial need. This campaign raised just under $103,000 in its first day, and reached its full $150,000 funding within a week.
“I think the key is that you have to be ready to seize opportunities when they present themselves,” says Avery. “If we had done the prudent thing and waited a week and planned more thoroughly, we probably would have lost all the crazy enthusiasm and excitement that followed that momentous win.”
Based on the lessons learned from the two impromptu campaigns, Avery and the development staff now encourage project teams to build in time to prepare a campaign while also timing them to coincide with significant events that are likely to have significant audience response. “It’s all about creating a personal connection with the donor to inspire them to be a part of the campaign,” Avery explains.
This post was adapted from “Expect the Unexpected,” by Paul Lagasse, Advancing Philanthropy, Summer 2016 (reprinted with permission). You can read the whole article here.