When the debate team of the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., defeated the national-champion Harvard team in a friendly contest last October, no one at Bard was shocked by the outcome. After all, the Bard team, a trio of of inmates at the nearby Eastern New York Correctional Facility who participate in Bard’s rigorous educational program for incarcerated men and women, had won its first-ever debate when it went up against West Point. “We know how talented our students are,” explained Laura Liebman, director of development for the Bard Prison Initiative. “The outcome was not surprising at all.”
What was surprising, however, was the sensation the story caused when it unexpectedly went viral several weeks later. At first, when an article about the debate in the Wall Street Journal briefly spiked as the site’s number-one story, BPI’s small staff was able to easily field the media and donor inquiries that followed. But then word began to spread on social media. First, there was a brief Twitter exchange about the Wall Street Journal story between then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who is producing a film about the Bard program. Then, the news website Vox published a feature on the debate that was widely shared. From there, the story exploded on Facebook and Twitter and on other media outlets, catching Liebman and the rest of the Bard staff off guard.
“Our understanding was that if the story was going to go viral, it would have done so right away,” Liebman recalls. “So we weren’t anticipating more attention. But by Monday morning, we were being flooded with media inquiries. It suddenly felt like the whole world was calling.”
In addition to reporters seeking interviews, the calls included donors eager to make gifts and grantmakers inviting BPI to apply for grants. What had started out as simply an inspiring underdog story morphed virtually overnight into a tremendous fundraising opportunity for the institution. But would BPI’s staff have the time and capacity to take advantage of it?
“It was ‘all hands on deck’ for a few days,” Liebman recalls. “As is typical for any small nonprofit, we don’t have a large staff. Initially, we were just answering phones and responding to emails as fast as we could.”
When the dust settled, BPI calculated that the media attention had resulted in a 40 percent increase in gifts and a 40 percent increase in new donors. Not only that, but the geographic distribution of the donor base has widened dramatically as a result of the international attention. “It looks like I’m going to be doing a lot more traveling!” Liebman says.
The BPI-Harvard debate may also prove to be a turning point in the growth of the organization. “There’s absolutely no question that that the Harvard debate and the media explosion around it has had a major effect on our efforts to secure stable revenue,” says Max Kenner, BPI’s founder and executive director. Though the donor base has grown dramatically, Kenner, who makes a point of sending a handwritten thank-you note for every gift regardless of its size, believes that this will not change the organization’s approach to donor relationships. “Our community is made up of individuals and institutions across the country to whom our work represents something meaningful,” he says. “The result has really been an affirmation of what we do here.”
What are the major takeaways from the experience? “Events like this are when it’s really critical to have a strong team in place, people you can trust and really rely on,” says Liebman. “When you’re tested, that’s when you really see the strength of your team and your commitment to the mission.”
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.