This post comes from Beth Kanter, social change guru and trainer extraordinaire. I donated to Students for Free Tibet during their fundraising drive in 2008. SFT’s fundraiser, Melanie Raoul, walked up to me (and everyone else at this training we were at in San Francisco), and said “Can you donate to our group? We’re part of this fundraising competition being run by the Case Foundation. We’re in second place.” I said, “Yes, of course,” and she immediately escorted me to her computer so I could donate with my credit card on the spot. Very impressive.

I also volunteered for the organization’s unbelievably amazing effort to draw attention to the situation in Tibet during the 2008 Olympics in China. Check out these actions below! There was the SF bridge banner hang (right picture), which secured above-the-fold coverage on the New York Times. I supported SFT blockade of the Chinese embassy in Ottawa (left picture), which was less exciting, but very enjoyable because the people I was working with were so nice.

Now let’s turn to Beth’s blog post. Beth Kanter “explores how a small nonprofit, Students for a Free Tibet (SFT), a contest winner in the first and second America’s Giving Challenges, is using social media effectively. SFT carefully vets contest participation to ensure it will be worth their time and energy as well as ensuring that the contest strategically aligns with their goals. They also understand how to avoid donor fatigue, the potential downside to online contests.

Friendraising and fundraising on social networks

Melanie Raoul is a passionate millennial who knows what it means to put her life on the line for a cause. In 2007, she was one of six activists detained by the Chinese government after adding the words “Free Tibet 2008” to an Olympic banner and unfurling it on the Great Wall of China. She was freed several days later, but her personal act of protest was the official beginning of a one-year countdown of protests to the 2008 Olympics organized by her organization, Students for a Free Tibet. It was the dramatic backdrop of this campaign that Melanie Raoul entered her organization in the first America’s Giving Challenge in 2007-2008. It was also their first experiment with Facebook Causes for fundraising, and they raised $89,914 from 3,672 donors and captured $25,000 in prize money. Says Raoul, “The Olympics Campaign catalyzed our movement with an unstoppable sense of unity for a free Tibet. It empowered [us] to enter the first America’s Giving [Challenge] using a pull-all-the-stops campaign, which also helped us grow our network.”

Entering contests is a strategic decision

When the Case Foundation announced a second America’s Giving Challenge in 2009, Students for a Free Tibet carefully vetted the opportunity. Raoul says, “Online contests can take a lot out of your volunteers, members, and staff. We don’t enter every contest that comes along. We pick one per year.” They determine whether the contest has value by asking:

–  Do we have the bandwidth?

–  Do we have enough members who will volunteer to reach out to their friends and family?

–  Will our participation in the contest help us grow our network of people who we can educate and engage about political freedom in Tibet after the contest is over?

–  How does the contest fit in our overall fundraising plan for the year?

A big concern for SFT was how the contest could fit into their annual fundraising calendar. The November timeline meant it was nestled in between two of their most intense fundraising campaigns. Says, Raoul, “We decided to run a smaller, shorter, and a more focused contest campaign with a goal of recruiting new people by engaging our most passionate volunteers.” They also consider the long-term value. Says Raoul, “Our participation in the first Challenge helped us attract 50,000 new members both during and after the contest.” Raoul notes that during the six months following the second America’s Giving Challenge, they added another 25,000 members to their Cause. Raoul says there has been an uptick of members using the Birthday Wish campaign bringing in almost $1,000 per month. She notes, “This activity happens without any additional effort from us.”

Avoiding donor fatigue

Students for a Free Tibet understood well that a successful social media campaign has a call to action to achieve its goals, but not so much frequency to create donor fatigue. Based on their experience with their member recruitment and online activism campaigns, SFT knew they could not ask supporters to donate every day during the month-long America’s Giving Challenge. She said, “While the contest rules permitted daily donations and there were opportunities for daily prizes, if we asked people everyday, their passion for our cause would evaporate.” Raoul says they entered the contest painfully aware of the recession and the impact it might have on people’s giving — another reason why they limited the number of times they asked for donations. They also understood that every contact with their donors should not be an ask for money. Raoul says, “The long-term benefits of adding new members to our cause are only worth it if we are continually creating ways to engage these new members and bring them closer to our cause once the contest is over.”

Meet members at their interest level with compelling content

Students for a Free Tibet understands that not everyone who joins their Facebook Cause has the same level of interest or knowledge about their work. Raoul says, “People join our Cause on Facebook for many different reasons, and we have different levels of interest in our movement. This means we have different calls to action from simply sharing information, get them to take action online, participate in events offline, or simply educate them.” Compelling calls to action work better than begging for money. “We avoided a ‘give us money to win a contest’ message,” says Raoul. Similar to Darius Goes West, gripping personal stories and creative approaches are must.


Raoul sums up their best practices:

At the end of the day, if you meet people where they are at –- educate them, move them to take action, and cultivate them as donors, the more likely it is they’ll invest in your organization when you do ask for money. With the explosion of online contests available to nonprofits, how does your nonprofit vet opportunities to participate?

If an online contest has brought you new members and supporters, how do you continue to build your connection to them once the contest is over?


Guest blogger Beth Kanter is a trainer, coach, and consultant to nonprofits in the area of effective technology use.