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Introduction: America’s Giving Challenge: Conversational Case Studies Series

Allison Fine and I are engaged in the evaluation process for the second the America’s Giving Challenge. We are using a combination of traditional research methods, including a survey of 720 Challenge Participants in combination with unconventional techniques. To get behind the numbers and leverage the power of social media to ignite conversations and share our findings, we are facilitating “Conversational Case Studies” that explore best practices in integrating social media with fundraising campaigns by the America’s Giving Challenge (AGC) winners.

We’re going to begin by exploring how a small organization, Darius Goes West, was successful in AGC. We wanted to begin with a small group because one finding from the survey of participants was that people still think that being a small organization is a disadvantage in online contests. Rather than just tell folks it isn’t true, we thought we’d show it with an example. We end with questions that we’re still wrestling with. In fact, all of the winners from this past AGC were small organizations, meaning organizations with less than $5m in annual revenues.

Blog Post #1: Darius Goes West: Inspiring Fans To Share Their Story With Pride and Joy

Logan Smalley is the founder and co-president of the Darius Goes West Foundation, a small nonprofit that raises money to support research of the fatal genetic disease, Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). Logan’s best friend since age 5 is Darius Weems, a young man living with DMD. Darius’s older brother, Mario, died of the very same disease five years ago. Mario asked Logan to watch over his brother and Logan has done so in a unique and caring way.

In 2005, Logan created a feature length documentary called “Darius Goes West” that followed Darius on a cross-country journey with his 11 best friends to convince MTV to customize Darius’s wheelchair on the hit show, Pimp My Ride. Today, the documentary has become a movement. Darius, Logan, and the “film crew,” friends and volunteers, are on the road visiting high schools, colleges, and groups of young people across America to tell the story of Darius and raise money for this fatal genetic disease. As Logan says, “The movie is its own story, but we continually update our web site, social networks, and YouTube with the story. That’s what has transformed it from a documentary into a movement.”

While Darius Goes West is a new and small nonprofit, they are no strangers to using social networks. They have been working on social networks for years. Says Smalley, “We’re early adopters because our target audience is high school and college students. You have to go where your audience is and that’s where our audience has been hanging out. Social networks are our home turf.”

It’s All Building Relationships: Both Online and Offline

Darius Goes West finished the America’s Giving Challenge in the top ten, winning a $10,000 prize and raising an additional $24,459 from 1,633 donations. Logan and Darius were not aware of the America’s Giving Challenge until a high school student entered them. Says Logan, “I received a direct message from him on Facebook that said, “I entered us in this fundraising contest. Don’t worry, we’re going to win. Your crew has got your back.”

Says Smalley:

We’ve met a lot of people over the years both offline and online. We try to keep a personal connection with everyone we meet and who helps us along the way. Relationships are very important. That’s how we ended up being entered into the contest and ultimately why we won.

It is also a secret to their success today, the constant relationship building both online and offline and the use of personal contacts and solicitations for activities like the Giving Challenge.

Use of Engaging Storytelling That Is Funny, Compelling, and Short

Darius Goes West has assembled a large collection of photos and video clips of almost every school site they’ve connected with over the past five years and drew from that rich repository to create custom fundraising solicitation videos. Smalley says, “For example, we reached out to folks in Oregon County asking for donations and support for the America’s Giving Contest. We used photos and video clips we had taken on previous visits.”

They took advantage of all the YouTube Nonprofit Program’s special features like embedded pop up links for voting, but Smalley credits their use of “dramatic cliff hangers” about their progress in the contest as well as Darius’s unique brand of humor as keys to inspiring their network to take action.

Darius created an alter ego on video especially for the Giving Challenge and shared it on YouTube. His alter ego was someone well known to Darius Goes West Fans – John Madden. Says Smalley, “Our target audience is wild about John Madden video game, so Darius’s endearing imitation really resonated.” They created a series of videos updating their networks where they were in the contest and what they needed to win.

Smalley says that engaging storytelling, humor, and brevity are the keys to success with YouTube. Says Smalley, “We used Facebook and email to promote the contest, but it gets dry unless you use video and our audience likes the drama of that medium.” Smalley said that their team watched the leader board like hawks. This was important so they could put a specific call to action embedded in their video solicitations. “We asked for a specific number of donations and used an embedded link for people to go right to the donation page.”

Say Thank You and Celebrate Success

Smalley says every point of contact with your followers can’t be an ask for something. Thanking people is essential for keeping one’s network engaged. Smalley said, “Not only that you appreciated your network for what they did for you during the contest, but it helps maintain the relationship so the next time around, your network will be there for you.”

Smalley doesn’t look at contests as a one-time ask, but part of a continuum of social networking activities that involves empowering people in their network who know and love their story to share it with others. Says Smalley, “You have to stimulate an emotional incentive for people – so they feel a sense of pride and joy when they forward your organization’s story to their friends.”

Darius Goes West went on to participate in several subsequent contests, perfecting the techniques they used in the America’s Giving Challenge. For example, they were winner of the Chase Community Giving contest. Says Smalley, “The America’s Giving Challenge helped us reach new people, expanding our network, and motivated us to reconnect with people we hadn’t touched based with for a while.” Smalley says one of the benefits of these contests to small nonprofits is that they can be great catalyst to build your supporters network and catalyze them to action.

Discussion Questions:

  • Whether you're participating in an online contest or implementing a fundraising campaign using social networks, you’ve got to engage your fans and make it easy for them to share your organization’s story with pride and joy. What techniques are you using?
  • How have you used social media to personalize your interactions with potential supporters?
  • If you are with a small organization, how have you used social media successfully without a big marketing budget?
  • How can we put to rest the assumption that large organizations have an automatic advantage using social media?

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

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