‘Pearing’ Up Needs With Abilities A Winning Strategy

November 18, 2011       Mark Hrywna      

It all started with roasted pears. Charles Best walked into the teacher’s lounge at the Bronx public school where he taught and told his fellow teachers that they could indulge in his mother’s recipe on one condition: that they go to the website he recently created and plug in the school projects that they’ve always wanted for their students.

When the wish lists were fulfilled, his colleagues mistakenly thought the site actually worked — unaware that Best was the anonymous donor who fulfilled most all of them. So he had a problem on his hands when another 100 projects were submitted.

From that noble effort more than a decade ago, DonorsChoose.org has raised $100 million from more than 600,000 donors. The Internet was a much different place. Since then, other fundraising sites have launched, like Kiva in 2005 and Kickstarter in 2009.

The founder and CEO of DonorsChoose.org, Best was among the speakers at this morning’s opening session of NextGen: Charity, a two-day conference at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center in New York City aimed at new strategies in nonprofit and philanthropy work. Also a part of this morning’s lineup was Marc Ecko of Ecko Enterprises, Abby Falik of Global Citizen Year and KIPP co-founder Dave Levin. Friday’s programming includes roundtables with nonprofit leaders and executives from corporate philanthropy, education, the environment, arts and music and volunteering.

Peer-to-peer is not micro-sponsorship, a model with which Heifer International has gained vast success, nor is it “me-and-my-friends” fundraising. “Sites like Crowdrise enable anyone to create a personal campaign, rally friends to make donations and look awesome. As a fundraising model, it’s totally grassroots, but the causes for which people are raising money may still be big, top-down institutions,” Best said. “Peer-to-peer fundraising makes giving personal,” he said. “It’s about micro-solutions developed by people” with the experience on the ground.

Best presented three underlying values that can be applied to any venture: Give as much choice and transparency as possible. “One of our biggest revenue drivers is screwing up and admitting it,” said Best. If the organization is unable to follow up on a project with a photo or other summary, it still contacts the donor to apologize it couldn’t show the fulfillment. While the donors don’t typically choose another project when they get a “proactive apology,” Best said they still are very likely to donate to the charity directly.

Close the loop. Make sure donors feel as if they’re getting more out of the experience than your organization. “We should aspire to give donors emotional reward,” said Best, adding that nonprofits are in the business of selling experiences.

Think of beneficiaries as co-workers. “The labor required to vet projects got us bogged down,” said Best, taking as much as 10 days. Today, it takes two days because what used to be done by paid college students now is reviewed by teachers who have submitted successful projects in the past.

For Aria Finger, not enough nonprofits are using mobile or text messing. It’s easy to integrate, and will tap into a teen demographic that is vital to any nonprofit, said Finger, chief operating officer at DoSomething.org.

There are important rules to live by when it comes to mobile, according to Finger:

  • It must have value to the user;
  • It must have respect for the medium; and,
  • It must have simplicity.

Why is it important to tap into teens? They send and receive 3,300 text messages monthly and only 11 percent use email, according to data Finger cited from the Pew Research Center. Use of technology by youth eventually cascades upward to older generations, said Finger, and nonprofits always need funnels so “the 16- and 17-year-olds today will be your market soon enough.”

DoSomething had about 500 defunct members that the organization kept emailing with virtually no response. Instead, they texted those donors on a Friday afternoon about a food pantry hunger project, and within nine minutes, they got more than 100 responses. “It’s just because we communicated with them how they wanted to be communicated with,” Finger said.