4 Lessons in Engagement From a Shack in the Woods

Published by Margaux Smith on


The greatest job I ever had was working for the Wild Bird Care Centre in a small, log cabin in a forest just outside the capital city of Canada. I loved every minute of my three years there, and only left when grad school forced me to move to Toronto.

And because that grad degree was in Fundraising, I began to learn that the charity I loved so dearly was missing a few opportunities for real financial success. The biggest one being their website.

You see, when someone finds a baby bird on their doorstep or sees a fledgling hopping around in the park, many of them turn to Google. If you search ‘injured bird’ or anything similar, our website is the first to pop up. Unfortunately, it hasn’t really been updated much since it was first made. Most of the advice is hidden behind links and there’s no simple way to donate. But because the phone number is prominent, they get calls asking for advice almost non-stop.

Of course we were always glad to be able to give this advice over the phone. A lot of the time, we were telling people that the behaviours they were describing were perfectly normal, so just leave them be. If the animal did sound in need of care, we could talk them through safe capture and transport, then direct them to their closest shelter. Because these calls were coming from all over North America – I once even answered one from England!

So the issue for our staff was that, with so few employees, there was no one to answer the phones full time. A call meant one of us had to stop what we were doing, and during the spring and summer, with hundreds of baby birds in need of feeding every half hour, things got hectic.

And as I learned more about fundraising, I realized how much we were missing out by not having a simple donation process on our website. I still wonder, for all the people we were giving helpful advice to over the phone, how many felt compelled to give back after our conversations only to find that it was too difficult?

In such a small charity, time, money and resources for a new website just didn’t exist. An update was something that was always talked about but never acted upon. It became somewhat of a life goal for me to some day make sure I could re-do the website to maximize its potential.

So a few months ago when my friends were sharing a link to nominate a charity for a $20,000 website makeover, I thought it was worth a shot. I entered the Bird Centre to win Canada’s Worst Charity Website and promptly forgot about it.

It was a surprise, then, to hear from my old co-worker last month. “We’ve been nominated to win a new website – do you have any advice for getting people to vote for us?”

I was overjoyed and quickly jotted down a few tips. But as it turned out, I was the one who learned a thing or two (or four) from them. And after two nail-biting weeks of voting, we won! I was so impressed at how they rallied together an enthusiastic, passionate community on Facebook, I felt their story was worth sharing. Here were my takeaways as I watched them succeed:

1. Don’t underestimate the little guy

Saying the Bird Centre is a shack in the woods is really not an exaggeration. When I worked there, not only was there no Wi-Fi, I couldn’t even get mobile reception most of the time. Now, I knew they’d set up a Facebook page about a year ago, but I’m ashamed to admit that I still must’ve had it in my head that they weren’t very social media savvy. I was so wrong! Without any formal training or experience running a social media campaign, they intuitively asked the right questions (what do we need people to do and how can we persuade them to do it) and came up with creative solutions that really worked.


2. Know your audience

We all know that when it comes to spreading things online, sharibility is key. But it’s much easier said than done. In a voting contest where you’re asking people to take the same action every day for weeks AND ask their network to do the same, how can you make sure it doesn’t feel like nagging? Why should they ‘bother’ their friends and family with your messages?

The Bird Centre staff solved this beautifully. In fact, I believe this was the reason for their success in the end. Every day of the contest, they created a funny meme using pictures of the Centre’s many patients (I’ve put a few of my favorites throughout this post). They were so funny and cute that people wanted to share and eagerly anticipated what they’d see next! It really caught people’s attention and their online community began to grow. I even had friends saying they didn’t really like birds all that much but were voting every day because the photos made them smile. Brilliant.

3. Ease of response is key

We were really lucky that this contest was so well set up. Voters didn’t have to enter any personal information or jump through any hoops – one click was all it took. But just as important was the fact that every single post from the Bird Centre contained the link to vote. Every share had all anyone needed to take action easily. This is a lesson that applies to every aspect of fundraising. If you want someone to do something, remove all barriers to action.

It’s also vital to ask and ask again. The Bird Centre shared the voting link with a friendly reminder without fail every day of the contest (you could vote once per day). We shouldn’t be afraid to touch base and communicate with our supporters often. Even the best intentioned people have busy lives and other things on their minds. Make it easy for them to say yes!

4. Don’t be afraid to take risks

The Bird Centre has a great reputation in Ottawa built on over 20 years of humble, low profile community service, from volunteers who plug away, selflessly. So you’ll understand that when they received a phone call out of the blue saying they were finalists for the title of Canada’s Worst Charity Website, the first reaction was not very positive. And even after the benefits were made clear, hesitations arose. Would this attract negative attention? Would people hear the ‘Canada’s Worst Charity’ part and feel differently about the Centre? Would supporters be annoyed at being asked to vote? Would it be embarrassing to lose?

Of course ultimately, they went for it and it paid off. The immediate outpouring of public support showed there was no need to worry after all. Unfortunately, this is the reality that charities face. They’re under so much scrutiny that risks can seem terrifying. But risks are also often what it takes to make real progress.

557991_476140932456953_1945118363_nAnd that’s what I hope to see for the Centre now that they’ve won a new website. I can’t wait to see what it will look like, but my fingers are crossed for a simple donation process, engaging and vibrant content, and an easy way for the staff to keep it updated with wonderful stories. I’m so proud of the whole community for bringing home the win! Great job guys :)


On a personal note, this is my last blog post from England. After two years, I’m moving on to new adventures. The next time I write will be from a village in Kenya, and after that, my new home in Australia. See you on the other side!

Margaux Smith

Margaux is currently living in Sydney, Australia, working closely with incredible clients at Flat Earth Direct, creating digital and direct mail campaigns with them to help change the world. This Canadian fundraiser misses her compatriots in London and Toronto, where she learned almost everything she knows, but is enjoying the Australian sunshine a little too much to leave any time soon.


Kathy Allen · April 22, 2013 at 23:53

Hi Margaux. A great blog, excellent learning. Thank for sharing. Good luck in your adventures across the world. Look us up when you come back. Kathy x

hazelwood teething necklace · May 5, 2013 at 01:15

I blog quite often and I truly thank you for your content.
The article has truly peaked my interest. I will book mark your website and keep checking for new information
about once per week. I opted in for your RSS feed too.

[Headlines] Shaping Your Story to Motivate Action | · April 30, 2013 at 12:06

[…] 4 Lessons in Engagement From a Shack in the Woods. The greatest job I ever had was working for the Wild Bird Care Centre in a small, log cabin in a forest in Canada. Because my grad degree was in Fundraising, I began to learn that the charity I loved so dearly was missing a few opportunities … by Margaux Smith […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *