What Crowd-funding can teach Fundraisers about Winning

Published by Matthew Sherrington on

Picture1Yeah, yeah, crowd-funding is the new big fundraising idea. Nothing new there. But I recently did something through Kickstarter. It got me thinking about why it is so exciting. It is simple, tangible, direct, involving and you know exactly what your money buys – yes, all of that. (And it is “digital”, of course, as all new ideas have to be).

But I think there’s something else. It’s about the chance of winning. And fundraisers are generally rubbish at it.

How’s that? Fundraisers are a competitive bunch, always chasing the target, always looking for the new angle, how to improve, raise more money. There’s nothing better than beating a target (or, keep it quiet, the competition).

But that’s about you. I don’t care about you. I care about the supporter. Let me explain.

I crowd-funded an independent film called Third Contact. It was made for only £4,000 on a camcorder and needed the money to get it screened. Not just anywhere, but at the UK’s largest cinema, the IMAX. That sounded fun. I pledged to buy two tickets. It was touch and go whether they’d make it – Kickstarter is all-or-nothing. If the target isn’t reached, the project doesn’t happen, and you don’t pay.

I wanted it to happen, so I told some friends and upgraded my pledge to include some rewards (£65 – that’s all): yes, I got the t-shirt. They made it, and I went to the premiere. I’m pleased to say it is an absolutely incredible film that has since won acclaim and awards. But it is only getting screened through crowd-funding.


Having seen it, I want other people to see it too. I wasn’t expecting that. I’m proud I helped make it happen. So I have helped the campaign to get it screened in Oxford, my home town. Yes, of course I’m telling you so you can bring Third Contact to a cinema near you!

The lesson here is that it’s not just the end result that makes it so compelling. The thrill is in the chase, in knowing you could make it, but knowing you might not. And then knowing you desperately want it to.

And that’s what makes a good fundraising story. Like a good movie – Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or Star Wars – it’s not the challenge or threat, or the vision and end-goal that provide the excitement, though they are essential ingredients. What provides the excitement is the journey; the tension of the underdog hero battling the villain and facing adversity; the uncertainty of not knowing if they’ll win; the emotional energy of wanting them to succeed. Even better, it’s the knowing that whether they win or not is down to you.

If you play computer games, you’ll recognise this. The excitement comes from getting further, doing better, winning rewards and critically, being able to determine the outcome, and wanting to do it all over again. That’s Gaming Theory for you, creating a story people can join, be part of and influence the ending.

And that’s what fundraisers are generally rubbish at. How much of your fundraising communications is simply more of the same? Just another case study, another project, or another example of need.

Research suggests for example that people on the whole do not believe international aid works. They give to development organisations in spite of that, but they don’t think it makes a difference, because they see the same thing again and again. Nothing seems to change (though the fact is that extreme poverty in the world has halved in the last 25 years).

Does that make it more of a duty call than a truly motivating and engaging? Is that true for other causes too? Do you give people a sense of making progress? Do you offer a sense of suspense, of jeopardy, and a possibility of winning?

Picture2A good fundraising story – and I mean your whole organisational story – needs to give the supporter the feeling they are the key to winning. You need to make supporters feel special. You need to help them know they make all the difference. You need them to know you can win, against all the odds, but that you need them on your team to do that.

You need to do that all the time, with all your fundraising. Not just with crowd-funding, when it’s easy.

Here’s a great example of making someone feel special, from a Quebec Recycling Campaign. Here’s another about underdogs winning against adversity – the Recycled Orchestra.

Matthew Sherrington

Matthew Sherrington

Matthew consults and coaches through his consultancy Inspiring Action with charities big and small, in the UK and Internationally. He has over 25 years’ experience of charity fundraising, campaigning, communications and leadership, including being Fundraising Director at Greenpeace USA, Communications Director at Oxfam GB, leading a creative agency. He’s a committed conference speaker, blogger and charity trustee. His guiding principle is inspiring people to action, through communications and leadership, with a particular passion for supporter engagement and organizational effectiveness, aligning strategy and culture behind an exciting mission story. Follow Matthew on Twitter at @m_sherrington


Adrian Salmon · February 3, 2014 at 15:30

Great post Matthew. I’ve participated in one Kickstarter myself (Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir 4) and I’ve watched a friend do a very successful one for a DeviantArt project he’s involved with: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/romantically-apocalyptic-books-of-captein

They really do work in helping you feel involved and up-to-date. And of course eventually you get to consume the product – read the comic book, see the incredible video, watch the film.

I also had a look at the top 50ish most successful crowd-funded projects, and it looks like the majority went to video games and techie ideas like smartwatches that people would like to be able to buy for themselves. Just like you wanted to be able to see the movie you were helping to fund.

Only 1.6% of the money was given to what you or I would call a non-profit cause.

It is indeed all about the payoff.

So the question is – can charities give people something to consume at the end of the process in the same way? And if so, what? Is a thank you letter enough?

    Matthew Sherrington · February 3, 2014 at 16:00

    Thanks Adrian. It’s true Kickstarter is essentially for arts and media projects, so no surprise there isn’t more non-profit activity there. I’d like to think the lesson here for fundraising is not about the tangible product at the end, (and certainly not just a thank you letter!) but about building the sense of participation, suspense, desire for success and finally achievement when a goal is met. I think too much fundraising is just mailing by mailing; case study by case study, with little real sense of achievement, or even progress in the cause. Is there a difference between “change” causes and more passive “welfare” causes? Are we offering “more of the same”? Or are we offering a journey to victory?

Linda Pagano · March 19, 2014 at 19:59

Hi Matthew,
I am the editor for the CiviCRM Community Newsletter. In case you don’t know, CiviCRM is an open-source CRM geared towards non-profits. We usually have a section titled CiviCRM and Beyond. The idea of this section is to provide tips and ideas to our readers from blogs that are written by thought leaders in the nonprofit sector. I wanted to include a teaser to your blog in our newsletter with a link to this blog. Would that be ok with you? Let me know your thoughts.

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