Get SMART: The 4-Step Science of the Viral Fundraising Campaign

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February 13, 2017; and Nature: Human Behaviour

Creating an effective social media plan is essential for nonprofits and for profits alike. One question leadership often asks is how an organization can engage supporters on the different platforms and, more importantly, translate this engagement into increased financial support. Recently, we have watched the fire-building and war-chest-building effects of the efforts launched on behalf of the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. Ambassadors and advocates often start these on behalf of a trusted organization.

New research from the University of Cambridge studied successful campaigns like the Ice Bucket Challenge. Back in 2014, millions of people were dumping buckets of ice water over their heads. The campaign, known as the Ice Bucket Challenge, gained media attention and increased awareness of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. In just eight weeks, it raised $220 million worldwide—13 times the amount raised throughout 2013—thanks to videos of President Obama, Bill Gates, Leonardo DiCaprio, and many more celebrities and ordinary people. All of these efforts raised public familiarity of the disease and led to it becoming the fifth-most-popular Google search for all of 2014.

Clearly, this was a short-term success that produced some great medical advances, but the long-term financial impact was not as significant. The majority of ice bucket donors did not renew their donation the following year, although donations remained around 25 percent higher than the year before the challenge took place. Equally important, the average age of the organization’s donors dropped from 50 to 35—an exciting outcome, since gaining the attention of millennials is challenging but essential for long-term viability.

Efforts to renew and duplicate the campaign have largely failed, leading to research by Dr. Sander van der Linden from the University of Cambridge to explore and attempt to pinpoint a recipe for success. Dr. van der Linden, writing in the journal Nature: Human Behaviour, refers to these campaigns as viral altruism or the “altruistic act of one individual directly inspires another, spreading rapidly like a contagion across a network of interconnected individuals.”

Through his research, Dr. van der Linden identifies four principles, or SMART criteria, of a successful campaign. People engaged in the campaign use social media to reach out to their social networks; that’s the S of SMART. The viral campaign captures people’s attention and makes them feel good. The M represents the moral imperative to act. A successful campaign develops from a story displaying need rather than dry statistics. The person receiving this message is captured by the story or image and compelled to act and share it within their network to receive affective reactions (AR). The clearer, simpler, and more emotional the act, the more likely it will be shared. The more involved the act is, the greater and more lasting the impact, but it lessens the likelihood people will participate.

The T of successful campaigns is the final and most challenging criterion. To realize change, the social media campaign must transform the act from a quick click-and-share to a social movement. Indeed, many campaigns encourage people to compete and win rather than support the cause. These flashy campaigns create interest because of the number of people participating but soon bust since the campaign only lasts as long as the person is acting. Instead, campaigns are often more successful if their growth develops rather than explodes.

Campaigns turn into movements if the act or campaign is connected to the mission. To create lasting engagement, a successful campaign internalizes a new personal deeper action or norm within the people sharing. In the case of The Ice Bucket Challenge, it is estimated that only one out of four videos mentioned ALS, and even fewer (one in five) said they made a donation. But, those that mentioned the organization were five times more likely to give. Additionally, when the organization attempted to restart the challenge in 2015, the donations garnered from it were less than one percent of 2014’s levels.

Deliberately building successful campaigns is rare. Instead, most viral campaigns stem from a single act outside of the organization. Successful nonprofits use their communications plan to connect and build on these campaigns to create lasting change.

Using Social Like the Pro’s



There have been many, many articles discussing the explosive growth in the number of people using social media. The question is who is using which platforms? Are they interested in your mission? And most importantly, how do you engage them without spending resources you don’t have?

Let’s start with the growth. The number of users is staggering. Every day there are 500 million tweets, Facebook users upload 350 million photos, and Instagram users upload 55 million photos.

But what may be more surprising is the growth in the number of people over 65 using social media. According to the same blog, over half of people over 65 are on the internet. Even more interesting is their consistency: of those that are on the internet, 77% use it daily.

The online growth of baby boomers, ages 47 to 65, is even more enormous. In the last twelve years online users in this age group increased to 77%, leading to the average baby boomer spending 27 hours a week online. For most nonprofits, there is not a more important age group since members accounts for 43% of philanthropic activity.

In total 27.4 million seniors (people over 55) use social media. This represents a huge jump from just three years ago. At that time just 13% of this age group were using social media; now it is one in three. Although seniors may continue to reply to the snail mail appeal, this growth signals the end to this expensive method of reaching donors.

All of this growth leads many nonprofits to ask, how do you connect and build new donors and leaders online? More and more the answer is “user generated content.” User generated content is just nonprofits posting the messages of leaders and donors. What could be easier or more efficient?

Not only is it is easy but it is also effective. People are always interested in their friends’ recommendations. And at its core, social media is all about what someone is doing and saying.

Nonprofits can harness this power to raise donations by following a page from the corporate world. Offer space on your webpage and social media for volunteers to post their experiences and feedback; donors to post why they give; and clients to post their success story. Remember to offer an opportunity to remain anonymous and ask permission to post. This material can not only be displayed on your social media and website but also in the organization’s more traditional communication including grant writing and newsletters.

Nonprofits can also use event participants’ pictures and tweets to encourage others to come to future events. During the event, ask participants to take pictures using their phones, label the people in the photo, and then tweet them using a special event hashtag. During the event post the pictures on a large screen and add them to your website and social media platforms afterwards.

Social media is not the only tool nonprofits are using to increase resources. Many are exploring earned income opportunities as well. We will begin investigating this revenue source in our next post.

Raising Money Through Email

Organizations are focused on increasing online revenue. They develop regular new content on their social media channels, create an engaging website with updates on programs and services, and they add potential donors to their email blasts. All of this activity is leading to increased online giving but it is also leading to a decrease in the number of emails opened by donors and potential donors.

According to a recent study of fifty-three diverse nonprofits, the number of online gifts and the total amount raised online both increased in 2013. The 2014 eNonprofit Benchmarks Study (56 pages, PDF) recorded the largest increases in donations to international causes due mainly to large disasters and the press coverage associated with them. While environmental and wildlife and animal welfare organizations also saw gains, giving to human rights organizations remained constant. The study also documented a two percent rise in the average size of online gifts, but only international aid organizations actually realized these gains thanks mainly to donations in support of Typhoon Haiyan relief efforts.

Growth in online giving may be due to an increase in the size of email lists. That same report identified an average of a fourteen percent growth in the email lists of diverse organizations. Unfortunately, the increase in online email lists led to an eleven percent decrease in the percentage of people opening and responding to email communication. Consequently, the amount of dollars raised per email decreased by 1.7 cents. The decrease in opening was seen for both fundraising and advocacy messaging. Even with this drop, email continues to account for one third of online fundraising revenue.

Additionally, it is not only the wealthy that donate. The April issue of Philanthropy reports that between 70 and 90 percent of all Americans donate and the average total of these gifts is between two and three thousand dollars.

Clearly, the growth in online revenue is dramatic and organizations need to focus on expanding their email lists as well as increasing social and website traffic, but most nonprofits are local and will rarely experience the media coverage international aid organizations receive. What can these small organizations learn? What are the next steps to expanding individual giving online?

The local nonprofit organization does not compete with national aid organizations. Their message rarely resonates with national funders or donors interested in these causes. Instead, of focusing on trying to engage Bill Gates and his Foundation, local nonprofits should focus locally on donors and volunteers that experience their programs and services everyday.

A local focus begins with a community lens. Donors and corporations interested in their community read local newspapers. Organizations with these missions, should build strong relationship with journalists and bloggers connected to these media outlets. Additionally, nonprofits should create local more intimate events showcasing important work, engaging local volunteers, and targeting local corporations. More and more corporate giving programs look to their employees for grant suggestions. Corporate grants follow employees as they volunteer and engage in the communities they live in.

Volunteers are more invested in the work once they see it first hand. For many, their time is more valuable than a monetary donation. Once they understand the need, a donation will naturally follow often from an email ask or through a face to face meeting. What is the online cultivation process? We will cover that in the next post.

Don’t Forget The Website



It is easy to get caught up in social media. After all creating an account is free and there are so many people on the sites. But, everyday there is a new social media tool, making it almost impossible for nonprofits to keep up. Further, creating a presence on each of the tools is not enough.

Corporations as well as nonprofits are considering their resources and target audience to determine which social tools are going to lead to the highest return. For example, currently, many smaller brands are leaving Facebook in search of other less expensive tools: . Nonprofits need to evaluate the social media opportunities to determine how to engage the most leaders and raise the maximum donations.

Many nonprofits get on social without goals. Instead they hire a tech savvy intern to create and staff the social media sites and  leaders focus on other opportunities. After all, the intern is on social media all of the time; they know what to do. But, how do nonprofits encourage viewers to donate and engage? On their website, wait when was the last time that was updated?

The goal of social is to drive visitors to the agency website to further educate them on the issues, engage them in the work, and to ask make to make a donation. The agency website remains the nonprofit’s most important internet face. But if the website is old, and dated, visitors will leave shortly after they arrive.

Often websites are the opposite of social, they are developed by a contractor, after much discussion over content and creation. Since the contractor developed the website usually only he can update it, or staff can only update small parts. Without the ability to keep the website current, nonprofits are losing potential leaders and donors. What are the elements of a strong website? What content belongs on the site and how often should it be updated? We will discuss that in our next post.

Why Posts are Shared


According to a recent New York Times study, 84 % of people say they share information to support causes they believe in . Therefore nonprofits dedicating resources to building a presence on social are making a smart investment. But what type of message and when should it be posted?

Since there are a large number of posts, the posts most likely seen are those that are distinctive and eye catching using compelling text, language, and pictures. Further, posts are more likely to be shared when they contain content that evokes high arousal of either positive or negative feelings.  Therefore posts stirring up feelings of happiness, anger, or anxiety are more likely to be shared than content that makes viewers feel sad. Additionally, viewers are more likely to retweet and share when they are asked to.

Clearly, information has a better chance of being shared if the original post is viewed by the most interested viewers. 90% of Twitter content is developed by 2% of users. Additionally, a Facebook post receives half of its reach within thirty minutes of posting. In general, the most effective time to post materials on social is 9:30 AM on Wednesdays, but users utilize each platform differently and at different times. For a chart identifying critical times on each platform see:

Whether a post is shared depends on the user. According to that New York Times survey 68% of social media users share posts to define who they are and what they care about. Social media experts categorize users into six different groups.

  • Alturists share posts that they consider helpful, reliable, and thoughtful most often through email.
  • Boomerangs share posts that are more likely to get a reaction and prove their opinions. Overall this group tends to use social media frequently particularly Facebook and Twitter.
  • Careerists share content that builds their careers and is connected with their career goals. They frequently use Linkedin.
  • Connectors are strategic and think creatively to determine who would be most interested in the post. They use email and Facebook to share.
  • Hipsters are young and perceive themselves as popular. They search out cutting edge content that will define their identity and rarely use email.
  • Selectives share informative posts carefully and thoughtfully using email.

Since many share posts via email, nonprofits should ask viewers to notify them when they share and who they share it with.

Nonprofits should strategically develop different posts that will attract all of these types of users and track which targeted leaders share which post. Once nonprofits see a pattern they can label each potential leader. This information is added to the database to help staff engage the potential leader in leadership opportunities and encourage increased giving.

Unfortunately, many users think sharing is an effective outcome and will further the cause. Although sharing educates it does not directly increase money raised. In the next post we will discuss how to turn sharing into dollars raised.