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


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.—Gayle Nelson

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Sesame Street Explores New Frontiers in Education



February 1, 2016; Fast Company

In the 1960s, creating educational programming for children on television was innovative. Today there are more channels than ever before, and more children first meet Big Bird and other Sesame Street friends on phones and tablets. At the same time, children’s educational needs continue to grow, from obesity to autism, and parent deployment to bullying. Leaders at Sesame Workshop, the parent of Sesame Street, are exploring creative methods of reaching out, educating, and helping children thrive.

Although its programming began on television, Sesame Workshop quickly realized the medium was just the beginning. Sesame Workshop developed websites, cable shows and networks, and 16 million “outreach kits” and events that reach hundreds of thousands of children and their parents through partnerships with over 3000 organizations. With a budget of $104 million, though, more work is needed to fulfill its mission of helping kids grow smarter, stronger, and kinder.

Sesame Workshop recently announced the creation of Sesame Ventures, a partnership with a venture capital firm called Collaborative Ventures, and the subsequent creation of a new fund, Collab + Sesame. The $10 million fund will invest in startups developed by corporations and other for-profit organizations in six broad areas: entertainment and media, food, health and wellness, family development, education tools, and social and emotional development.

We are in the midst of an extraordinary time in the history of how digital technology can change the education, health and welfare of kids around the world,” Jeffrey D. Dunn, Sesame Workshop’s CEO, said in a statement. “History suggests that much of that change will spring from new companies. By partnering with some of these startups, Sesame Workshop can help grow the next wave of kid-focused innovation and improve the lives of children everywhere.”

The Workshop’s funds for its half of this new venture stem from the sale of its stakes in Noggin and Sprout. Both projects were innovative activities of their times: Noggin, the first all-educational cable channel for children, was launched in 1999 in partnership with Nickelodeon, while Sprout, a cable network targeting preschoolers, was developed in 2005 in partnership with PBS, HIT Television Ventures, and NBC Universal.

Projects funded through Collab + Sesame will be offered technical assistance and the opportunity to make use of Sesame Street characters and branding, as well as $1 million each. Although few would give up these perks, Sesame Workshop CEO Dunn places no preconditions that might make one suspect that the group is simply trying to extend their brand on the use of the funds.

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The Power of Shared Purpose: A Core Concept of Extraordinary Small Nonprofits


November 12, 2015; Poynter

Size and impact are not always correlated as far as nonprofits are concerned. There is always something impressive about a small nonprofit that punches well above its weight class. What creates that kind of magic?

Peter Senge and Charles Kiefer, whose work was later associated with the concept of the “learning organization,” used the term “metanoic organizations” to describe this dynamic of building “the extraordinary power of a group of people who, securely rooted in their individual creative power, bond together to collectively bring into being a vision that none could accomplish alone.”

A metanoic organization is one that has undergone a fundamental shift of orientation, going from the individual and collective belief that people are responsible for their individual lives, duties, and responsibilities and are, in the extreme, working in siloes without connection to others in the organization and community, to the conviction that they are building a collective vision—not merely to make money, but because it is consistent with their own life’s purpose. Consequently, the vision held in a metanoic organization is not only worthy of each member’s highest personal ideals and commitment but also of constant communication of progress and problems so all stays aligned.

The Poynter Institute traveled to The Lens, the small but influential nonprofit news operation in New Orleans, as part of a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation to identify methods of success other organizations can replicate. Poynter will showcase its findings during the Poynter Nonprofit News Exchange on January 20–22, 2016, in St. Petersburg, Florida.

At first glance, the chances of the tiny Lens staff of eight producing award-winning journalism may seem unlikely. The nonprofit is located in a nondescript industrial park in uptown New Orleans where the office doors are protected by burglar bars and furniture is an eclectic mix of plastic furniture bought at area thrift shops. But in 2015, The Lens received the prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award in partnership with ProPublica for their investigative reporting in “Losing Ground.”

As Katie Hawkins-Gaar of the Poynter Institute visited The Lens, she noted the strong sense of purpose and unity in the newsroom as well as a shared understanding of what stories were worth covering. Each individual was empowered by the organization’s mission “to engage and empower the residents of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast by providing the information and analysis necessary to advocate for more accountable and just governance.”

As readers will note, this mission establishes the ways The Lens will work toward its goal. But perhaps not all missions would work out the same way. Both the process and the goal are about participation towards collective ends; if they were unable to model internally what they want to create externally, the organization might not be so vibrant or productive.

As the Lens demonstrates, organizations experience a fundamental shift in orientation when they embed their mission into their daily as well as long-term objectives and goals. Once so embedded, the staff is empowered and connects the mission to their position duties and responsibilities. One opportunity is during agency and department meetings, when time is set aside for clients to tell their stories or for direct service staff to share. These opportunities are referred to as “mission moments.” Other options are for administrative staff to receive opportunities to directly engage in mission work by taking on other responsibilities for a short period of time. This concept of redundancy, often dismissed as less than fully efficient, can be used across an organization to create depth, open opportunities to adjust ways of working, and eliminate vulnerabilities.

As the organization achieves the plan’s objectives, the entire organization celebrates together. Leaders highlight each individual’s role equally. Board members, other volunteers, and donors are included as well. The celebration further engages all team members and energizes the entire organization around the mission. These activities also empower donors to be more generous and discuss the work with other potential donors.

But not every organization can bring this off. It takes a different orientation toward leadership and personal agency. As Charles Kiefer wrote in “Leadership in Metanoic Organizations”:

A metanoic organization is one that has undergone a fundamental shift of orientation from the individual and collective belief that people must cope with life, and in the extreme, are helpless and powerless, to the conviction that they are individually and collectively empowered to create their future and shape their destiny.

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