News / USA

Charities Get Creative to Attract Donors

Social media plays bigger role in fundraising during hard times

Donors peruse the wares at the 2011 Alternative Giving Market in Moscow, Idaho.
Donors peruse the wares at the 2011 Alternative Giving Market in Moscow, Idaho.


Tom Banse

December is traditionally a season of giving but the current economic downturn has some U.S. nonprofits getting creative to inspire contributions from donors - and that means everything from banding together to an increasing reliance on social media.

In Moscow, Idaho, 27 small nonprofits held a joint fundraiser. They took over a large art gallery for the evening, rechristening it the "Alternative Giving Market of the Palouse."

"We came up with a motto of 'Shop local, buy local, give local,'" says cofounder Dianne Daley Laursen.

The one-stop shop included charities dedicated to the arts, environment, human services, youth and international relief. Patrons could make a donation in someone’s name instead of buying them a more traditional gift.

Fellow organizer Mary Silvernale Shook notes that many nonprofits - especially small ones - are struggling. "Foundations are cutting back. People are cutting back, and nonprofits still have increasing services. This just seems like such a win-win. We can serve a lot of non-profits at very little cost because everything is donated or volunteer run."

Volunteer Ginger Rankin ran the booth for Orphan Acres horse rescue farm. With 27 charities all competing for donor attention in once place, no single one went home with a windfall. However, Rankin was pleased with the format just the same.

"So many people say, 'I didn't know we had a horse rescue,'" says Rankin. "It gets them to think about what we're doing and what they can do. It helps the horses and it's a fun evening."

Getting playful

Just days before the market, a University of Idaho sorority organized a different type of creative fundraiser. Pi Beta Phi held a speed reading contest to raise money for the literacy charity, "First Book." Nineteen teams competed to see who could read a Dr. Seuss story out loud, cover to cover the fastest.

Organizer Samantha Fritz says the playful fundraiser raised money through entry fees and judged it a big success.

"Everybody in the Greek community was really excited about it even as a first year philanthropy.  So I think we'll be able to successfully bring it back year after year."

Fritz says lingering effects of the great recession are less apparent in charity events sponsored by sororities and fraternities.

An app for giving

By contrast, the sputtering economy weighs heavily on the fundraising of many international aid organizations. Now there's an app for that. Washington state-based World Vision is preparing to introduce a smartphone app that connects potential donors with its aid projects around the world.  

Portland, Oregon-based Mercy Corps just trotted out an interactive Facebook app. It's dubbed the "gift-o-matic."

"It basically is an app that will prescribe a Mercy Corps gift for your loved ones based on issues they are passionate about," says Megan Zabel Holmes, an online marketing officer at Mercy Corps.

For someone interested in education, she says, the gift-o-matic might suggest a donation to teach a woman to read, or outfit a classroom. Someone who likes animals might be pleased to know a poor rural family received a milking cow in their name.

"We're looking for a way to engage our Facebook audience and kind of get them thinking about Mercy Corps gifts without just constantly telling them about Mercy Corps gifts."

Zabel Holmes finds that social media channels are not very conducive to direct pleas for money and believes creativity is a crucial ingredient to successful fundraising in this arena, and in this economy.  

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