The social effect – how social media has led to the ‘viral charity campaign’

Erika Racicot

When something went ‘viral’, meaning content was shared across a mass audience via word of mouth and social media, until recently, it was commonly the recorded work of a singer with debatable talent or a cute dog on a skateboard.  Lately though, this act of mass sharing has had very profound results for some fundraising campaigns which, once the ‘virus’ took hold, saw an explosion in awareness and support.

From the exceptionally successful but controversial KONY 2012 campaign to the mass influx of donations made to an page set up for bullied NY school bus monitor Karen Klein, a handful of recent stories have captured the public’s imagination in such a profound way that they have been compelled to, not only become involved themselves, but share the story with their friends.

But what is it about a campaign message or story which elevates itself so far beyond a normal, ‘expected’ level of public interaction? Can nonprofits react to this new, technology enabled, social dynamic and position their own campaigns for this mass public engagement?

Sticky ideas

In their book ‘Made to Stick‘, Chip and Dan Heath suggest six qualities of sticky ideas.  These qualities make an idea or concept memorable and I believe they’re found in the most successful viral fundraising campaigns.

Simple – the core message is compact and profound.

‘Let’s Give Karen -The bus monitor- H Klein A Vacation!’ Indiegogo fundraising page title

Unexpected – get your audience’s attention and hold it by using surprise and mystery.

‘Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come – whose time is now’ KONY 2012 Title

Concrete – make your idea understandable and memorable by breaking it down into terms that can be imagined by the senses.

‘Joseph Kony – He has an army, okay? And what he does is he takes children from their parents and he gives them a gun to shoot and he makes them shoot and kill other people.’ KONY 2012 Narrator Jason Russell to his 5 year old son Gavin.

Credible – help your audience believe and agree with your idea by using appropriate testimonies, statistics, and examples.

‘So, with hundreds of thousands of people with us, we went back to Washington, D.C., and we met with congressmen and senators one by one on both sides – Republicans, Democrats – and they all agreed with us.’ KONY 2012 Narrator Jason Russell

Emotional – get your audience to care about your idea by using specific examples of someone in need or by appealing to the audience’s self-interest or sense of identity.

‘Oh my god, look at that – that’s gross. Karen, are you sweating?’ School Bus Bully

‘I’m crying’ –Karen Klein

Stories – get people to take action by telling the right stories.

‘She (Karen) doesn’t earn nearly enough ($15,506) to deal with some of the trash she is surrounded by. Let’s give her something she will never forget, a vacation of a lifetime!’  Indiegogo ‘Loveforkarenklein’ appeal page

KONY 2012 projected these ‘sticky’ elements with the aid of a compelling story, articulated well and presented in a professionally crafted and emotionally charged documentary. With Karen Klein’s bullying ordeal being captured as-it-happened on video and posted to YouTube, gripping the attention of the viewer and prompting a strong emotional response was achieved quite naturally.

Encouraging the Virus

While a strong campaign message with these ‘sticky’ elements is undoubtedly powerful, there are other factors which also increase the potential of a fundraising, or awareness raising effort going viral. These include having clear campaign calls-to-action so donors know what is expected of them, making donation requests smaller and therefore more widely accessible and utilising clear and efficient methods of donation capture, i.e., fee-free online donation platforms or designated mobile apps.

While attempting to try and engineer a campaign to go viral may well prove fruitless, by properly understanding the dynamics of how previous campaigns have found success, nonprofits can optimise their own efforts. By highlighting the most vital ‘sticky’ parts of their campaigns, ensuring that calls-to-action are concise and donations are able to be taken seamlessly, nonprofits give themselves the best chance of achieving that invaluable ‘share’.

Erika Racicot (@ErikaRacicot) is co-founder and COO of, an online nonprofit services provider. She coordinates the efforts of the Frendo team to continuously develop systems that help nonprofit organizations optimize their fundraising efforts.

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