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Nonprofit Crowdfunding: A Chance to Go Viral

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Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Ryan Brennell

We’ve all seen the story of James, the man who walked 10 miles to work everyday, until strangers raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for James to buy a car, even though $30,000 would have gotten the job done. Or how about Natalie, a woman who lost her bakery to vandalism in a riot, only to receive more than $250,000 to rebuild and start anew. When we hear about these crowdfunded campaigns, most of us are left wondering how in the world this phenomenon works.

Of course, a bit of internet magic is necessary for such extreme levels of success, but after three years of running a nonprofit crowdfunding company called Gladitood, I’ve realized there is actually a set of recurring principles at play that you can replicate for your own nonprofit crowdfunding campaign.

Personable and Relatable Character

As Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith point out in their book The Dragonfly Effect, almost all viral social causes start by focusing on a relatable character. We can understand the struggles of James, a man who walked to work every day, and Natalie, a woman who lost everything in a fire. That understanding is what drives us to act.

In your own crowdfunding strategy, start with a success story. Give your supporters a character to relate to, and show how they were able to overcome challenges with your organization’s support. Crowdfunding campaigns with videos raise significantly more money for this exact reason: it is easier for people to relate to a person central to the cause when they can connect with that person through media.

Clear Impact

The impact that James and Natalie’s donors are making seems to be very clear, but it’s important to understand what really compels donors to take action.  As donors, we don’t just donate to give James a car and Natalie a bakery. We donate because we understand what that car and bakery will mean to each of them – the Why.

For nonprofits, often the Why behind our fundraising campaigns isn’t clear. If we want our campaigns to be successful, it is our job to connect the dots and offer clarity to our donors.

An example of this is a nonprofit’s website. Upgrades to a website require money. Unfortunately “We’re raising $10,000 for a new website” isn’t very compelling for donors because it’s not clear what the impact of that website is going to be. Who does the website allow you to serve, and how? For example, your organization supports families dealing with cancer by providing them with necessary information through your website. After gathering analytics and determining what you need to make traffic to your site easier, your impact is now clear: “We’re raising $10,000 to serve X more people with a new website.”

Visible Momentum

Donors act very similar to consumers adopting new technology. The majority of donors want to feel like “everyone’s doing it” before they act. Your first donors are Leaders: staff, board, friends and family, and biggest supporters. They are the donors you can count on to support you before you gain momentum. They will also be largely responsible for engaging the next group of donors, your First Followers.

First Followers are arguably the most important group of donors you have, especially for a crowdfunding campaign. They help you exceed that 25% funded benchmark and help your campaign begin to feel like you’re reaching a larger audience. That feeling is what the Early Majority is waiting for.

The Early Majority is a very large group of donors that will help you get over 50% of your funding. They make it feel like your goal is all but reached, so the Late Majority and Laggards can finally jump in and participate. Most donors would actually prefer to donate to campaigns that have already reached their goal, which explains why many campaigns raise more than is necessary.

With James’ and Natalie’s campaign, their momentum was made visible through a big progress bar updating with the arrival of each new donation. This was key to their success. Showing your momentum through each stage of your campaign will help you engage each donor segment – Leaders, First Followers, Early Majority, Late Majority, and Laggards.

Community Ownership

When the first three principles come together, the campaign offers a level of transparency that makes supporters feel a sense of ownership for the success. Relating to a character who is central to the cause, understanding the impact of the project, and getting excited about the visible momentum is what drives donors to act beyond their donation. People take responsibility for the project’s success and ask others to do the same, helping you raise money efficiently and attract new donors to your cause.


Ryan Brennell is the CEO of Gladitood, a crowdfunding platform built specifically to serve nonprofits. To learn more about crowdfunding and fundraising, you can access our complete guide here. Ryan also serves as the Vice Chair and Marketing Committee Chair for Microfinancing Partners in Africa where he leads marketing strategy and execution.

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