This essay is my entry into the December edition of Figuring Good Out, the effective altruism blogging carnival. This month’s topic is "blind spots". The blind spot I see in the EA community is insufficient attention to how we can raise money and spread EA to our friends.
Note: Because Charity Science is a Canadian non-profit, all dollar figures in this post are in Canadian dollars.
Previously in fundraising tips: “A Brief Summary of ‘How to Raise Money Without Killing a Kitten’”
I've been involved with Charity Science since the beginning -- before their founding, actually. The goal of Charity Science is to do a bunch of lightweight fundraising experiments to see what works in fundraising and spreading effective altruism to the laypublic.
I was excited when one of the things Joey Savoie and Xio Kikauka, the co-founders of Charity Science, did to fundraise was just try to directly fundraise from their friends, no frills involved. They launched simple fundraisers on the YouCaring platform, asking for donations on their birthdays rather than for money, raising $1000 and $1170 respectively.
I then suggested to them that they expand upon this and get other people to donate their birthdays as well. This went pretty well, with Gina Stussey raising $250 and Kaj Sotala raising $500. But then something unexpected came about -- Theron Pummer, a philosophy post-doc associated with FHI’s Population Ethics Project, raised $8036 from his birthday fundraiser (~$2K USD / $2.3K CAD from his page and the rest from a large donor). Charity Science was able to secure matching funds for this, catapulting his total raise to an atmospheric $16,072.
When my birthday came around, I was eager to try to run a fundraiser myself. I was curious how much I would raise. I was pretty sure that Theron was just a wizard, and that I would aim for a more modest goal of $500, which would become $1K with the matching that Charity Science would provide. So I set up my fundraiser using the flashy CauseVox platform that Charity Science had just set up, and started raising money.
...It turned out that Theron wasn't a wizard.
Two days into my fundraiser I already exceeded my $1K goal (with matching), and doubled my fundraiser to $2K. Four days after that, I crossed $2K and re-aimed for $3K. That same day, $3K was met and I set my sights on $4K. $4K remained elusive until the very last day of the fundraiser, when I crossed $4K and sailed all the way onto and past $5K that very day.
I consider myself pretty ordinary with regard to my interpersonal skills, maybe even a bit below average. I'm certainly not a professional fundraiser by any means. I raised this $5K using 15 simple tips that I'm confident any EA could replicate, as long as they're willing to put in the hard work.
TIP #1: There is no substitute for hours behind the wheel
When I was learning how to drive, my Dad told me that there is no substitute for hours behind the wheel. I could try to optimize my lesson plan, but ultimately there was nothing I could do but put in the many hours it takes to learn how to drive a car safely. Everything else in my life has been the same. Including fundraising.
There certainly are ways to work smarter not harder here, and I'll share those tips. But even with those optimizations, I still spent 17 hours directly on running my fundraiser. Yes, I got bored and demotivated at times, but then I reminded myself that all of those hours would be me earning an effective wage of ~$295 per hour.
If you're already earning more than $295 an hour, you get a free pass on running a fundraiser. But for the rest of us, very few things we do earn us $295 per hour of effort. Do you like the idea of earning $295 per hour? If so, run a fundraiser, and spend a lot of time on it.
TIP #2: Contact A LOT of people, 1-on-1, in a personal and genuine manner
Want to raise a lot of money for charity? Clear your calendar for a weekend, sit down, and start reconnecting with your friends.
Err on the side of contacting more people rather than less. The people who give might surprise you, and while I far-and-above raised more money from people I knew more recently and had kept in touch with (e.g., talked to them this year), I raised a decent amount of money based on pretty flimsy connections (e.g., people I barely talked to in college or people I hadn't talked to in 4+ years).
My rule of thumb was (1) "would I genuinely be interested in hearing about what this person is up to?" and (2) "do I expect this person to care about a life update from me?". If the answer to both these questions was yes, I contacted them -- no exceptions.
I booted Facebook, and looked through my friends list, and made a note of everyone who met my dual criteria. I then made a list of all the contexts in which I knew friends -- from work, from college, from high school, and from family -- and tried to fill in people who may have fallen through the FB cracks. (There were a few -- notably, I don't have anyone from my work on Facebook.)
That resulted in 152 names. I then sent a personalized message to 149 of them (for three people, I couldn't get up-to-date contact information).
That message looked something like this:
It was great to see you and Kyle at the Event Workshop in June. Thank you for driving me to the bus station on time; I was worried that I wouldn't be able to get a ride! I did manage to get home safe and sound. How have things gone since then for you? How are things with Jim?
I've personally been having a good time living in Chicago. I work as a data scientist in a start-up here, doing analytics work. While not doing that, I've been helping out two of my friends, who have started a non-profit. They work to end malaria in Africa. Since my birthday is coming up on December 11, I've decided to donate my birthday to them and run a birthday fundraiser to help raise money to fight malaria.
For just $10, you can buy three bed nets -- these are nets that a family sleeps under that prevents mosquitoes from getting to them, stopping them from getting malaria (since malaria-carrying mosquitoes only strike at night). This is an amazing buy in healthcare, and has been backed as one of the best "bangs for your buck" in charity by the United Nations. Also, it gets better -- thanks to an anonymous benefactor, every dollar you give will be doubled!
My birthday fundraising campaign is here if you want to donate: http://birthday.causevox.com/peter-hurford
But if you don't want to donate or don't have anything to chip in, that's totally ok. I'm still happy for your support and would love to know how things are doing.
(Of course, don’t just copy this message and tweak it, because it has to sound like it actually came from you, or it’s not genuine.)
...In some cases I had to improvise on the fly. Some people already knew about my job in Chicago, so it would be silly to tell them again. For some, I squeaked by with a "I probably already told you this, but just in case you forgot..." but for others I had to re-write that section completely, usually just mentioning the non-profit part (which I really haven't told many people about).
Note that it's the personal intro in the beginning that makes all the difference, and separates your genuine message from spam. I tried hard to spend about 1-2 minutes personalizing this for each person. Of course, some people I knew less well and didn't have a hook, so I had to ask more general questions, like about their Thanksgiving. Notably, the people I knew less well responded much less. (Though, if you’re short on time, it does appear that less personalized emails have worked well for other people, like Theron.)
Doing this, I got 71 responses (response rate 47.6%!) and at least 33 of the people I contacted did donate (possibly more because of anonymous donations).
TIP #3: Remember, people will be grateful for the chance to help you
I originally felt bad about messaging people about this -- I was taking time out of their day for what could be construed as a spammy message. While I can't say what the people who didn't respond thought, the people who did respond were really grateful to help out. Some choice quotes...
"I have always been impressed by your dedication to put time and money where your mouth is on ethics, so I'd be glad to help out there."
"super cool that your friends started a non-profit working with the Against Malaria Foundation plus that you are giving up your birthday for an amazing cause"
"I will be happy to make a donation and thank you for asking. I am glad to hear you are still involved with community service. I think it is so important to volunteer time and passion towards something you believe in."
...and there were many other responses along those lines.
TIP #4: Use psychology in your messaging
I've been studying psychology, persuasion, and fundraising, and I was curious to try out some of the influence tricks I had learned. I was very intentional with how I crafted my message. Of course, I can't say if any of these tricks worked (for all I know they may have even backfired!), but it seemed like my best bet.
- Starting the message personal made the message genuine and not spammy. I genuinely want to re-connect.
- I asked questions such as "How are things going with you?" rather than statements like "I hope things are going well". This leads people to be more likely to respond, to answer those questions.
- I'm fundraising for myself and a friend, not the detached Against Malaria Foundation or GiveWell. People want to help me, because I'm nice and it's my birthday. They care less about the actual organization we're supporting. If you're not friends with Joey and Xio, this tactic might be less genuine, but you could become their friends!
- I'm donating my birthday. This is a special occasion, and not a random solicitation.
- I indirectly suggest a donation of $10 even though this doesn't make a lot of sense in context. From my reading of the Obama campaign, $10 is a good suggestion for millennials. Probably not by coincidence, lots of people gave me precisely $10. Note that I didn't directly suggest $10, which I think would have come across as rude.
- I give credibility to the intervention by associating it with the United Nations. (Yes, this is an actual thing.) Many more people recognize the United Nations than GiveWell and see the UN as a genuine authority, even though GiveWell is important. Note that I don't mention GiveWell (or "effective altruism"), so as to not confuse the message.
- I mention donation matching. People love their donation getting matched. (I didn’t try out the no overhead trick because I was wary of spreading the anti-overhead myth and I didn’t want the message to be too long.)
- I reaffirm that people don't have to donate if they don't want to or can't. People love having their freedom of choice affirmed.
TIP #5: Follow up with people
When people respond to your message, you should obviously follow up in a timely manner. That's just being polite. But what about the people who don't respond?
Ideally you should wait a few days and then follow-up. Many people want to donate, but are too busy, or get side-tracked. Several of the people I reminded expressed appreciation for the reminder, and no one seemed put off by it. Non-profits with actual fundraising campaigns do follow-ups all the time.
I didn't follow up with everyone. I actually only followed up with people who replied to me, mentioned something about promising to donate (e.g., "I'd love to help out!"), but didn't actually donate. Following up got a good amount of donations that probably would have fallen on the wayside otherwise, and I probably ought to have followed up more than I actually did.
Here’s the follow-up I sent:
I hope finals are wrapping up well.
If you're still interested in supporting my fundraiser, just wanted to let you know that the deadline for donations is the end of the day tomorrow. We've already raised over $3500, and all donations are still being matched dollar-for-dollar!
Here's the fundraising page: http://birthday.causevox.com/peter-hurford
Also, do remember to personally thank your donors (at least the ones that don't donate anonymously)!
TIP #6: Make it into a sales funnel
I love the idea of making things into sales funnels whenever appropriate, which is more times than you might think. You don't contact 149 people without having some good way of tracking what's going on.
Here, I made sure that each person got contacted at least once ("green" first box) and then followed up where appropriate.
I marked the "Sold?" column in grey if they had not yet responded to my message, orange if they responded and I needed to reply back, blue if we were in a conversation (they had responded and I had replied back), black if they told me explicitly they weren't going to donate (only happened twice), and green if they did end up making a donation.
I used the notes column to keep track of how they responded, and whether they had promised to donate or not.
This might be a bit too freaky organized, but it really helped.
TIP #7: Don't neglect publishing on social media too
While the 1-on-1 contacts are the biggest drivers of donations, posting about the campaign on Facebook ended up being more important than I had realized, since it (a) drove donations from a few people I didn't think to ask 1-on-1, and (b) acted as a reminder. In particular, the message I posted about it being the last day to donate really drove people to give.
At the start of my campaign --
Want to know what you can get me for my birthday or Christmas? A malaria-free world!
I thought about what I wanted for my birthday, and I realized it was stupid just how much I've already gotten everything I've wanted out of life. There's not anything I could want that I couldn't just buy myself in a moment's notice. But there are children who are sick from malaria and can't afford the treatment needed to become healthy. Besides being a health issue, malaria is the single greatest drag on Africa’s economy. The solution is surprisingly easy: a simple net will do the trick.
For just $10, you can buy 3 nets that protect two people for ten years each. This is an amazing buy in healthcare, and has been backed as one of the best "bangs for your buck" in charity by independent charity evaluators such as GiveWell and the United Nations.
And it gets better -- thanks to an anonymous benefactor, every dollar you give will be doubled! Take your chance to double your impact!
This is an issue I care passionately about, and I thank you for your support! The families will thank you too.
Six days before the end of the campaign, on my birthday --
I've been really delighted to use my birthday to protect people in the developing world from malaria. I've been overwhelmed by the support so far, raising over $3000 (!!!) for a good cause.
$10 is all it takes to buy three bed nets -- nets that a family sleeps under to prevents mosquitoes from getting to them, stopping them from getting malaria (since malaria-carrying mosquitoes only strike at night).
Not only is it an amazing cause -- backed as one of the best "bangs for your buck" in charity by the United Nations -- but every donation made so far is being *doubled* by an anonymous supporter.
I can't keep the fundraiser open forever -- eventually we'll need to use the funds. But I am keeping it open until 17 December. If you want to donate, you can find my fundraiser here: http://birthday.causevox.com/peter-hurford
Together, we can help end malaria!
Right before the end of the campaign --
My birthday fundraiser just finally reached it's 4000th dollar in donations. Wow! I'm really excited for all the support you guys have pitched in. Dozens of individual donations!
Of course, $4000 still doesn't mean malaria control is fully funded. The cause is still as important as ever. My fundraiser is still open for ten more hours, so if you wanted to contribute, and get your donation matched dollar-for-dollar, now's your final chance!
Remember $10 is all it takes to buy three bed nets -- nets that a family sleeps under to prevents mosquitoes from getting to them, stopping them from getting malaria. One of the most cost-effective interventions you can fund.
If you want to donate, you can find my fundraiser here: http://birthday.causevox.com/peter-hurford.
Ten hours remain!
The day after the campaign --
Thanks everyone who was involved with my birthday for charity fundraiser! Together we raised precisely $5000 Canadian dollars ($4309 in freedom dollars) -- a nice round number, and enough to fund over 1500 bed nets to protect people from malaria.
Note many of the techniques mentioned earlier, plus (I) mentioning the donation totals so as to invoke [social proof] and (J) adding in urgency.
(Also, thanks to Jess Whittlestone for unwittingly giving me the language to use in my first FB post appeal and on my actual campaign page.)
TIP #8: Give your fundraiser some time, but not too much time
I think it would have been smart to do the week before my birthday and the week after. I think I started a bit too early. People need some time to donate and you need some time to get all the messages out, so make sure there's time for both. But people respond well to the urgency of the campaign ending.
TIP #9: Don’t worry too much about your fundraising target, but have a strategy.
What should you set your fundraising goal to be? The simple question is to think about how much you can raise, and set it to that. (Well, with donation matching, multiply it by two.)
People like goals that are high, but within reach. I personally thought that raising $500 was well within my reach (as several others had done it), so I made my initial goal $1K.
One thing I was worried about was that I knew of a few people I thought had a chance of donating several hundred dollars, and I didn’t want them to see a goal with only $50 to go and then donate only $50 as they think I wouldn’t be able to accept more money than that. So I tried to keep my goal about $500 above my total raised at all times, until the very last day.
TIP #10: Think about who else might share your fundraiser
To be honest, I didn't really think this tip through as much as I should have. Toward the end of my campaign, my girlfriend shared it on her FB wall, which led to some additional donations. This could have potentially been a lot bigger had I got her involved earlier. It also may have been good to consider who else would agree to spread my campaign but would be unwilling to do a campaign of their own.
TIP #11: You will mess up. And that's ok.
There were times when I sent out typos, flubbed the personal introduction, and even flubbed the byline (saying "Hey Patrick" to Sally). Needless to say, this is very embarrassing!
This usually happened when I tried to get a bit too wild with copy/paste and Facebook's "hit enter to send" feature. You can mitigate it by being more careful, but I'm pretty sure you can't eliminate it. You'll just have to accept it. The people I blundered on were pretty understanding when I immediately apologized and explained. I don't think any of them ended up donating, but I don't think I harmed any friendships.
TIP #12: Keep in contact with people in the off-season
Again, the point of this is to make genuine connections and re-connections, not just to use your friends as a means to an end of fundraising. It's important to keep in contact with your friends even when not fundraising. I'm excited to use my fundraiser as a launching point to rekindle some old relationships, and I enjoyed having a few phone calls with old pals.
TIP #13: Yes, there is an 80-20 to fundraising, but it's not everything.
I raised $2505 prior to the matching funds. $1000 of this (40%) came from two different people. So, instead of spending 17 hours talking to everyone, why not spend 30 minutes talking to those two people and call it a day with a $2K after-match fundraiser?
There certainly is a power law to fundraisers. However, I don't think the big donors you know would act nearly as much if there aren't smaller donors as well.
Moreover, even if your FB friends aren't big donors, it's still worth contacting them. When I take out these two outliers, each FB contact was still worth about $2 in expectation.
If you’re short on time, definitely do something rather than do everything. $2K is still really good! You can raise money with just a few FB status messages and a few personalized emails. But if you’re able to put the time into it, there’s further benefit in it.
TIP #14: Get matching funds.
Obviously $5010 is a lot cooler than $2505. This was only possible through the matching donations that Charity Science provided me. Donation matching also looks really good to the people you're raising money from because it shows social proof, it shows serious commitment, and people like having twice the impact.
GiveWell says not to be affected by donation matching, and I think this is generally good advice. But there certainly is a good game played by helping Charity Science acquire matching funds. The people currently giving matching funds to Charity Science probably would have donated less otherwise, if not for the compelling opportunity.
TIP #15: Just do it.
When given the opportunity, you definitely should run a fundraiser! Don't get into the mindset that if you can't raise thousands of dollars, it's not worth it. Even smaller-scale fundraisers are still probably one of the biggest charitable accomplishments you'll make!
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And if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to post them here!