Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during May/Jun 2010, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
FIERCE (Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment) is a membership-based organization building the leadership and power of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth of color between the ages of 13 and 24 years old in New York City. We were founded in 2000 on the principle that LGBTQ youth must realize and manifest our social and political power to change our conditions, shape our futures, and become effective agents of change in our communities. We are dedicated to developing politically conscious leaders who are invested in improving ourselves and our communities through youth led campaigns, leadership development programs, and cultural expression through arts and media.
One unique element of our organizing model is that youth members of FIERCE coordinate and lead our grassroots fundraising work—raising more than $60,000 a year. We began organizing a youth-led bowl-a-thon extravaganza fundraiser in 2008 that has become an annual event bringing together more than 150 community members to raise more than $25,000 to support FIERCE. Community members are recruited to create bowling teams of five or six people who ask friends and family to pledge to them. Currently, about 25 teams participate in the event. Their efforts culminate in a day-long bowling party and celebration.
When we decided to take on this event, we got support from other organizations with experience doing it. Seattle Young People’s Project also has a youth-led bowl-a-thon, and Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) had been doing bowl-a thons for a long time. SAJE recommended that we take the event online to make it easier for team members to get pledges from their friends and community members.
To go online with the bowl-a-thon, we decided to purchase Kintera, now owned by Blackbaud, as our event software. This software allowed us to make a website with all the information about the event and how people could get involved. People could register on the website as a team member and set up a personal web page to track their fundraising efforts. These web pages displayed the team member’s name and their fundraising appeal, and had a donation portal to process donations for that individual.
Fundraising online greatly increased the amount of money team members were able to raise. They could reach out to people in other cities and states (32 percent of 659 donors were from out of state), and they didn’t have to follow up with people in person to collect on pledges. Having online software also meant that 95 percent of the money raised from the event had been collected before the actual day of the bowl-a-thon.
The online strategy also significantly cut down the amount of administrative work for the event. The software tracks all donor and team member contact information, and its database can easily produce reports that can be used to print receipts, make registration lists, and do post-event follow-up.
One of the drawbacks is expense: the software we chose has a start-up fee in addition to an annual fee and processing fees. When we purchased it in 2008, the software, set-up fee, and annual fee came to $1,600. The subsequent annual fee is about $1,000. Credit card processing and Blackbaud fees at approximately 9 percent of our total online donations. So, for the first year’s use, if you raised $10,000 in online donations, your cost for using the online system would be $2,500. Clearly, the software is more cost effective with higher levels of online giving. Because the software greatly increased the amount of money this event brought in, we felt that these costs were ultimately worth the investment.
The software worked well for us, and donors for the most part found the website easy to use. Our main complaint was that donors occasionally had trouble processing their credit cards on the site. We tried contacting the company about this problem but had trouble getting through, and because it occurred inconsistently and would usually resolve in an hour or so, we didn’t persist; we know that some donors gave up after two or three tries.
Regardless of what software you choose, these features are essential for any -thon event software:
- Team members can register for the event and collect online donations
- Donors can easily search for a team member and/or team
- Instructions for using credit cards are clear
- Software can track and produce reports of all necessary participant info
- Software can track and produce reports of all necessary donor and giving info
- Team members and donors can see team members’ fundraising progress and track how much money the event is raising.
- Software sends automatic email thank you letters and donation receipts.
Setting up the software was fairly easy. We drafted our own text and chose site features we thought would be most helpful for our event. The design features of the software are fairly limited. You can pick colors, fonts and sizes, and add images, but the layout itself is a standard template that cannot be changed.
We trained event organizers (staff and youth interns) in how to administer the site, add donations manually, fix mistakes that donors and team members made when entering their information, and solve other problems that came up.
Team captains were given a brief training on how to use the website during a team captain orientation meeting. Our outreach emails and team captain packets had detailed instructions on how to get registered online and begin using the site. In some cases, event organizers had to walk team members through the registration process by phone, but most found the site to be friendly and easy to use.
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Most team members enjoyed having the online platform. There were small design features that allowed them to personalize their pages with a picture and wallpaper.
John Blasco, a member of FIERCE’s staff bowling team said, “I liked that I was able to log in to my own account. I had control of my page, I could see who was giving me donations, and I liked that I had a scroll on my page that listed who gave to me and how much they donated. The scroll motivated me to get more donations so I could see more people on my page.”
The software helped us keep team members motivated and excited about the fundraising.
The program sent a participant a congratulatory email when they reached 50 percent of their fundraising goal, encouraging them to keep up the good work. It also sent an email to let team members know when someone registered for their team and when they received a donation. Event organizers could see right away through the website which team captains were raising lots of money or recruiting team members, and would email them with props for their success.
To encourage the competitive types, the website keeps a scroll on the home page that lists the top five individual fundraisers and the top five fundraising teams. As one team member put it, “I think deep down everybody likes a little competition. To see your team’s name in first or second place was really cool. I was even trying to beat my own team members. I didn’t think it was possible for me to meet my fundraising goal of $500, but the website really helped me. When I saw other people’s fundraising amounts go up rapidly, I knew I had to keep going. I ended up raising $520!”
The ticker on the home page also let us see how much the event had raised in total. As the event day got closer, many participants started checking the website hourly just to see the exciting progress. For example, in 2009, about 40 percent of the more than $27,000 we raised came in during the last two weeks of fundraising. It was a boost to be able to watch the numbers go up in those last days.
Out of the total raised, 85 percent came from individual donors and team members (and about 90 percent of that came in online), and the rest came from businesses and organizations who purchased ads in our event program book or sponsored the event. Selling ads and getting sponsors is a great way to complement the online fundraising and generate more income from the event.
The website also gave us an easy way to see which teams weren’t motivated to fundraise—alerting the event organizers that they needed to check in with them and give them a pep talk on how to get started.
In addition to the automatic thank you email donors got from the program acknowledging their gif and providing them with the necessary tax information, we sent a hard copy acknowledgement letter with a personalized note to every bowl-a-thon donor. This level of personalization is important for building relationships with donors, but it’s time-consuming, so you need to keep up with it! We received around 650 donations for this event, and event organizers, with some staff help, easily spent more than 15 hours personalizing thank you notes on the official receipts we sent out.
Many teams and participants also collected donations in person. They were asked to bring check and cash donations to the event or send them in before the event. These offline donations were entered manually by event organizers so that all donations for the event were tracked through the software and were reflected in the fundraising totals on the website.
Each year, one to two teams have chosen not to use the website and to do all of their fundraising offline. Oftentimes this decision was due to last-minute registration or teams who decided not to ask for money from others but to donate personal gift themselves. Some people were also reluctant because they found online fundraising intimidating or felt that registering online was too much of a commitment. Generally, teams that never got online were more isolated, less engaged in the event, more likely to drop out, and were less accountable to their fundraising goal. Most offline teams brought in between $150 and $300, whereas many of the online teams raised between $500 and $1,000. If you have a reluctant team, I recommend coaching them as best you can to get them online.
Taking the bowl-a-thon online greatly increased the capacity of the event and made it even more fun and competitive. Even if you don’t have the resources to purchase expensive software, there are free and low-cost versions with similar features. The most important thing is to be able to receive donations online and to track participant and donor information accurately through the site. It’s worth it! Good luck to all your fundraisers out there!
Yasmeen Perez is the former leadership development director at FIERCE. Trained in grassroots fundraising skills at age 18 by racial justice organizers in Seattle, Yasmeen has been proudly doing youthled, politically grounded grassroots fundraising for the last 10 years. For more information about FIERCE and how to get involved in the bowl-a-thon go to fircenyc.org.