Your first fundraiser: a timeline

In 2011, I co-founded the Ada Initiative, a charitable organisation promoting and supporting women in open technology and culture. Between 2011 and 2014, we ran five fundraising drives, four successfully. This article is the conclusion of a series sharing what I learned in the hope that new women in technology groups and other activist groups can skip to advanced level fundraising much sooner and spend the least time and the most joy on fundraising that they possibly can.

Timeline

Below is a possible timeline for a fundraising drive, emphasising quick launch rather than the kind of preparation you will need to do as your organisation grows. Many large organisations will have longer timelines and probably have dedicated staff planning the next fundraiser as the previous one winds up, but this timeline is designed to be do-able for an organisation aiming for their first fundraiser, which won’t have the ability to go for many months without funds while putting together the perfect fundraiser.

Two to three months before launch: form your core fundraising team or committee and begin meeting at least weekly. Make a budget for your funding needs if you haven’t already. Choose your organisation’s name and get your website and social media set up. Decide to pursue individual fundraising, Search for and engage a fundraising consultant, accountant, or lawyer, if needed. Establish bookkeeping if you haven’t already.

Begin researching and testing fundraising platforms and, if they require applications to use their platform as some crowdfunding sites do, prepare and submit them. Start planning thank you gifts.

One month before launch: decide on your fundraising platform. If you have existing donors or major supporters, have a consultant or other outsider conduct a few exploratory interviews with them. Are they happy with you? If you have existing work or projects, find any that have outcomes or major milestones that can be released during the drive. Develop a timeline for releasing them and tying them into your drive. Order thank you gifts.

Two weeks before launch: contact potential major donors and ask them to pledge a specific sum of money, or to act as a matching donor. Track the pledges that they commit to, and review your fundraising goal in light of the pledges. Test your fundraising platform beginning to end with real payment methods. Based on your pledge results and your ability to take donations, have an explicit “abort/delay campaign?” discussion with your decisionmakers.

One week before launch: soft launch your donation page if possible (crowdfunding software may not allow it). Ask key volunteers or staff to test donations for you with, eg, international credit cards and similar. (Important: do refund their test donations!) Do a test package and shipment of thank you gifts. Continue reviewing whether you should abort or delay.

Hours before launch: soft launch your banner, counter, and any explicit “we’re having a fundraising drive!” text you’re placing on your website. Make any donations you have direct control over (eg, you or your board are making them!). Email your pledged donors and let them know the campaign has kicked off with “help us off to a great start!” information.

Launch: announce your fundraising campaign in blog posts, tweets, to your email lists.

Throughout the campaign: As each donation comes in, send a brief thank you email, which will normally be a form letter although for donations from your personal friends or the very largest donations you will want to write something personal. Ask each donor why they donated and track their answers. Reshare people’s endorsements and calls to donate selectively, and like/favourite the remainder.

Ship thank you gifts at least weekly, if possible, so that early donors can share them while the drive is still running.

Every Tuesday during the drive: (and more often if you can) release some news or updates (“we signed a lease on a community space!”), an interview with a donor, a limited time thank you gift, or a matching campaign. Explicitly call for donations in any news items.

Every Tuesday and Wednesday during the drive: (and more often if you can) update your social media with information about how you’re doing, where to donate, and how to share information.

Three days before close (Monday): launch your largest matching campaign if any.

Last three days of campaign: Promote your matching campaign, and stay in touch with the matching donor. Assign fundraising team members to be paying attention to the fundraiser all day, if possible, and updating social media three times a day during your major donation periods.

Close: send out “we did it!” blog posts, emails and tweets and then stop your publicity promptly. Send thank you cards and emails to the largest donors and everyone who volunteered for the drive. Ship your last thank you gift batch. While you’re no longer actively soliciting donations, do not turn off the ability to accept donations and keep an eye on social media for people wondering if they can still donate; be sure to tell them “yes”.

Since you’re small, you almost certainly are seriously risking burnout and need a break now. Take it, but remember to check in with your donors after no more than 2 months and ideally sooner with your first news about what you’ve done with their donations.

Next time: once you’ve had your needed break, review what worked and didn’t work about your fundraising drive. If you’re going to rely on donations long-term, figure out when your next drive will be, at least approximately, and begin planning for it now.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Lana Baldwin, Selena Deckelmann, Kellie Brownell, and Katina Bishop for their valuble advice to the Ada Initiative between 2011 and 2015. Thanks to the Ada Initiative’s board of directors, advisory board, matching donors, and other volunteer fundraisers during this time, as well as our 1400+ individual donors.

Finally, thanks to my co-founder and the Ada Initiative’s Executive Director, Valerie Aurora, who did the lion’s share of the work and worry on each fundraising drive we did.

Creative Commons License
Your first fundraiser: a timeline by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Your first fundraiser: getting the word out

In 2011, I co-founded the Ada Initiative, a charitable organisation promoting and supporting women in open technology and culture. Between 2011 and 2014, we ran five fundraising drives, four successfully. This article is part of a series sharing what I learned in the hope that new women in technology groups and other activist groups can skip to advanced level fundraising much sooner and spend the least time and the most joy on fundraising that they possibly can.

Publicity planning

Once again: don’t be original. The publicity other fundraising drives have done is by definition public, so you can study it and use it for your planning.

It’s also not the time to be coy. People will not give you money if you aren’t invested enough in your mission to straightforwardly and clearly ask for money to work on it. Write scripts for yourself in which you ask for money directly, clearly, and non-defensively. Edit them down into “elevator pitch” or tweetable lengths. Some good phrases are “support us” and “help us”. Look for other short verbs that speak to your particular mission: “teach”, “defend”, “grow”, “build”, “reach”, “begin”, “lead”, “support”, “save”.

Don’t forget about your other audiences aside from potential donors! Earlier in this series, I wrote:

[A] good fundraising drive has a complementary goal: raising awareness of your organisation, and getting people involved. There’s at least two possibilities here. If you’re raising funds from the same community you’re going to benefit, your launch donors are likely to be among your key volunteers or members shortly thereafter. If you’re raising money from a different community from the one you’re going to benefit, your launch donors will be key in reaching other donors, and developing your fundraising strategy in future.

Make sure that it’s really clear where people can sign up for news and memberships etc, even if they aren’t donating. Otherwise you lose the recruiting part of the drive. As the drive goes on, remember also that you’re speaking to an increasing number of people who’ve already donated; they will also need suggestions on how to support you that aren’t giving money. For both people who can’t donate and people who already have, calls to action are key. Encouraging others to donate is one possible call to action, but you should help them incorporate your mission into their daily lives by encouraging them to join your organisation, advocate for your target community, take classes, contact political representatives, go to meetups or protests, or change their consumption habits among many other actions.

Your website

I’ve written about the basics you should have on your website before your fundraising drive, including answers to the questions “Who we are”, “What we do”, and “How you can help”.

During your drive, you also want to have every page of your website linking extremely prominently to your fundraising drive. Prominent promotion is a page-wide coloured banner at the top of each page of your site. Anything less (eg placing info in your sidebar) will fall prey to people’s ad-filtering neurons. The banner should have an extremely short (25 words or less) call to donate, along the lines of “Donate today to support [our target community]!”, linking to your donation page. If you have a donation amount counter, include it in the banner.

If your organisation already has projects underway, your fundraiser is a great time to release milestones, reports, calls to action, and so on on your website or blog. When you release them, add a call to donate to the end of the page discussing them.

If you want additional website content, interviews with supporters and people in your community are useful during fundraising, because you’re looking for social proof to potential donors that other people already trust and support you. You can also prepare this kind of content in advance of your fundraising drive rather than doing it as needed as you will need to do for social media.

All that said, the conversion rate from “person who landed on your website looking for information about Ada Lovelace” to “person donating” is unsurprisingly pretty low. The reason your website should point to your fundraiser is not to convert casual visitors into donors, it’s to help people who were searching for your fundraiser to find it, to help people who were researching you before donating find their way back to it, and to make sure your regular visitors know about it.

Launch!

People want to support something that is already successful. The key to your launch day is to get a number of donations very early, to lift your total raised well up off zero. This means having your most committed donors agree to give on the first day: reach out to your pledged donors at launch time and explain that an early donation will encourage others to donate, particularly if they’re willing to share with their communities. If possible, do this during a short “soft launch” phase, prior to ramping up your drive.

While you’ll be focussing matching campaigns on the second half of the drive, it can be good to have some very limited edition thank you gifts at this point too, to reward your committed donors for supporting you early.

Once you go live, own it! Share your fundraising goal publicly in your blog/website, to your email list, and to your social media. You’ve done individual asks by this point, make your first broadcast asks to the world.

Social media

Plan to make social media central to your fundraising drive. The Ada Initiative found that Twitter and to a lesser extent Facebook sharing drove most of our general public donations and Zeynep Tufekci recently ran a Twitter-only campaign for Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders that raised $230,000. Social media could easily drive 75% or more of your total funding.

Get your social media set up and active in advance of your fundraising drive. Make it easy for multiple fundraising staff or volunteers to post to your social media; the Ada Initiative used Hootsuite but we didn’t do a lot of comparison shopping of social media tools.

Aim for a sustainable social media style; you’ll probably post a lot more during fundraising, but it should be in a recognisable voice. If you’re not doing hashtags or emoji or memes the rest of the time, fundraising isn’t a great time to start. On the other hand, it also isn’t a time to stop if that’s been your style so far. Aside from the pretty high risk that you’ll sound stilted in any new social media genre, you’re also hoping to gain followers to stick with you for the long term; this won’t happen if your social media style is totally different when fundraising.

Messages along the lines of “[Organisation] is raising funds to [accomplish mission]. Support us today! [donation url]” are a good default. The Ada Initiative surprised ourselves in having much better re-share results with straightforward progress reports on our drive than inspirational quotes: our followers responded well to “we’re ⅔ of the way there!” and “our donation total is currently prime!” (yes, really, but tech workers were our target audience) and less well to “I loved AdaCamp!” or “As Grace Hopper once said…”

Unlike project releases and interviews with donors or supporters and some other long form content, it’s difficult to draft your social media in advance. Social media moves fast and you’ll want to have your posts move with it. Your fundraising drive can also go any number of ways, and drafting a lot of contingency social media is plain impossible: “it’s week 3 and we now have the largest capitalisation in the world/have reached our total early/are relying on your help to make it this week!” But at the very least, there needs to be a timetable of communications and a person or people who understand that they are going to be writing the week 3 announcement and in charge of scheduling 4 tweets about it. As with announcements, focus on weekdays, especially Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday and especially mornings through to early afternoon in your donors’ timezones.

Ada Initiative donors were very attentive to our graphic counters showing our total raised and the amount still needed. Quite a few used it as part of their calls to donate. I tended to over-engineer our counters, so that they had these features:

  • they could be embedded in other websites
  • they updated in close to real time
  • new signups for recurring donations showed up as a year’s worth of their donations

That was fun, but while you can certainly include graphic counter functionality as something you evaluate when choosing a donation platform, Zeynep Tufecki’s experience suggests that simply regularly stating the figures will get you most of the way there.

Other than counters, the Ada Initiative, always a thoroughly textual organisation, only ventured into visuals a few times. Our biggest successes were related to our pretty thank you gifts and their packaging.

Aside from your own social media, you need to encourage your supporters to publicly share their support. In my article in how long your fundraiser should be, I wrote:

The Ada Initiative donors told us that they often donated after seeing around three calls to donate from different sources

Social media is where they were seeing those three calls to donate. There are several things to try:

  1. If your donation software supports it, suggest a tweet or post to your donors once they’ve donated. Again, something straightforward along the lines of “I donated to [organisation] to support [mission]. Join me! [donation url]” is great.
  2. Ask your volunteers and enthusiastic supporters to re-share your social media posts.
  3. Make your social media interesting enough that people reshare without being asked.

Maintaining contact

The Ada Initiative, after our first drive, assumed that our generous donors would follow our activities on our blog or social media if they wanted to. A year later we heard from our fundraising consultant that many of them wondered where the hell we’d been!

Plan to stay in contact with your donors; they deserve it. Offer them all the ability to opt-in to your email newsletter, and keep your largest and most enthusiastic donors up to date with the occasional one to one email, phone call, or meeting.

Always remember the key principle of fundraising when doing publicity: no one will commit if you won’t. Your confidence in deciding that you need money and asking for it is a major proof your donors need that you will use their money well.

Creative Commons License
Your first fundraiser: getting the word out by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Your first fundraiser: stickers beat t-shirts

In 2011, I co-founded the Ada Initiative, a charitable organisation promoting and supporting women in open technology and culture. Between 2011 and 2014, we ran five fundraising drives, four successfully. This article is part of a series sharing what I learned in the hope that new women in technology groups and other activist groups can skip to advanced level fundraising much sooner and spend the least time and the most joy on fundraising that they possibly can.

Thank you gifts: ideally beautiful, always time-consuming

Thank you gifts, rewards, and similar are a standard part of crowdfunding campaigns, and useful in other fundraising campaigns. Good thank you gifts:

  • let people feel and show their alignment with your organisation and its mission
  • help newcomers learn about your organisation and its mission
  • (if you’re producing something) let people experience the work they helped you create

Displaying the rewards is a key part of showing alignment with you, which usually leads you to things that can be worn or can be used as decorations. This will also help your donor teach their friends about your organisation and its mission. So thank you gifts, like fundraising drives themselves, can help achieve your mission.

On the other hand, thank you gifts cost a lot. They literally cost a lot in design, manufacture, and shipping, and they take a lot of time. It can be tempting to write labour costs down to zero if it’s going to be volunteer labour, but remember opportunity cost: the time, energy, and goodwill you spend on an all-weekend T-shirt mailathon is not getting spent on other things.

Like fundraising overall, the best way to cut down the opportunity cost is to line your rewards up with your mission, and, where possible, have less time-consuming rewards.

If possible, pay for design and artistic expertise when designing your rewards, both for ethical reasons and because it’s more effective. Consider how to stand out from other laptop stickers and hats and decals and pens and so on. The Ada Initiative had great luck with rewards that were pretty and striking. Consider the portrait of Ada Lovelace or the Not Afraid to Say the F-Word sticker: both were designed by artists, both in a visual style not easily found on your laptop or t-shirts already.

At the Ada Initiative, we often gave rewards at 10× or more the cost price of the rewards. Eg, our sticker rewards were for a donation of around $100 and t-shirts for $200.

Which brings me to: don’t do t-shirts. Why? There’s a very limited number of suppliers who will do enough sizes for you, especially in curvier (“women’s”) styles. Once you’ve found the supplier, you have to distribute a size chart, correspond with donors about their size, and find a printer who will work with, say 10 sizes each with 5 shirts. Once printed they’re just bulky enough that shipping is pricey. It’s a big big pain. (Yes, we did do t-shirts. Twice. We’re experts on how much doing t-shirts is a bad idea. I don’t think you should.)

Stickers proved to be a great reward for the Ada Initiative: they’re cheap to produce, they have few design constraints (if it’s 2D, you can get someone to print it as a sticker), it’s easy to do them in high quality, they’re one-size-fits-all and can be shared with friends, and they can be paired with your donor’s identity easily (we had people use them on laptops, motorcycles, and, as a joke, fedoras). We also, in our final campaign, paid attention to our shipping design, making sure the experience of receiving and opening the envelope was itself fun, and including encouragement to share photos of the stickers on social media. Donors also liked scarves and pendants, which are one-size, and which are not as commonly given as rewards as t-shirts are.

Stretch goals

If you hit your fundraising goals, you might choose to set “stretch goals”. These aren’t usually thank you gifts to donors, but rather additional things your organisation will do if you reach the new, higher, funding goal. But they share the problems of thank you gifts: it’s very tempting to pledge things that will cost more than the stretch will earn. Don’t get stuck promising to send a woman to the moon for another $5000 raised.

Planning reasonable stretch goals before your drive is thus important; they’re often things that are on your roadmap anyway, or adjustments to things on your roadmap. Once again, don’t be original: study other organisations’s stretch goals.

Elsewhere

For more on crowdfunding rewards, particularly for raising funds for creative projects where delivery of the project is a key reward, see Marian Call’s Kickstarter Math is Weird.

Creative Commons License
Your first fundraiser: stickers beat t-shirts by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Your first fundraiser: making donations easy

In 2011, I co-founded the Ada Initiative, a charitable organisation promoting and supporting women in open technology and culture. Between 2011 and 2014, we ran five fundraising drives, four successfully. This article is part of a series sharing what I learned in the hope that new women in technology groups and other activist groups can skip to advanced level fundraising much sooner and spend the least time and the most joy on fundraising that they possibly can.

You need a donation website

Before you launch an online fundraiser, you need a tested, reliable, way to accept donations online by credit card, or by your location’s primary online payment mechanism. You might accept donations through an existing product such as a crowdfunding platform, or through a more customised donation website that you developed yourself.

This article goes through the considerations that go into whether to use a turn-key solution, and if not, how to design a custom donation website.

Get the basics set up

Before you get into the nitty gritty of a specific donation website, make sure you have the following:

  • a name for your organisation
  • a registered domain name
  • a website at that domain name that prominently answer the questions “Who we are”, “What we do”, and “How you can help”
  • all the social media accounts you plan to use registered and at least ready to go, ideally already active and beginning to attract followers
  • a way to send announcement emails, and a way for people to sign up for the emails
  • a way to contact the organisation’s leaders or spokespeople directly (usually an email address)

Remember that your drive is a major publicity event for you, and will attract not only donors, but potential staff, volunteers, members, allies, and journalists, not to mention donors to future drives. Be ready for these people, both to help them find what they need, and to keep them up to date as you grow.

“How you can help” can list your donation website, any membership signup you have, and any job or volunteer opportunities. “How you can help” took a few revisions for the Ada Initiative, which was a non-membership service organisation relying mostly on the labour of salaried staff rather than volunteers. But if you have, as we did, programs that individuals can reuse in their own communities, or actions that people can take to advance your cause without formally joining, this is where you can describe those too. Think of it as “how you can help our cause” as well as “how you can help our organisation”.

Paypal button?

One of the simplest donation options is the Paypal donate button. The Ada Initiative ran our first successful campaign and raised over $80,000 with a Paypal button supported by blog posts and social media. These are worth considering because they’re so easy; here’s some tradeoffs.

You’ll need to work with Paypal.

Aside from the ease of setting up the donate button, in the US it also tends to be the case that you can set up a Paypal account fairly easily, at some risk of them holding funds if they later find you aren’t a customer they’re willing to work with. (In other countries, this varies. Setting up a Paypal account may be no less difficult than any other payments processor.)

But there are potential disadvantages:

  • While it’s possible to whitelabel Paypal to various extents if you do more development, the simple donate button option will send your donors through Paypal’s branded payment flow, which will encourage donors to do things that benefit Paypal (signing up for or logging into a Paypal account) rather than you (finishing their donation as quickly as possible).
  • Some donors resist using Paypal for user interface, ethical, or business practices reasons. The Ada Initiative, which targeted tech industry workers, had a lot of complaints when we only accepted Paypal from people who could use Paypal technically, but refused to.
  • Paypal accounts aren’t as widespread as other payment mechanisms in some markets. (I’ve found it difficult to find country-by-country statistics, but in Australia industry reports guesstimate that about 25% of Australians have an active Paypal account, and about 70% have a credit card.)
  • For your international donors, their exchange rates are pretty awful compared to card networks.

You’ll need to suggest donation amounts elsewhere. There’s advantages in suggesting donation amounts to your donors; you can influence their donation amount considerably. But Paypal will have them enter it themselves. You’ll want to give them some guide to donation amounts before sending them on the Paypal workflow.

You’ll need to keep your donors informed of your success elsewhere. The Paypal donate button won’t track your donation amounts or provide any guide to donors that they’re donating to a new campaign, or one that’s finishing up, or one that needs more support or one where they’re joining an already successful campaign. You’ll need to give them this information elsewhere.

Custom development or a fundraising website?

It’s not 2011 any more and there are a growing number of ways to build a donation website beyond a Paypal donate button. There’s several factors that will go into the decision about whether to use an existing fundraising platform or whether you develop your own donation website.

Fees. Payment processors and payment infrastructure often charge a fee that is a percentage of funds that flow through their systems. Small changes in this fee can result in large changes in the amount of money you receive at the end of the drive.

Let’s say, for example, that your payment processor charges 3% for their services, and your donation website host another 4%. (Neither are unrealistic figures.) If your campaign raises $100,000, you will pay $3,000 to the payments processor and $4,000 to the donation website host, and $93,000 will be deposited in your bank account from which you must fund your activities as well as any fundraiser rewards and followup.

If those numbers were 2% and 3%, you’d get $2,000 more right there. Payment processing fees are an inevitable part of taking online donations, although you should certainly see how much you can reduce them. Fees paid to donation software companies aren’t inevitable, and can be reduced or avoided with a custom donation website.

On the flipside, the fees to maintain a highly available donation website may also be non-trivial. The Ada Initiative used $100 a month managed VPS hosting during our last fundraising drive, so there’s $1,200 for a yearly fundraiser right there.

Time and labour. This is where custom websites fall down. If you need to pay a programming consultant $200 an hour to develop and maintain your donation website, and they take 10 hours in total to do so, you’ve just spent $2,000. Spending your own time on this (as the Ada Initiative did in spades) will cost in both staff salaries if you pay them, and even if you don’t, will cost in opportunity (the things you didn’t do with that time).

Custom donation websites will also have an ongoing maintenance burden that needs to be budgeted for.

Downtime. Availability of your donation website is very important, particularly in the closing week of the campaign where downtime for a couple of hours could have cost the Ada Initiative tens of thousands at times.

Every link in your chain is a little vulnerable to downtime: payment processors have downtime, fundraising platforms have downtime, your paid host will have downtime, your social media will have downtime.

Generally speaking a larger and more established platform will be the most on top of this; see if you can find their status page and some information about their most recent downtime. With a custom donation solution, you could cut-over to at least a barebones page that still allows donations. Can you, say, switch over from WordPress to a static HTML page on a different host quickly? Can you swap in a different payments processor promptly? (The Ada Initiative had a Paypal button standing by even when our default donation page was much more customised.)

Flexibility. A custom developed website will have much more flexibility. If you have thank you gift structures that don’t match the platform you want to use, or you want to lay out your text just so, or you want to display photos of donors only on even numbered dates, you will tend to lean towards a custom website.

If you’re leaning towards an existing platform, accept that you may have to design your drive around their features rather than the other way around. Build time for comparing platform features into your fundraising timeline.

Recurring donations. If your activities are ongoing and you’re going to be donor-funded indefinitely, taking recurring donations is nearly essential. Many donors will not be able to give as a lump sum what they could give over the course of a year. In addition, recurring donations provide a predictable cashflow which over time reduces your reliance on running constant fundraising drives, improves your ability to budget accurately, and allows you to spend energy elsewhere.

Many crowdfunding websites are designed entirely for one-shot donations for a particular purpose, not for signing up recurring donors. Think very carefully before choosing a platform that locks you out of accepting recurring donations.

Continued availability. If you are going to continue to be donor-funded, don’t ever take your donation form down and thus don’t choose a donation platform that will shut off donations when you reach a given total or a given date. At the end of your drive, you will turn the publicity pointing people to the donation form way down, but it should still be there for people who donate out of season, or who saw the drive but weren’t ready to donate at the time.

Direct donor relationships. You should consider the portability of data from the donation website or system that you use. Can you extract payment information for your bookkeeping and receipts? Can you transfer credit card numbers to a new processor? Can you extract donor emails or other contact details so that you can keep in touch with your donors even if you switch donation systems?

Being unable to migrate payment information or donor contact details is very expensive. You can end up losing half your recurring donation income if you need to ask your donors to manually reenter their payment details into a new system. If you cannot contact previous donors you could lose most of the one-off donations for your next fundraising drive.

Payment processing gotchas

Sign up for your fundraising platform well in advance of your drive’s launch. Most Ada Initiative fundraisers were delayed by discovering that we couldn’t accept payments in the way we wanted to, or couldn’t accept them in a way that was safe and convenient for our donors.

Some examples of issues you may run into:

  • many platforms and processors require that you are incorporated as a not-for-profit in some form before using them to raise funds and quite a lot of platforms are only available for recognised charities (and it’s likely that you can’t afford to apply for charity status without the funds from your first fundraiser!)
  • some platforms require that you apply to use their platform (eg, Kickstarter, which isn’t a charity fundraising platform in any case) and your campaign may not be a fit

What we chose

The Ada Initiative usually found the fee and flexibility arguments persuasive in rejecting turnkey donation websites. During our final, most successful, fundraisers, we were using Gravity Forms on self-hosted WordPress software, with payments processed by the donor’s choice of Stripe (white-labelled, ie, we termed it “credit card”) or Paypal to process payments. (We consistently found that, while our form defaulted to recommending credit card payment, about a third of our donors actively preferred to donate from their Paypal accounts.)

Stripe and similar products that have come onto the payments market in recent years make taking credit card payments through your own website fairly unburdensome and there are lots of cheap and free software such as WordPress plugins with increasingly good support for payments processing.

Designing a donation website

If you have some degree of control over your donation website design, whether because it’s a custom solution or because your host gives you design tools, you should spend a great deal of time and attention making it clear and easy to understand, with as few decisions as possible.

Your audience is people who have already decided to donate. You don’t want someone who has made that decision to have to scroll down to even find the payment form, or to feel they need to review your ten paragraph mission statement one last time. So: have a short statement of your mission, less than 50 words, which has one link (eg to your About or What We Do page) to follow for further information, a supporting image, and a donation form to fill out. End the page with a very short statement about tax deductibility if any and in which countries it applies (since this will be a truly frequently asked question otherwise). Otherwise remove all sidebars, links, headers, banners, menus, and other prominent navigation elements from the page.

Your donors will be strongly influenced both by your suggested donation amounts, ie, if you ask them to choose between $10, $20, and $50, they will donate less than if you ask them to choose between $100, $200, and $500. However, the number of donors at the latter levels will be lower. Tailor the suggested amounts to your expected donors. In addition, consider the “default” donation amount (the one that is pre-selected when people arrive at the page) carefully. Many people will leave it at the default, so if you have $10 visibly selected when they reach the page, $10 you will get.

Throughout the donation form, limit decisions your donors need to make. Collect the minimum information necessary, which unfortunately may still be a lot (between email, credit card fields and shipping addresses).

Streamline your thank you gift structure: filling out web forms is boring, it’s tiring to make decisions, and sometimes when people are deciding whether they want to be listed as a C class supporter of the website or a Q class supporter of the cake sale, they close the tab and go and have some food instead of donating and never come back.

Where possible, have several people make test donations through the website and ask all of them “what should we remove from it?”

Key takeaway: Make your donation page easy to find and easy to fill out. Doing so can easily increase income from your fundraising drive by three or more times.

Disclosure: I had an employment relationship in the past with a payments processor discussed in this article: I was employed at Stripe in 2016. The Ada Initiative used Stripe’s payments product prior to my employment at Stripe, but not concurrently with it.

At the time of writing, I have no financial interest in and receive no compensation from Stripe. I’m currently employed by Google; but not in relation to their payments products.

Creative Commons License
Your first fundraiser: making donations easy by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Your first fundraiser: your early donors

In 2011, I co-founded the Ada Initiative, a charitable organisation promoting and supporting women in open technology and culture. Between 2011 and 2014, we ran five fundraising drives, four successfully. This article is part of a series sharing what I learned in the hope that new women in technology groups and other activist groups can skip to advanced level fundraising much sooner and spend the least time and the most joy on fundraising that they possibly can.

Pre-drive pledges

In my article on how much to ask for I wrote:

To estimate your donors’ ability to give, it’s time to start asking people for money. Specifically, you need to figure out who is very likely to donate, and begin asking them to pledge to donating once your campaign kicks off. The pledge total will comprise a reasonable fraction of your donation total, somewhere between 10 and 25%. Once you have your pledges in, multiply the total by four. Is that enough to do what you need? No? Then you’re at serious risk of not reaching your goal, and you need to either bring your goal down, or figure out who else to ask for pledges.

Specifically, you’re going to send core supporters and likely large donors a message like this:

Dear [Name],

[1–2 sentences: Express excitement about your organisation and its progress.] [1 sentence: Explain your organisations’s need for money.]

To help us get [organisation] off to a great start, we’re going to be doing a fundraising drive, aiming to raise at least enough for [12 months of salaries? 6 months of rental? 6 months of rental costs? 5 memberships for folks who can’t afford one? 10 scholarships?] and get new people involved at the same time.

We need your help! Can you pledge to giving [$X] during our upcoming fundraising drive during [month]? Having your support, especially in the campaign’s early days, could make a big difference in the success of the campaign.

Thank you!
[Name]

Key things in this message: it’s short, concrete, and asks for a specific amount towards the goal. Each person sending these will want to write a version in their own voice, possibly also tailored to the recipient.

Who to ask, and will they hate me?

This bit is scary, because it is the first time you are putting your name and your relationships to the service of your fundraising. But this doesn’t require cold-calling or asking people who you know will be annoyed you asked.

Here’s who you’re looking to ask: people who already have expressed excitement about and commitment to your mission, people who are interested in you personally and want to see you succeed, people who can afford donations. This isn’t the time to harass a broke friend who is sceptical about your cause into donating. There’s never a time to harass that friend! It’s also not ethical to ask people who you have other financial power over, eg your dependants and your employees (including the organisation’s own employees). Ask people who can say no to you.

Instead, here’s some people you should consider:

  • yourselves, your board, your other volunteers
  • your members and attendees
  • people in your circles who have expressed enthusiasm about your organisation or mission
  • people in your circles who are supportive of you personally, and want to see you succeed

In later fundraising drives, this set of people will also include some of your previous donors, specifically the ones who gave large amounts, the ones who wrote in asking how they could please help further, and the ones who have since become volunteers.

One thing you may find reassuring: angry replies to requests are exceptionally rare, and in fact so is a polite “no”. There are plenty of people who won’t agree to pledge, and the way you’ll know this is their silence; they simply won’t reply to the request.

Estimating pledge amounts

Since you are asking money from committed and interested people, ask for an amount that is meaningful to them, and that represents a commitment when they reflect on it. Once you’ve run other fundraising drives it would be usually be one of the higher suggested amounts on your donation page, which in turn are suggested because some reasonable proportion of donors have proved to be willing to give that amount.

For a first fundraising drive, you and your board and core volunteers can consider your own donation histories. What amounts do you give to organisations you are particularly interested in and want to see succeed? You can also, as always, avoid originality, and survey the donation webpages of similar organisations and those with similar donor profiles (eg, donors are retirees, donors are wealthy professionals, donors are anticapitalists…) and look at their suggested donation amounts. You’ve probably made it onto a few organisation’s mailout lists, how much do they try and solicit from you as a year-end gift? These amounts are around about the right size.

It’s quite common for people to ask if they can pledge a smaller amount than you asked for. Of course you should agree to this.

Other things to ask for

If any of the pledges come in and offer additional help, take it! Depending on who is offering, you could:

  • ask them to volunteer for fundraising: either to join your core fundraising team, or to spread the word on social media, in their workplace, amongst their online community and so on
  • ask them to appear in your marketing: eg ask if you can interview them your website or quote them on your social media about their reason for donating, or if you can use their photograph on your donation website
  • ask them to volunteer their pledge as a matching donor, as in “if you donate during the next 48 hours of the campaign, Mary will match your donation dollar for dollar!”

You probably don’t have the capacity during planning your first fundraiser to also be recruiting and training non-fundraising staff and volunteers for your board or your projects, but if you think your pledged donor would be a better fit for that, you can of course make sure to follow up with them after the drive.

Follow up pledges!

Build a basic tracking list, eg a spreadsheet. Enter in:

  • The potential donor’s name
  • The reason you believe they may pledge
  • The relationship they have with your organisation and who should ask them
  • How much you’re asking for
  • Whether you’ve heard back, what their final pledge amount is, and whether they’ve donated it yet
  • Any complete opt-outs you get (“no, and never ask again”), so that you don’t ask them for future drives

Since silence is a ‘no’, you shouldn’t follow up with people who didn’t respond to your original ask. However, those who did reply and agree to pledge should get two or three followups.

First, contact your agreed pledges first thing after the launch of your campaign (or during any soft launch you do), with a specific message that the best way to help is to donate as early in the campaign as possible and share their participation. A sizeable proportion will enthusiastically do so and let you demonstrate to other donors that there’s a community that has faith in you.

For the others, you’ll want to remind them a couple of times; around halfway through your drive, and shortly before its close. Stay friendly; these are people who have some faith in you, and even if they do not fulfil their pledge they may contribute at some other time. But it’s perfectly fine to follow up along the lines of “you pledged $X to our campaign. If we’ve missed your donation please let us know, otherwise, we’d love it if you donated $X at [site] so that we can [reach our fundraising goal/work on our mission]. Thank you for your support!”

Usually more than 90% of your pledges will be paid, and as per the previous article on setting your goals, they will make up up to 25% of your fundraising total. And they will contribute immeasurably to your belief that your fundraiser and your organisation can succeed!

Matching campaigns

Extremely large pledges are best converted into matching campaigns; the “you give $1 and [person] gives $1” style of campaign. These are usually more time limited than your campaign as a whole, perhaps 3–5 days. Announce big matching challenges in the last two weeks of your campaign to encourage the least committed donors.

Be careful to make the matching total achievable; it should be a stretchy but not unrealistic goal for that time period. Donors won’t act on “help us reach our $250,000 match pledge” if you’ve only raised $10,000 to that point. As a guide, you probably don’t want to announce a matching pledge that exceeds half your total raised to that point. In addition, people should always be encouraged to give immediately. Don’t announce something like “a big donation reward/matching campaign is being announced Friday! look out for it!” or people who were intending to donate will wait until Friday and some of them will forget to come back. Plus you’ll be worried because suddenly your donations have dried up.

Your matching donor should be willing to work with you to promote their matching offer to their own community. You should actively help them: offer them a them a hand preparing or reviewing draft blog entries and social media about their offer. Seek their advice about your outreach during their matching campaign. Check in with them daily during the period of their match offer, letting them know how close they’re getting to their total, how people are hearing about the match and (where you have permission) who donated. Treat your matching donor as the committed fundraising partner they are.

Creative Commons License
Your first fundraiser: your early donors by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Your first fundraiser: how long for, when, and how much?

In 2011, I co-founded the Ada Initiative, a charitable organisation promoting and supporting women in open technology and culture. Between 2011 and 2014, we ran five fundraising drives, four successfully. This article is part of a series sharing what I learned in the hope that new women in technology groups and other activist groups can skip to advanced level fundraising much sooner and spend the least time and the most joy on fundraising that they possibly can.

How long for?

Aim for a campaign length of 3½–4½ weeks, beginning on a Monday and ending on a Wednesday. The Ada Initiative donors told us that they often donated after seeing around three calls to donate from different sources; if your fundraising drive is much shorter than three weeks there’s not time for people to see two or three people telling them to donate, and beyond that and you’re just tiring all the volunteers out and making onlookers wonder when they’ll finally stop hearing about this. Expect almost all donations to come in on weekdays and most between Mondays and Wednesdays; hence a Monday launch and Wednesday conclusion.

Try to straddle a month boundary, ideally finishing the campaign in the first or second week of a month. Some of your donors will need to wait on their payday to donate, particularly if you are asking for donations of significant size, and many people are paid towards the end of a month. Starting on the 1st and concluding on, say, the 25th would miss these donors.

When?

This series is aimed at organisations running their first fundraiser, and the best answer to when is as soon as you can because you need the money to achieve significant goals. Don’t hold off your fundraiser for months trying for the magic right month to run it in.

As a caution: it’s best to just launch a fundraiser, and not announce the dates publicly to donors in advance. There’s two reasons for this: it’s quite likely that your dates will slip (the Ada Initiative’s major slips involved being rejected from Kickstarter on one occasion, and needing to fix payment processing issues on two other occasions); and, as discussed later in the series, you should never encourage people to wait until later to donate, unless you are willing and able to personally follow up with them, because short of personal followup they won’t not come back to do so.

That said, for future fundraisers, when you have time to plan a little more in advance, the conventional wisdom that was passed onto us was, in the United States, to hold fundraising drives very close to the end of the calendar year. In the US, the tax year ends on December 31 and so the time when people want to maximise their tax deductions coincides with the lead-up to Christmas when observers of the holiday are focussed on giving and the pleasure of giving. In Australia, where our tax year finishes on June 30, and Christmas coincides with expensive summer holidays, I am less clear on whether there’s a single best time to run a fundraising drive. A time of year that’s reasonably predictable for your regular donors will be useful; the Ada Initiative settled on the September/October period and had good success despite conventional wisdom around delaying until November/December.

We were also advised that it’s considerably harder to raise money in the US in a presidential election year, as many people direct their donation budget to candidates for office. While it’s not possible to skip fundraising every fourth year, it’s worth having a look around you and try and avoid overlapping with any shorter predictable major political events.

On the other hand, if your donors come from a group that has a significant source of money at a certain time of the year (eg, they work for an industry that pays bonuses at the end of the year), that is a good time to aim for!

How much?

This is where your needs meet your donors’ ability to give. For needs, you should prepare a budget. The details of budgeting are out of scope for this series, but remember: don’t be original! You can look up the budgets of similarly sized organisations in their sponsorship prospectuses, their tax filings (eg, the US 990 tax filing for charitable organisations), and many business and non-profit resource websites. For the Ada Initiative staff salaries were the major expense, as is usual for service organisations. As a very loose guide for small service businesses that are paying staff, your total expenses often come out around twice your staff’s salaries. However for volunteer organisations, or organisations that are going to make extensive grants or do development, salaries will be a much smaller part of your budget and other expenses will loom larger.

To estimate your donors’ ability to give, it’s time to start asking people for money. Specifically, you need to figure out who is very likely to donate, and begin asking them to pledge to donating once your campaign kicks off. The pledge total will comprise a reasonable fraction of your donation total, somewhere between 10 and 25%. Once you have your pledges in, multiply the total by four. Is that enough to do what you need? No? Then you’re at serious risk of not reaching your goal, and you need to either bring your goal down, or figure out who else to ask for pledges.

Building a prospect list and asking for pledges is covered in my next article!

Creative Commons License
Your first fundraiser: how long for, when, and how much? by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Your first fundraiser: don’t be original!

In 2011, I co-founded the Ada Initiative, a charitable organisation promoting and supporting women in open technology and culture. Between 2011 and 2014, we ran five fundraising drives, four successfully. This article is part of a series sharing what I learned in the hope that new women in technology groups and other activist groups can skip to advanced level fundraising much sooner and spend the least time and the most joy on fundraising that they possibly can.

Learn from others

I’m an ex-postgraduate student and I know that hackers and academics are accustomed to not feeling that we’re working hard enough, or even behaving ethically, unless we either do something entirely novel, or at least learn everything from first principles. In business and fundraising, that’s not true. Save your originality for your projects and your approach to your mission.

Instead of trying to do original, innovative fundraising, look for best practices and copy them. Search for successful fundraisers and don’t be afraid to mimic their timeline, reward structure, and total goals closely. Eg, if you are launching a feminist hackerspace, you could look at what Double Union and Seattle Attic did for fundraising goals, rewards, and stretch goals, and learn from them in designing your own campaign. If you’re raising money through sponsorship, get hold of other sponsorship prospectuses and learn how they’re formatted, what their usual contents are, and what level of sponsorship is required for each sponsorship benefit.

And of course, also ask the founders/fundraisers of organisations similar to yours which bits of their fundraiser didn’t work for them.

Beyond that, there’s professional advice. At the Ada Initiative, our fundraising strategy was informed by working with four experienced fundraisers with different styles and insights; one for each of the four successful drives, in fact. If your goal is to raise enough money to pay staff (or your fundraising needs are otherwise $50k+), I strongly recommend you engage a fundraising consultant. Here’s some things to look for:

  • investment/alignment with your mission; perhaps not a close enough match to be an advisor or a board member, but the prospective consultant should be pleased with your mission and your major programs and interested in learning more about them
  • alignment with your core fundraising ethics (eg, at the Ada Initiative we didn’t work with consultants who bought or sold donor contact databases)
  • experience with online campaigns, eg, writing or editing blog posts, social media experience, experience with Kickstarter/Indiegogo/etc
  • experience with donors similar to yours (at the Ada Initiative we worked mostly with consultants who had experience raising money from tech workers)

Some of the things you could discuss with a fundraising consultant:

  • basic best practices they advise everyone on (eg, time of year to raise funds, weekdays to make major announcements on, the kind of thing I’m going through in this series)
  • doing donor outreach before doing any fundraising, such as phone calls to former/likely donors checking in on how they feel about the organisation (donors may feel more comfortable being critical of the organisation to a consultant than they would be to a founder, and the consultant will be able to hear the criticism non-defensively too)
  • doing, or subcontracting, or instructing your staff on, the detail work of the fundraising, such as writing copy, staffing social media, recruiting matching donors
  • choice of platform, eg, which crowdfunding site to use, which payment processor to use, which CRM to use, donation page UX (although these are rarer skillsets than fundraising best practices)

Organisations similar to yours are the best source of recommendations for fundraising consultants. It’s also something a good board may have advice on.

A good board are themselves invaluable. At different times we got key advice from both board members who were fundraising experts and board members who had run other kinds of businesses. Seek out board members, committee members, or informal advisors who have successfully raised money in any form in the past. They may not have much time to volunteer to help you with the nuts and bolts, but should be open to a few hour-long advice giving and war story exchanging conversations before and during your campaign.

Many brilliant and hard-working people have run fundraisers before you, and fundraising norms are generally well-established. Look for what works, and use it to get your organisation off to the best possible start.

Creative Commons License
Your first fundraiser: don’t be original! by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Your first fundraiser: why fundraise?

In 2011, I co-founded the Ada Initiative, a charitable organisation promoting and supporting women in open technology and culture. Between 2011 and 2014, we ran five fundraising drives, four successfully. This article is part of a series sharing what I learned in the hope that new women in technology groups and other activist groups can skip to advanced level fundraising much sooner and spend the least time and the most joy on fundraising that they possibly can.

Why you should have a fundraising drive

In 2014, in the Ada Initiative’s article on choosing a funding model we wrote:

Often activists will reach for every funding opportunity they can: individual fundraising campaign, yes! Government grants, yes! Selling stickers, yes! Sucking up to wealthy potential donors at lavish one-on-one dinners, absolutely! But it is crucial to pick just two or three funding sources and concentrate on them.

Raising money in any form takes time, practice, dedication, and skill. Pursuing too many forms of funding will just mean that you’re bad at all of them. Some diversification of funding sources is often recommended, but the base requirement is a reliable funding source[…]

Since mid-2011, the bedrock of the Ada Initiative’s funding has come from a few hundred individuals within the technology community. Being accountable to donors who are primarily interested in culture change even when it has no direct benefit to themselves allows us to take on more radical programs. This includes work that is not directly connected with hiring or careers, or that is connected with gift and alternative economies like media fandom with little direct connection to corporate profits.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to adopt an individual donor funding model is that donors often become advocates for diversity in tech themselves…

These are great arguments for individual fundraising. Another one is that individual donors are often the most willing to take a risk on a new, untested, project; corporate donors/sponsors are more conservative and often want to see at least an informal track record to figure out what they’re associating their brand with.

If you’ve chosen individual fundraising for these or other reasons, the next question is: why do a drive as opposed to popping a donation form or Paypal donate button on your website and waiting for donations?

The first reason is simple: a drive will earn a lot more money. The Ada Initiative was a reasonably well known organisation with a reasonable amount of web traffic, but spontaneous donations outside a drive were at the rate of one or two donations a month. Our last few fundraising drives on the other hand earned hundreds of thousands of dollars and attracted as many donors in a day as we would get in the entire rest of the year. Our experience was that fundraising revenue exceeded spontaneous donation revenue by a hundred times.

There’s a tempting line of thinking around passive fundraising — I’m prone to it — which is that if your mission was truly great and your approach to it truly excellent, then the world would discover it spontaneously. Asking for money would then prove the inferiority of your mission or your organisation. Here’s a counter-argument: in order to be successful, you need to be the most invested person. If you aren’t committed to your mission, your donors won’t trust you to fufil it. Taking a risk by openly asking for money, explaining why you need it and what you’ll do with it, is one of the best ways to convince your potential donors that you have a chance at doing what needs to be done.

As we wrote in 2014, a good fundraising drive has a complementary goal: raising awareness of your organisation, and getting people involved. There’s at least two possibilities here. If you’re raising funds from the same community you’re going to benefit, your launch donors are likely to be among your key volunteers or members shortly thereafter. If you’re raising money from a different community from the one you’re going to benefit, your launch donors will be key in reaching other donors, and developing your fundraising strategy in future.

In designing your fundraising campaign, you will raise the money you need, and building a community of members and volunteers, or ongoing donors, at the same time. Good fundraising is hard work, but it isn’t a tiresome distraction from your mission. It’s how you will build the community you need to fulfil your mission.

Creative Commons License
Your first fundraiser: why fundraise? by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://adainitiative.org/2014/06/10/the-ada-initiative-founders-on-funding-activism-for-women-in-open-source-from-model-view-culture/.

Your first fundraiser: what the Ada Initiative learned the hard way

In 2011, I co-founded the Ada Initiative, a charitable organisation promoting and supporting women in open technology and culture. Between 2011 and 2014, we ran five fundraising drives, four successfully.

We made a bunch of bad decisions along the way. For example, after our first drive in 2011, we stopped accepting donations, and moreover assumed that folks who had been denied the opportunity to donate in mid-2011 would still be there and keen in early 2012 (spoiler: no they weren’t). We offered t-shirts as a donor thank you gift. Worse: we offered t-shirts twice.

We also got a lot of excellent advice from fundraising experts and from our fabulous boards of directors, and through a combination of hard work (both ourselves and our volunteers!), good ideas, and good luck, had a lot of success. For several years I’ve been informally advising other women in technology groups on fundraising for the first time ever,

Over the next several weeks, I’m publishing a series of articles with my fundraising wisdom, with the hope that new women in technology groups and other activist groups can skip to advanced level fundraising much sooner. May you spend the least time and the most joy on fundraising that you possibly can!

Creative Commons License
Your first fundraiser: what the Ada Initiative learned the hard way by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

The Ada Initiative founders on funding activism for women in open source

This article was co-written by me and Valerie Aurora. It was originally published in Model View Culture and was later published on the Ada Initiative blog. It is republished here according to the terms of its Creative Commons licence.

In December 2010, Valerie Aurora, then a leading Linux filesystems developer, announced that she was leaving software development to work on women in open source software activism full time. Behind the scenes, she asked several other geek feminist activists to join her to work on women in open source activism full time. “I don’t know what the world-wide economic capacity for paid activists [for women in open source] is, but let’s find out together!” she wrote.

In 2010, the smart money said that the world-wide economic capacity for paid activists for women in open source was well under one person. And only Mary Gardiner, then an unpaid computer science PhD student looking to leave academia, took Valerie up on the offer.

Thus began our long journey towards answering the question: “How does an activist get paid?

This article chronicles our own painful and sometimes expensive learning experiences around funding diversity in tech work, as well as advice and techniques from several other successful full-time diversity in tech activists and fundraising experts: Ashe Dryden, diversity advocate and consultant; Kellie Brownell, CiviCRM implementer at Giant Rabbit and former Ada Initiative fundraising consultant; Frances Hocutt, founding president of the Seattle Attic feminist hackerspace; and Emily May, executive director of Hollaback!.

Paying Activists and Funding Complications

The question we struggled with initially was why activism, and feminist activism in open source software in particular, should be a paid job at all. Thanks to the work of people including Kate Losse, today the tech community is increasingly aware that this kind of community-building labor is valuable and should be compensated. But in 2010, all we knew is that volunteer activism was not working. Women in open source software were working for free, burning themselves out while fighting for rights as simple as basic physical safety – let alone equal pay, equal treatment and a non-sexist culture.

And yet the expectation that women in open source should be unpaid activists was so high that in 2009, Emma Jane Westby formulated the “Unicorn Law,” which states: “If you are a woman in Open Source, you will eventually give a talk about being a woman in Open Source.” In October 2011, Skud — herself an activist and target of harassment — adapted Arlie Hochschild’s term “the second shift” to describe this phenomenon. But after ten years, and tens of thousands of hours of difficult, draining work, the percentage of women in open source software was still in the low single digits.

Valerie’s insight — radical, at the time — was that we needed full-time paid activists working on the problem in order to make any progress. We founded the Ada Initiative with the principle of paying fair market wages to anyone doing work for us more than a few hours a week. In 2010, this was a moonshot. In 2014, it’s increasingly how things are done. More and more diversity in technology initiatives are becoming paid activities, and a growing proportion of the technology industry recognizes this labour as something worth paying for.

For all this progress, relatively few “pre-fabricated” diversity in tech jobs exist, and the ones that do exist tend to be co-opted by corporations to narrowly focus on recruiting and, in effect, marketing. Many existing large diversity-in-tech non-profits are primarily corporate-funded and therefore end up compelled to do recruiting and marketing for for-profit tech corporations. An employee of a for-profit corporation who wants to advocate for significant cultural change as part of their job is stuck in an additional catch-22: they can’t criticize their competitors, because it looks like a conflict of interest, and they also can’t criticize their own employer, because that’s a great way to get fired.

Thus, full-time diversity activists who want to do effective, controversial, culture-changing work must often work out how to pay themselves, rather than taking existing jobs at tech companies or diversity in tech non-profits.

What follows is a survey of some of the most popular funding sources: corporate sponsorship, individual donations, and consulting and training.

But first…

Why you shouldn’t try them all

Often activists will reach for every funding opportunity they can: individual fundraising campaign, yes! Government grants, yes! Selling stickers, yes! Sucking up to wealthy potential donors at lavish one-on-one dinners, absolutely! But it is crucial to pick just two or three funding sources and concentrate on them.

Raising money in any form takes time, practice, dedication, and skill. Pursuing too many forms of funding will just mean that you’re bad at all of them. Some diversification of funding sources is often recommended, but the base requirement is a reliable funding source.

An activist’s choice will depend both on their mission and who they are able to reach. The Wikimedia Foundation is focusing exclusively on small donors from all over the world giving an average of $25 each and giving up pursuing most grants or large donors, in part because small donors are inherently diversified. However, the Wikimedia Foundation can use Wikipedia, one of the world’s most-read websites, as a fundraising platform, a rare advantage. No diversity in tech activists will have such a large pool of potential donors! Each individual and organization needs to assess which sources of funding are compatible with their mission, and of those sources, which they can access.

Corporate Sponsorship

The Ada Initiative, like many diversity in tech groups, initially planned on getting most of our funding from technology-related corporations. Our focus was on women in open technology and culture, which includes open source software, Wikipedia-related projects, open data, and similar areas. Our logic was charmingly naïve: since corporations reaped most of the benefit of open tech/culture, they should pay most of the cost of increasing the percentage of women in their talent pool because fairness. Also, corporations tend to have a lot of money.

Major corporate sponsorship for diversity in tech work comes in several common forms: conference sponsorships, grants for specific projects, fellowships employing a specific person for a few months, and completely unrestricted grants (our favorite). Corporate donors are attractive because, compared to the typical activist, many have effectively infinite amounts of money.

However, corporate sponsorship has clear downsides for many diversity in tech activists. The sponsor’s goal tends to be making sure the corporate sponsor has access to a diverse hiring pool. Most companies therefore prefer to support events and education initiatives that serve as recruitment opportunities in the short or medium term.

Corporate sponsorship is also often very cautious. They are looking to associate their name with a popular message, and groups who do not yet have a history of successful programs may have trouble accessing corporate donations. Organizations intending to rely on corporate donations may have to bootstrap with other funds or volunteer labor while building a history of success.

The main exception to these rules, in our experience, is smaller privately-held companies whose owners account only to themselves for how the company’s money is spent. They tend to be less conservative and more risk-tolerant than publicly owned companies. In the Ada Initiative’s case, these kinds of corporate donors were crucial to our success and included Puppet Labs, Dreamhost, Dreamwidth, and Inktank.

Early on, our philosophy at Ada Initiative was to accept any no-strings-attached corporate sponsorship as long as the company’s business model wasn’t fundamentally anathema to our mission. But since many corporations — and corporate management — are complicit in discrimination and harassment of women in tech, much of the effective work to support women in tech involves criticizing the status quo and has the potential to offend the very corporations who sponsor us. We gradually came to realize that every corporate sponsorship has an invisible condition: unspoken internalized pressure to avoid any actions that might cause that corporation to stop donating to us.

We had another motivation for our initial corporate-funded model: guilt. We felt guilty asking individual people to support our work but no such compunction when it came to corporations. We suspect this kind of guilt plagues many activists; we tend to want to help others, not ask others to help us. Our guilt about asking individuals to support our work instead of corporations drove us to end our first fundraiser early, resulting in the loss of tens of thousands of dollars from eager donors and forcing us to start another, less-efficient fundraising campaign only 5 months later. Reframing how we viewed asking individual people for donations took three years, a career counselor, a therapist, several books, and a perceptive fundraising consultant, Kellie Brownell.

So let’s talk about…

Individual Donations

Since mid-2011, the bedrock of the Ada Initiative’s funding has come from a few hundred individuals within the technology community. Being accountable to donors who are primarily interested in culture change even when it has no direct benefit to themselves allows us to take on more radical programs. This includes work that is not directly connected with hiring or careers, or that is connected with gift and alternative economies like media fandom with little direct connection to corporate profits.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to adopt an individual donor funding model is that donors often become advocates for diversity in tech themselves. Kellie Brownell, our former fundraising consultant, says, “While fundraising at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, I kept noticing that our donors were the first to take action when we asked for help.” Many an Ada Initiative donor has gone on to successfully advocate for an anti-harassment policy or a diversity scholarship in their community. We also receive many thank-you notes from people too shy, too burned out, or too busy to be advocates themselves, who are relieved that they can take action in some way by donating. Individual donors create a virtuous circle where fundraising supports our mission, and our mission increases our fundraising.

Diversity in tech organizations are increasingly bootstrapped with a crowdfunding campaign. Diversity advocate and consultant Ashe Dryden raised $20,000 in July 2013; Trans*H4CK raised $6,000 beginning in May 2013; feminist hackerspaces Double Union and Seattle Attic raised $15,000 and $11,000 respectively in November 2013; and in March 2014 Lesbians Who Tech raised $29,000 for a summit in San Francisco and $20,000 for a summit in New York.

Crowdfunding, with its constant outreach and rewards is an excellent way to interest donors and community members in an organization, but Dryden cautions that “[it was and] still is a considerably larger amount of work on top of the other work I’m doing.” At the extreme, the work required to publicise a fundraising drive and then fulfill rewards can risk exhausting the funds raised! It may also only work a limited number of times. Emily May, executive director of anti-street harassment non-profit Hollaback!, says “80% of our donors are young[…] They are incentivized to give by new exciting initiatives, but there are only so many ‘new exciting initiatives’ that [we] can launch without overwhelming our capacity.”

Activists are beginning to be able to raise enough money to pay themselves from many very small regular donations. Dryden’s funding now comes primarily from Gittip, a service that allows people to make anonymous weekly donations directly to her. She is the top Gittip recipient with an income of $750 a week, and is not the only diversity in tech activist among Gittip’s top receivers. Others include Lynn Cyrin, a trans woman of color working on a guide to class mobility and CallbackWomen, working to increase women’s representation at conferences.

Dryden says, “Community funding is great because it means I’m working directly for the community. I often tell people that the community is my employer, so I’m working directly for them, instead of what would look best for a company. It also means that I can be impartial in critiquing what’s wrong with the industry without worrying about financial ramifications either through my employer’s view not aligning with mine or people attempting to get me fired for my views, which many other activists and advocates have experienced.” Dryden’s model is beginning to approach what Sue Gardner, the outgoing executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation and an Ada Initiative board member, identifies as the future of non-profit funding: small donations from a large number of donors, requiring relatively little fundraising effort from the organisation compared to traditional models.

Every individual donor population is unique. In Dryden’s case, anonymous donors make small weekly donations on the order of $5. In the Ada Initiative’s case, we tend to have donors with high-paying technology jobs (or who own technology companies themselves) with generous bonuses, stock grants, and programs that match employee donations to non-profits. Kellie Brownell explains how we grew our individual donor base: “We adapted fundraising practices from individual major giving, for example, (1) thanking donors quickly, (2) asking what motivated them to give, and (3) reporting back later what we did with their money. Major giving practices are highly personal and aim to help donors grow in their understanding of an organization’s mission and why this mission matters to them. Once a fundraising team becomes good at doing both these things, you can develop this model further by giving donors opportunities to participate in the process.”

Relying on individual donors has downsides. Recruiting the initial slate of donors can take months of full-time work, and reminding them to give again takes more work (which is one reason why non-profits tend to prefer automatic recurring donations). Individual donors may also attempt to redirect the person or organization’s work towards less controversial programs. Dryden explains that the anonymity of her donors, which is not an option for most non-profit corporations, “removes the pressure to fit my message into what I think my larger funders would agree with, which protects the integrity of my work.”

Membership

A variant of individual donations is the membership model of funding, where funders pay membership fees instead of donating, and in return receive benefits from the organization such as access to private events, training or spaces. It often comes with input into the activist group’s governance, usually as the right to vote for or stand for the governing committee.

This model is most successful where activists are primarily working to provide ongoing benefits to a small group of people; for example, feminist hackerspaces (a.k.a., community workshops), which exist for the benefit of local women and others who are not welcomed in existing hackerspaces. Frances Hocutt, founding president of the Seattle Attic feminist hackerspace, says “We aim for members to fund the bulk of our operations because we want our community to be able to continue even if donations drop off. We are trying to build a community that is sustainable and can be self-supporting if need be.”

For organizations like the Ada Initiative, which aims to benefit a very large group of people and provide resources widely and freely, the membership model is less suitable as we have little additional benefit to offer members. Hocutt also observes that it is not ideal when activists are trying to benefit people who can’t afford membership fees: “We believe that ability to pay dues has nothing to do with a person’s ability to contribute to the creativity and energy of the Attic community, and we want to remove barriers that keep some of us from doing that.” Seattle Attic offers the ability for donors to donate memberships for people who can’t afford one, and a transport subsidy to members who don’t have access to transport.

Consulting and training

Counterintuitively, one way to raise money from donors without giving them undue influence is to provide consulting and training directly to them for a fee. This makes the terms of the relationship very clear; they receive a specific tangible benefit in return for their fee, rather than there being an unspoken expectation of a long term PR or recruiting boost.

In addition to her Gittip income, Ashe Dryden funds her work by consulting for corporations looking for help improving diversity in their organization. The Ada Initiative’s training programs include the Allies Workshop, which teaches men simple, everyday techniques to fight sexism in their workplace and open tech/culture communities. The Allies Workshop is a fairly challenging and confrontational program, as it teaches people to directly confront sexism and harassment without being transphobic, homophobic, racist, ablist, or classist. By offering it as a corporate training program on a voluntary attendance basis only, we attracted companies with employees who were ready to take personal action to support our existing strategy.

As with the membership model, providing consulting or training in return for a fee may compromise the ability of an organization to benefit the public.

“I would love a stronger earned income revenue stream, but our values of making it free to launch a Hollaback! in [any] community conflict with that,” reports Emily May, whose organization’s funding is primarily foundations (65%) and government (20%). In order to combat this effect, the Ada Initiative makes our training materials available publicly, and offers cheap and free spots at public training sessions, as well as offering training using the same materials to fee-paying clients.

Incorporation and funding

The Ada Initiative is incorporated as a 501(c)3 not-for-profit in the United States with tax-exempt status. This has some immense practical benefits in exempting us from corporate income taxes and allowing us to receive tax-deductible donations in the US.

Incorporating in some form — non-profit, B-corp, limited liability company, etc. — is not a requirement for funding diversity in tech work. We were astonished to discover how much money people would give us with the ink barely dry on our mail-order certificate of incorporation from the State of Delaware. In retrospect, we realized people were initially donating to Mary Gardiner and Valerie Aurora, not the Ada Initiative, Inc. In the tech sector, people are frequently willing to give hundreds or thousands of dollars to individuals as long as they personally trust the recipient, with or without the incentive of tax deductions or certification by some charity-related authority (e.g., the U.S. Internal Revenue Service).

The decision of whether or not to create a 501(c)3 requires weighing significant trade-offs. Preparing our application for tax-exempt status and then following various accounting and reporting rules to retain it take an astonishingly high proportion of our time — our 2012 taxation filing consumed approximately a month of staff time. In the U.S., non-profit incorporation is most suited to an organization that, like the Ada Initiative, intends to grow into a larger multi-person effort. We deliberately created an organization that would allow our projects to be continued by other activists if and when we burned out and move on to easier jobs (like writing operating systems software or leading a computational research lab).

To The Moon!

In 2010, Valerie described paying one activist to work on issues facing women in open technology and culture as a “moonshot”. In the short time since, so many activists have found that the work they do or the resources they need both should be paid for and can be paid for. The Ada Initiative, Black Girls Code, Seattle Attic, Double Union, Trans*H4ck, Lesbians Who Tech and others have joined older organizations such as the Anita Borg Institute and the Level Playing Field Institute. More are appearing every month. They are joined by community-funded individual activists such as Ashe Dryden and Lynn Cyrin.

Diversity in tech activists are using a wide variety of strategies: corporate sponsorship, yearly fundraising campaigns, monthly or even weekly small donors, foundation grants, conference sponsorships, and many more. The technology and culture around giving are changing so quickly that funding strategies that were completely impractical three years ago can now fund a full-time activist or an entire non-profit with several paid employees. Conventional fundraising experts, raised on a diet of buying email lists and snail mail appeals, are hard-pressed to keep up with these massive changes. We recommend that diversity in tech activists learn fundraising techniques from each other in addition to learning established fundraising best practices. In many ways, diversity in tech activists are outstripping received fundraising wisdom.

We can’t imagine what diversity in tech activism will look like in another four years, but we’d love to see reliance on corporate donations fall back to simply being one of many options for activists to consider. We hope that people who have benefited from the technology industry continue to give back by supporting diversity in tech activism, by joining diversity activist communities and by donating to individuals and organizations working towards a diverse and equitable tech workforce.

[Disclosure: former Model View Culture editor Amelia Greenhall and Valerie Aurora, one of the authors of this article, both serve on the board of Double Union in a volunteer capacity.]

Creative Commons License
The Ada Initiative founders on funding activism for women in open source by the Ada Initiative is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://adainitiative.org/2014/06/10/the-ada-initiative-founders-on-funding-activism-for-women-in-open-source-from-model-view-culture/.