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.


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.

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