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April 26, 2015

The success of an annual fundraising campaign is often dependent on reaching new and more supporters. Lewis University found an easy way to do this: crowdfunding.

The following article appears in the April/May 2015 issue of Athletic Management.

By Brian Sisson and Kathryn Risor-Heise

Brian Sisson is Associate Athletics Director/Director of External Relations and Kathryn Risor-Heise is Director of Annual Giving at Lewis University. Sisson can be reached at: [email protected] Risor-Heise can be reached at: [email protected]

According to recent metrics, the average 18-24 year old has just over 600 Facebook friends and 200 Twitter followers. We would bet that student-athletes tend to have even more.

Here at Lewis University, we have 400 student-athletes in our program. If you multiply that number by each of their friends and followers on social media, you get, well, a really big crowd. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of individuals.

What if you could tap into all those people from a fundraising perspective? Could raising new dollars be more efficient and effective by entering student-athletes’ social media worlds?

That’s the idea behind crowdfunding, which we recently employed for a fundraising campaign at Lewis with great results. In just over eight weeks, our inaugural Flyer Friends and Family Campaign netted our athletic programs nearly $50,000.

Crowdfunding is best known for its ability to raise dollars for new initiatives, from technological advances to independent films. But the concept can work for any type of fundraising. It simply uses the Internet and the power of social media to reach large numbers of people.

The tricks to making crowdfunding work in athletics are to get buy-in from everyone involved and employ tools that make it very easy for friends to donate. From there, we found that the campaign ran itself. It was especially effective at uncovering new donors, and a nice bonus was that it generated a buzz among our student-athletes.

Discussion & Strategy

Like many other NCAA Division II schools, Lewis has traditionally employed an annual fundraising campaign using direct mail. We would send out solicitation letters to current and potential donors, asking our student-athletes to supply us with the names of friends and family.

But after some staffing changes in the summer of 2014, which led to a more collaborative relationship between athletics and university advancement, we started thinking about new ideas for our annual campaign. The Lewis Advancement Team came up with the idea of crowdfunding for athletics to complement the existing direct mail strategy.

The more we thought about it, the better it sounded. Our fundraising message could be passed along from network to network—from parent to family to co-workers, as well as to former coaches and hometown supporters.

We also realized that some coaches have just as many friends on social media as our student-athletes, and crowdfunding could easily reach these folks. At the same time, if social media was not a coach’s forte, they could simply send an e-mail to their contacts.

To start, the two of us met with Athletic Director John Planek to develop a plan to engage our coaches, staff, and student-athletes in the crowdfunding process. With any new initiative, the biggest roadblock can be fear of the unfamiliar, so we wanted to carefully explain the project and gather feedback before putting it in place.

Through staff and team meetings, we thoroughly described how the process would work. We would not be asking coaches to learn any new social media tricks or go outside their comfort zones. And the time commitment for coaches and student-athletes would be much less than what is typically needed for a traditional fundraiser. Their role was very simple: Post a personal message to your network asking for support and include a link to our campaign Web page. After seeing how easy this was, both coaches and student-athletes were excited about the idea.

From there, we researched tools to help us with the project. We used the Blackbaud product, TeamRaiser, which provides the structure to design, manage, and accept payment for crowdfunding pages. And we partnered with Cathexis for design and layout support. Constructing the Web pages took six weeks and involved the Annual Giving Team as well as the Advancement Services Team. The athletic department provided photos, player bios, and team information to populate the pages, much of which was pulled from our athletics website.

The campaign went live at the end of October and ran through Dec. 31. It overlapped with our university-wide phon-a-thon and year-end appeals, but we felt this would not be negative, as the crowdfunding was mainly focused on new prospects and not current donors.

Capturing the Crowd

One big difference between using crowdfunding and a traditional letter-writing campaign is in where you put your up-front efforts. Instead of spending time on a well-crafted solicitation letter, work is put into the Web pages. For our campaign, we decided on a design with three layers.

The initial layer was a landing page that explained our fundraising purpose and included sections for each of our athletic teams. Team sections contained a photo, a meter indicating the squad’s progress toward its goal, and a link to the team’s page. The second layer held team pages, consisting of a complete roster and team highlights. The names on the roster linked to individual player pages, which was the third level. These pages had the athlete’s photo, a personal message, and their athletic achievements.

At both the team layer and individual player pages, a site visitor could click on a “give now” button and easily make a donation. Donors then appeared on both the team honor roll and individual player’s honor roll or could be listed as “anonymous.”

To ensure the campaign could easily spread, we used AddThis. The free tool allowed viewers on any page to immediately share with friends on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, as well as a number of other social media platforms.

While TeamRaiser enables participants to personalize their pages, we didn’t want to overburden our coaches and athletes the first year. So we pre-populated pages for our teams, but still offered everyone the option to customize their spaces.

Along with student-athletes promoting the campaign through their social media accounts, we publicized the fundraiser to the masses, targeting our athletic fan base and the Lewis community. We placed an initial press release and story on our athletic, university, alumni, and advancement websites. Throughout the eight weeks, we then posted consistent messages on all of our team Facebook and Twitter pages, along with those of the university. We had periodic splash pages on our website and targeted messages to the Lewis faculty and staff, the student body, and parents of our student-athletes.

Updates on the progress of the campaign were continually sent to our student-athletes, coaches, and parents. In fact, the site was set up so that our coaches could immediately see every gift their team received via an e-mail. Using the meters next to team pages worked well—as teams saw the support coming through, it made them want to spread news of the campaign even more.

Although we refocused our efforts, we did not abandon our letter writing campaign completely. The crowdfunding site accounted for roughly 82 percent of gifts, but we still see the letters as a great complementary tool.

As with any fundraiser, the power of “thank you” is paramount. An initial thank-you email was sent to each donor from the coach, along with a university advancement letter and a note from the athletic department. We also put together a short thank you video that was posted on our athletic and university websites and sent as an e-mail to all of our donors.

Future Forays

We are extremely pleased with the results from this first campaign. We found that crowdfunding enabled us to reach potential donors far better than any phon-a-thon or golf outing. It was also great to hear from coaches on how this was the easiest method they have ever experienced in raising money for their programs.

Now that coaches and student-athletes realize the effectiveness of crowdfunding, our hope is that they will take greater ownership of their personal pages. We would like them to add more personal content, and the TeamRaiser system makes this very easy to do.

Going forward, we plan to establish a crowdfunding campaign as a yearly event. To continue to make it effective, we’ll need to keep on top of the evolving social media trends and be creative and innovative. With a year under our belt, we feel we are on the right path to increasing the success this can yield in the future.






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