What You Can Learn From Lilly
(or, how Individuals are better than Nonprofits at Fundraising)

A few years back we were interviewing candidates for an Executive Director position (yes, we do that too) and broached the subject of fundraising. This was the seemingly innocuous question: “How would you increase our individual fundraising efforts?”  The answers offered by candidates pretty much mirrored the requests we still get from agencies on a daily basis:
“ I would improve the website!’
“ I would start up a facebook or twitter account”
“ I would get celebrities to endorse us”
“ I would get more press”

All of these answers convey a basic misunderstanding about fundraising. There is an overwhelming desire, both within the industry and from constituents, to treat nonprofit fundraising a little like the "Field of Dreams."  And while Kevin Costner probably would be a draw, we’re sorry to tell you: if you build it – they still may not come. Connecting with donors on an INDIVIDUAL level takes building trust, rapport and a long-term relationship. It’s a reciprocal relationship. It’s one you’re not going to fake with a shiny website, a celebrity endorsement or a press release. And individuals are doing it BETTER than we are as nonprofits.

Lately we’ve seen a huge upsurge in individual fundraising, and we’re not just talking about crowdsourcing and kickstarter, we’re talking about individuals with Facebook pages. Ever heard of Lilly Bumpus? Thanks to a particularly well-managed Facebook and Instagram account, this little cancer fighter survivor has 31,000 likes (more “likes” than all of Los Angeles Homeless Service Agencies – COMBINED.) Kind-hearted etsy shops set up impromptu online auctions with donated items, individuals buy TEAM LILLY shirts, and followers stay tethered to her mom’s frequent updates. But Lilly is just one (adorable) small person. What is it that draws individuals to give their support so wholly when nonprofits struggle with reaching the same audience?

1. Passion

Lilly’s fans are passionate about Lilly. Shocking, right? But Lilly’s message evokes passion, does yours? If your fundraising messaging is dispassionate and disconnected, don’t be surprised at a dispassionate response from constituents. Fundraisers that do well, be they individual or nonprofit driven, are PASSIONATE about the cause for which they are garnering support. Are you conveying heart and enthusiasm about your mission? Donors identify with the passion that you put forward.

 2. Transparency

Give $25 to Lilly’s family and a donor can be fairly confident that their money in one way or another directly benefits Lilly. Be it through parking fees at the hospital, an electric bill to keep the lights on, or a dinner for a stressed out mom and dad, donors are confident that their donation can DIRECTLY benefit Lilly because their costs are understandable. Not only that, but the site administrator is posting daily pictures of the goings on in Lilly’s life. How transparent are your financials, programs and practices? Do your giving levels actually reflect your mission?

3. The Story

Lilly’s 31k facebook followers can count on daily updates and pictures. A collective cheer could almost be felt on Facebook when the team announced excellent test results on August 24th. Do you involve your donors in the ongoing story and remind them of their impact? For instance, if donors fundraise $3,000 for a transmission replacement, do you update them once its done? Are you highlighting your recent successes?

4. Trust

Transparency and camaraderie build trust. Trust that donations are used with discretion, trust that the dialogue is going to remain the same. Lilly’s 5 page moderators work in tandem to make sure that the tone and dialogue on the page remains consistent and focused. No where is there suddenly a rant about Miley’s performance on the MTV awards or frustration over local traffic. It’s all Lilly, all the time. Don’t violate trust by straying off-topic. Can your donors trust you to keep them informed without straying off-topic?

5. Grassroots Supporters

Lilly’s followers evangelize other followers in a more meaningful way than direct mail or even running that 5k could ever hope to do. Because they are part of the story, Lilly’s followers share Lilly’s hopes and triumphs, reaching out to their own personal networks for support. That grassroots support network then links back to the original source (Lilly) and helps donors learn more about her story to become supporters in their own right. There is no substitute for this personal connection. You can’t fake it or manufacture it. Only by being honest, transparent and consistent in your story, your messaging and your dialogue can you hope to inspire those to inspire others and become part of your movement.

To learn more about Lilly or offer your support, click here. All images and references used with permission.


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