Grassroots or peer-to-peer fundraising can be a powerful tool for nonprofit organizations, especially when working with individuals who have or host a large engaged community online. Let’s walk through a case study of a massively successful peer-to-peer fundraising campaign to see how it works and how we might be able to replicate it at our own organizations.
You may find more complex definitions of peer-to-peer fundraising elsewhere, but for our purposes let’s just consider it any instance where an individual is fundraising for your organization through their own personal network. Usually, that individual will have a stated fundraising goal and will share that goal, and their purposes for fundraising for this specific cause, online. Often, peer-to-peer “campaigns” will be initiated by a nonprofit organization to facilitate multiple individuals running their own fundraising campaigns through their own networks, but for the purposes of learning today, it really doesn’t matter whether it’s a single fundraiser or dozens and whether the nonprofit initiates the campaign or the individual fundraising. Ok, let’s dive in!
The fundraising case study we are going to look at today involves @SharonSaysSo, an Instagram account led by Sharon McMahon, a former high school government teacher, and RIP Medical Debt, a 501c3 nonprofit. (Full disclosure, I was in no way professionally connected to this campaign, but recently followed Sharon personally and have found her informative, helpful, and hilarious. When I watched the fundraiser unfold, I just knew it was a perfect case study for the Banyan audience.)
This fundraising case study revolves around an “online community” on Instagram. Sharon McMahon, who manages the @SharonSaysSo account, was a high school government teacher for many years and now educates people about US history and our government online, largely through Instagram. She offers unbiased facts about our governmental processes and has built up a community of more than 500,000 people.
RIP Medical Debt is a 501c3 nonprofit that “empowers donors to forgive billions in oppressive medical debt.” Founded in 2014 by two former debt collection executives, the organization buys debt and forgives the loans, freeing families and individuals from the debt they have incurred for their health. Because the organization purchases debt in such large quantities, every dollar donated is able to eradicate roughly $100 in medical debt.
Recently, Sharon selected RIP Medical Debt for a fundraiser with a stated goal of raising $20,000. She simply put this out on her Instagram account, linked the donation page on her account, and explained a bit about why she felt this cause was important to support.
Within the first four hours, the community had more than doubled the $20,000 goal and raised more than $44,000.
Within the first 24 hours, the community had raised more than $285,000.
By the end of the weeklong campaign, the community had raised a total of $566,787. With RIP’s model of purchasing debt, that will forgive approximately 56 million dollars worth of debt.
Now – before you get nervous and say, “Okay, Bonnie… there is no way on earth I am ever going to raise $566,000 with an online peer-to-peer campaign…”, recognize that that is not the (only) purpose here! The true benefit of peer-led fundraising campaigns goes far beyond the dollars raised. BUT, since we are all about fundraising effectiveness here at Banyan, there ARE specific things you can do now to prepare your organization for success if this type of opportunity comes along in the future.
(Note here: while her ~500,000 followers would certainly be a DREAM to get your mission in front of, that does not have to be (and honestly, shouldn’t be) the goal. What about local business owners with a small but engaged community/client base? Or individuals with their everyday networks? Again, the overall dollar amount of a campaign like this does not have to be large to be successful!)
Sharon has also shared with her online community the story of her husband’s need for a kidney transplant. We can guess that, whether their family may have dealt with medical debt or not, the personal experience of such a large medical financial concern likely helped Sharon to see that RIP Medical Debt’s purpose and mission was one she felt a personal connection to. Additionally, the idea of eradicating medical debt is one that connects with Sharon’s followers, who may not agree politically on much, but they do agree strongly on the basic premise of humanity and connecting with and helping others. Both of these facets made RIP Medical Debt a natural fit for Sharon’s platform.
For the entire week-long campaign, Sharon shared openly how the success of the campaign was positively affecting her. She jokingly shared that her kids were annoyed at her for “crying on the internet” all week long. The openness, authenticity, and connection she felt to the campaign, the donors supporting the cause, and the individuals and families who would benefit from their medical debt being forgiven was real, raw, and unfiltered.
Whatever your goal, the key to success with peer-led fundraising efforts is being prepared when the opportunity comes along! Taking the time now to define the process and ensure your infrastructure is prepared, coupled with inviting those interested in leading campaigns to know that it is an option you welcome, will bode well for these opportunities for your organization in the future.
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