By Rabbi Todd Berman
We set a modest goal of $150,000 and crushed it raising $230,000. This enabled us to also receive another $450,000 in matching funds. Many friends and colleagues have turned to me asking how we did it. There are many articles on how to run a crowdfunding program from nuts to bolts available on the internet. I don’t want to recreate the wheel; however, there are specific elements which helped us reach and pass our mark. I hope that by describing some of the process, I can help other nonprofits succeed in this newish but quickly becoming ubiquitous method of raising funds.
Feeling stalled in our fundraising achievements, we had decided to jumpstart our efforts by engaging in a crowdfunding campaign. Having taken on the primary fundraising responsibility at our yeshiva for the past 6 years, I have had success running money making dinners and parlor meetings, but an online crowdfunding campaign was a completely new and daunting project. We approached some of our major donors for potential matching funds, picked a date, and started brainstorming. It became apparent that we needed more experienced minds to help us move our program forward.
Item 1: consult with people who know what they are doing who will infect you with confidence.
Earlier in the year we had hired a consultant. The consultant had recently come out of retirement from a successful fundraising career. One of the great advantages of dealing with an older, seasoned professional is their keen intuition and understanding of the playing field. Experience can be worth its weight in gold. Unfortunately, this former retiree did not have his head entirely in the game. We quickly ended our partnership.
I made the executive decision to find another firm. We approached RAISE Nonprofit Advisors led by Rachel Cyrulnik. The overarching goal was a 6 month project of coaching and data analysis aimed at creating a strategic plan for the next 3 to 5 years; such a plan is something we need badly. Yet, I pushed to hire them especially given the daunting prospect of running a crowdsourcing campaign. What is clear is fundraising today requires knowledge of modern techniques and technology. As more and more young people are involved in philanthropy, facility with the wide and constantly evolving range of social media is critical. This is especially true regarding crowdsourcing. Our previous consultant had no experience in social media campaigns. The new group both had such experience and were interested in professionalizing our approach. This gave me confidence that it could work. That emotion should not be underestimated when large sums are at risk.
Item 2: Give yourself 4 to 6 months to plan. Treat it like a dinner without the catering costs.
The first thing the RAISE team did was explain that our date was far too early. We needed over four months to prepare. Picking a date became complicated due to the Jewish calendar so full of holidays both religious and as we are Israeli, nationalist. We delayed the project end date by almost 3 additional months to give us proper preparation time.
Item 3: Honestly and critically review your potential pool of donors and their capacity to set a realistic and achievable goal.
Second, they analyzed our data. I can’t express how important this step was. We picked an almost random number based on internal needs and factors. They suggested that our goal was far too hopeful. Better to aim low and beat expectations than aim high with an almost guarantee of failure. In the end, seeing that we were thoughtful I believe energized volunteers and donors. We chose to aim for $150,000 with matching donors promising to give another $450,000 in matching funds.
Item 4: Make the message clear.
The third critical piece which RAISE helped with was messaging. Realizing that we could only aim to raise $150,000, lowering the matchers expectations was also important. Once they agreed, we had a plan to crowdfund for $150,000 in 24 hours to receive another $450,000 in matching grants. I can’t tell you how many times the description of the match was debated: 3x or quadruple etc. We also, needed to be explicit why we needed this funding. Given that scholarship grants represent a large item in our budget, we focused on that. Finally, we created a text which was as clear as possible.
Item 5: Have a realistic and demanding, but slightly flexible, timeline and get things done on time.
Raise also created a timeline for each piece. Like some others, I am not the best at managing my time. Having a team on your back pushing with dates by which each piece from the online platform, the Facebook page, the communications with volunteers, and the pre-game solicitations (we’ll get to that) need to be done was the most important part for me. Having everything on a calendar moved it along. By the way, we never really finalized the date for our P.R. materials until close to the end. We left ourselves wiggle room incase elements were delayed. Some flexibility also helped. I also have the benefit wonderful office staff who are good at pushing.
Item 6: Find A Crowdfunding platform which is easy to use, inexpensive, and about which you feel morally comfortable using.
Choosing an online platform which is attractive, easy, but also cost-efficient helps. I have the advantage of being technologically savvy. In addition to Fundraising and teaching, I know web design and have built and manage our database system. I usually choose open-source software when I can and have a strong background in coding. I researched at least 10 crowdfunding platforms, tested 4 including one I built myself, and chose Chuffed.org. There is a myriad of crowdfunding sites each with hidden or not so hidden costs. Each has advantages and disadvantages and every individual needs to be comfortable with the platform. Some charge extremely high percentages of the funds raised up to and including slices out of the matching grants. Other platforms offer better prices but demand that the organization supply donors’ personal information. One really needs to read the fine print. I found that Chuffed had everything I thought we needed. Not perfect. But good enough and inexpensive.
Item 7: Get others involved on a personal Level.
Getting people on board was the next step. Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi has been around 14 years. We have alumni and their parents residing in around 10 countries. We are blessed that a number of alumni across the world got on board. We had groups in Australia, Israel, England, and the United States working on the project. Our largest alumni group is in the U.S. and our alumni association is headed by an energetic and capable person. The amount of experience, excitement, and energy these guys brought to the table was incredible. We had meetings both in person and online using social media and in the end together making phone calls on the day.
I had planned, for personal reasons, to be in Israel on the day of the event. Although our biggest push would be in the U.S., we also had plenty to do in Israel. The U.S. Alumni board asked me to come to New York for the event. I am glad I did. I can’t even describe the emotion I had communicating with those in other countries and working with those in the New York calling station. Alumni even volunteered their office space and others bought food and drinks. I was overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude and awe. It was emotional.
In addition to our alumni, a critical component was empowering the faculty of the yeshiva to get involved. Every faculty member contacted people. Even those who generally eschew anything to do with fundraising pitched in. I once heard that “Fundraising is really Friend raising.” I witnessed this in action. The friend component played a major role in getting donors involved.
Chuffed has the advantage of allowing personal fundraising pages for anyone who wants a “child page” to the main one. We created “In Honor Of” pages and faculty asked their friends and relatives to donate in their honor. Also, friends, former students, and family members asked that people donate in honor of certain beloved teachers.
Choosing who should reach out to whom focused our energies and maximized our impact.
The personal touch was probably the most important element once the actual day arrived. Donors told me that receiving a personal phone call or letter from an alumnus or from a faculty member made a huge difference in their minds.
Item 8: Pregaming is the hidden secret to a successful campaign.
Asking for pledges before the event was an element I originally didn’t know about. Before the RAISE team explained how things worked, I was clueless. My background is in Talmud and Computers not running campaigns. But the reality is that these campaigns do not happen overnight. The pre-planning includes asking for pledges weeks before the event. I flew in to the various countries and groups of us were communicating via email and other channels months before the event asking for pledges. We asked people to pledge new donations and prior donors to increase their standing pledges. Of the $150,000 we were hoping to raise, we had 75% in pledges at least a week before the event. That means that by the time the day arrived, we knew we would wouldn’t need much to make it.
This is also where the prior mentioned flexibility came in to play. Michal Frankel, RAISE’s Director of Strategic Development, suggested that we hold off on completing our P.R. pieces until close to the date. That way we could establish the highest possible, reasonable goal. It was good advice; however, waiting to calculate that financial goal on the one hand and ensuring that our graphic design pieces were ready created a bit of tension and anxiety. But it worked perfectly.
Item 9: Prepare everything in advance as much as you can.
Prepare everything in advance as much as you can. RAISE, my secretary, our alumni, and even the people behind Chuffed helped push us to get graphics, texts of emails, contact lists, social media pieces, script to read over the phone and to post on social media, and as many elements as possible ready before the big day. The value of preparation cannot be under estimated. On the day, my nerves were exploding. The event started in the U.S. and Israel on Tuesday, but for technical reasons calls were made in England and Australia on Sunday before the U.S. date. A week earlier, we had sent out our first batch of email blasts, Facebook posts, and Instagram posts as well as had people circulate the announcements on WhatsApp. Had I been writing copy on the fly on the day of the phone calls, I probably would not have survived the day with my wits intact. We even had a few versions of posters/emails/posts to go out depending on how things progressed. We have tight updates of Google Spreadsheets to keep up with offline donations and pledges in various countries in real time. Proper preparation made the day go smoothly and prevented any meltdowns along the way.
Crowdfunding has become a powerful tool in raising funds for nonprofits. It’s more cost effective than running dinners or parlor meetings and in certain ways shares the potential to create a sense of purpose and cohesion between the professionals and volunteers. And it can be both financially successful and really fun if prepared for properly. To be honest, the entire process was electrifying. I don’t think I have ever experienced anything quite like it.
Rabbi Todd Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLIC) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum.