Social media and high-tech tools boost nonprofit fundraising

Social media campaigns and high-tech communication tools increasingly are becoming indispensable for fundraising in the nonprofit sector.

To Ellen Gilligan, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, social media – and technology – is “a phenomenon” transforming the opportunity for people to make a difference.

“I think the role of technology is really just beginning and being tapped into, and you can see it from the political sphere and political campaigns to venture capital for startups to nonprofit fundraising,” Gilligan said.

Gilligan’s team at the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, a philanthropic funding engine serving Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington Counties, leveraged the use of social media and digital media in March to facilitate the second annual Match Day, a 24-hour fundraising frenzy that resulted in $2.8 million in total giving.

The donated dollars were distributed among 21 area nonprofits focused on providing basic needs to underserved and underprivileged residents – nonprofits like Milwaukee Rescue Mission, Food Pantry of Waukesha County, and Repairers of the Breach. The $2.8 million included a separate $400,000 investment from a basic needs fund the Greater Milwaukee Foundation established in 2008 following the economic downturn, but the remainder of the funds came from donors and sponsors participating in 2013’s Match Day.

The online-based event was anchored by a website,, where interested donors could submit minimum gifts of $10 and select which organizations they wanted their contributions to benefit. They also had the option of donating directly to the foundation’s basic needs fund.

“These online giving events provide the opportunity for people to give smaller donations but still make a huge impact on the organizations receiving them, and it also is an opportunity for the organizations to really spread their donor base,” Gilligan said.

A $750,000 pool of funding, made possible by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, the Brewers Community Foundation, the United Way of Greater Milwaukee, and the Faye McBeath Foundation, proportionately matched individuals’ contributions to maximize the impact of their generosity.

Of this year’s more than 5,000 unique donors, 29 percent were brand new donors, according to the Greater Milwaukee Foundation.

“So it’s a really unique way for these organizations to diversify their funding base and to help them educate the public and their donors about the critical services that they’re providing in the community,” Gilligan said.

These types of online giving events are becoming more popular among community foundations across the country because of their ability to raise the visibility of individual nonprofits to a range of potential donors, according to Gilligan.

An integral part of this increased visibility involves using far-reaching social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter.

After the Greater Milwaukee Foundation promoted Match Day through social media in 2012, its Facebook followers jumped from 85 to 305 while its Twitter follows grew from 153 to 235. Today, the organization has surpassed 900 Facebook followers and 800 Twitter followers.

“I think (social media has) helped people learn things about us that they ordinarily wouldn’t know,” said Becca Mader, senior communications specialist for the Greater Milwaukee Foundation.

Building personal attachments

Matt Brown, MKE123 coordinator at the Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee, coaches area nonprofit organizations in navigating the circus of social media to connect with those who don’t know – and others who do – about their organization and mission.

Through social media workshops and one-on-one training, Brown teaches nonprofit leaders the art of crafting personal relationships with individuals – what he describes as the goal of all social media.

“What social media offers is the ability for nonprofits to build that personal attachment with a much larger group and a broader spectrum of individuals,” Brown said. “And once you’ve built that personal attachment, people will be much more receptive to the ask (of donations) of the organization.”

While Brown insists that nonprofit organizations still need to take measures to accommodate people who prefer traditional mailings and phone calls, he predicts that social media will become the most advantageous way for reaching potential donors in the future.

“Especially in a time when organizations are becoming more and more strapped for resources, social media is a way to reach out to a very broad group of people, a very large group of people, and to really make a personal relationship with them,” Brown said.

The power of crowd funding

Using an online resource called, which operates in the same social media family as sites like Facebook and Twitter, Milwaukee-based nonprofit organization Optimist Theatre garnered the financial support of more than 200 individual donors to fund free, outdoor, community-oriented Shakespeare performances.

After receiving a $20,000 challenge grant from BMO Harris Bank last December, Kickstarter became one of the organization’s primary fundraising vehicles to drive the additional $20,000 it needed to generate in order to secure the bank’s grant.

Kickstarter markets itself as “the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects” and allows anyone with a feasible creative idea to access crowd funding.

The catch? Pilots of projects must meet their fundraising goals to receive any of their supporters’ dollars.

Optimist Theatre, which set out to raise $11,600 from Feb. 1 through Feb. 28, surpassed its goal with contributions exceeding $12,800. To thank individual donors, the organization attached rewards to dollar amounts, thanking donors on the lower end through Facebook and others with memorabilia as well as opportunities to sponsor specific characters in their plays.

The sense of urgency tied to raising the critical $20,000 was a significant factor in compelling people to donate, said Susan Scot Fry, managing director of Optimist Theatre.

Kickstarter is a wonderful rallying platform, Scot Fry said, but it’s not a particularly effective platform for general fundraising initiatives as the site has become more and more crowded with pleas for project funding.

“Unless you’ve got something super special, it’s hard to stick out now because everyone has jumped on the bandwagon,” Scot Fry said.

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