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Use social media creatively to raise more money

The May 2016 issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy highlights "the best of online fundraising." In this article, authors Heather Joslyn, Eden Stiffman and Timothy Sandoval challenge us to think expansively and creatively about how we can use social media to raise more money.

by Heather Joslyn, Eden Stiffman and Timothy Sandoval

Best Viral Event: DonorsChoose

DonorsChoose, a crowdfunding site that raises money for public-school teachers’ classroom needs, added the phrase "flash fund" to the charity lexicon a year ago. That’s when board member and comedian Stephen Colbert pledged to pick up the tab for all projects posted on the website by teachers from his home state of South Carolina — about 1,000 altogether, totaling $800,000.

This year, Mr. Colbert’s gesture inspired an even flashier idea: On March 10, more than 50 Hollywood celebrities, sports stars, and business moguls followed his lead and committed more than $14 million to cover DonorsChoose projects in a state, city, or urban neighborhood of their choice. Among the participants: actor Samuel L. Jackson, tennis star Serena Williams, and Bill and Melinda Gates.

DonorsChoose spent nine months planning this blockbuster sequel to Mr. Colbert’s solo effort and turned it into virtual event, #BestSchoolDay. On the big day, #BestSchoolDay was Twitter’s No. 1 trending topic for seven hours, according to Katie Bisbee, the charity’s chief marketing officer; the next day, it was No. 1 on Facebook.

Best of all, #BestSchoolDay sparked more giving, just as the charity had hoped, with the public kicking in $2 million. Just 48 hours after the event launched, DonorsChoose had acquired nearly 10,000 new donors — a fundraising success "beyond our wildest imagination," Ms. Bisbee says.

Best Strategy: The Humane Society

In the competition for support online, the Humane Society of the United States plays rough. Kittens. Puppies. Bunnies. Refresh and repeat.

It’s not just an unfair surplus of cute that has helped the animal-welfare charity gain nearly 100,000 Instagram and 271,000 Twitter followers and more than 2.4 million Facebook likes. The organization tests posts and appeals to see what gets traction, says Carie Lewis Carlson, social-marketing director. It also sticks to a formal social-media strategy for furthering fundraising and advocacy goals, she says, despite internal pressures to stray. "A lot of nonprofits really struggle with requests that come from development or programs: ‘Push this out on social media!’ And they do, and then they don’t get the results they’re looking for."

Above all, Ms. Carlson says, the Humane Society’s social media focuses on the person scrolling through his or her news feed, rather than "just talking about all the great things the organization is doing. We find that sweet spot between what they’re interested in and what we’re working on."

The strategy helps the 62-year-old charity raise 10 percent of its donations online. On Giving Tuesday, the Humane Society reeled in about $200,000, or twice its goal.

Best Instagram: Innocence Project

A photo of a man sitting at a restaurant may seem boring for Instagram, but one commenter wrote: "Wow ... this photo made me cry. ... God Bless Him!"

Why such emotion? The man, it turns out, is a newly released prison inmate waiting for his first restaurant meal after serving 25 years for a crime he did not commit.

Such are the photos and videos found on the Innocence Project’s Instagram page. Other charities have much larger Instagram audiences than this page’s 9,100 followers, but the nonprofit, a legal clinic that uses DNA testing to help fight wrongful convictions, has seen big growth since it started posting more regularly, with a roughly 58 percent increase since October. Alicia Maule, digital-communications manager, said the Innocence Project tries to post at least once a day, including weekends.

Many of its photos and videos feature people that the organization helped free, spotlighting joyful reunions with family and the like. "People love the photos," she said. "They’re real, most of them are not posed, and they speak for themselves."

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