Kickstarter may be best known for launching flashy tech and home gadgets, but the platform can also be an effective place to raise money and awareness for nonprofits, says Isabel Sheinman.
She should know. In 2013, Sheinman was hired by Library for All, a cloud-based library accessed by students in Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to run the nonprofit’s Kickstarter campaign. At the time, Library for All was still an idea; in order to progress beyond that, the small founding team needed funds for a research trip to Haiti that would inform the layout for the initial version of the digital library. At $100,000, the Kickstarter goal was ambitious, but crowdfunding allowed the nascent project “to build a community while also raising funding,” says Sheinman.
The work was hard and there was more of it than she had anticipated. Library for All exceeded its campaign goal by nearly $10,000, but getting to that final figure required non-stop perspiration. The effort paid off, though. Today, Library for All has raised more than $500,000 and its cloud-based library contains more than 1,700 titles.
For other nonprofits looking to go the Kickstarter route, Sheinman has these tips to offer.
1. Use the platform to build a community
Yes, Kickstarter is a good place to raise money, but the platform’s real value lies in its ability to create a community. Altogether, more than 750 individuals donated to the platform, many of whom are still actively involved with the project. Kickstarter provided a way to spread the word and create a group of engaged supporters. “We would not have gotten to where we were if we had just gone to a single investor to raise that money,” Sheinman says. “The campaign was so much more than just the money that came from it.”
2. Start with close connections
As with most ventures, Library for All’s support system began with the founding team’s friends and family. To rally initial interest and awareness, “I would advise that people lean into their personal network and make those people feel like they are just as much part of it as you are.” To generate buzz for Library for All, Sheinman kicked off the campaign with a ‘Friendstarter.’ “We brought everyone into a room, and told them: ‘You are our people. We need you to help make this work,’” Sheinman says. After that night, she noticed an uptick in pledges as the team’s friends and family involved their own friends and family. “That’s how a web starts to form.”
3. Personalize the message
Unlike the plethora of flashy gadgets on Kickstarter, nonprofits don’t typically have a tangible, easy to conceptualize product. That was particularly true for Library for All – “we’re building a library in the cloud,” says Sheinman – and so in order for the message to resonate, Sheinman made it as personal as possible. She organized a mini-campaign within the broader Kickstarter campaign titled 10x10x10, in which each member of the founding team created a video explaining why the project was important to her personally, and then challenged 10 contacts to donate $10 over the course of 10 days.
In Library for All founder Rebecca McDonald’s video, she talks about how, as a relief worker living in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, she visited schools with fewer than 30 damaged books between hundreds of students. “Just telling those stories became such an incredibly powerful tool for us,” Sheinman says.
4. Take the fundraising offline
For much of the 46-day campaign, Sheinman’s central role was acting as an event planner since a large percentage of the fundraising effort took place offline. In addition to the ‘Friendstarter,’ Sheinman organized a gathering of 50 people at New York City’s Soho House, as well as a larger, open-bar happy hour for younger, working professionals who expressed interest in the project: “We tried to get in a room with as many people as we could in order to share our vision.” After each event, Sheinman would direct attendees to Library for All’s Kickstarter page. It was a successful strategy -- a large percentage of pledges originated from in-person events, she says.
5. Go beyond Kickstarter
The Kickstarter campaign may have successfully funded on July 13, 2013, but Sheinman’s efforts to continue to build a community around Library for All didn’t end there. Since then, she’s built an ongoing volunteer program, where school children as well as adults can sign-up to be ambassadors for the nonprofit. Activities range from bake sales (for younger ambassadors) to monthly meetups and progress reports (for the adults). Sheinman also hosts regular ‘Jeffersonian dinners,’ in which she invites “a small group of curated people” to sit around a table and, over good food and wine, engage in a conversation, moderated by a Library for All team member. The idea, Sheinman explains, comes from Thomas Jefferson, who used to invite fascinating people to his table to discuss the politics of the day, barring all cross table communication in favor of one cohesive discussion. “The night turns into conversations about literacy, favorite childhood books, new ideas, all sorts of things,” says Sheinman. “It’s an event that resonates with people and allows them to feel drawn in.”
At these dinners, there is never a direct ask for donations. Instead, says Sheinman, “it’s really about cultivation, so when we do have fundraising events, we have a list of people who understand what we do and will show up for what we do.”