What Nonprofits Can Learn from Kickstarter


Nonprofit online fundraising lacks good follow-up. Some nonprofits like charity: water are fantastic with their post donation experience, including thank yous, reporting results, and continued community cultivation. But in general, most nonprofits that participate in giving days or host their own larger online fundraising events fail to deliver in their post donation experience.

Ironically, or perhaps to no surprise, Kickstarter — the standard used in for-profit online fundraising — provides a more rigorous customer-centric solution. The platform requires certain amounts of interaction and follow-up after a pledge has been made. Success demands that businesses and individuals fulfill their commitments with updates, surveys, and of course, product delivery.

Focusing on the Wrong Things

A charity: water drilling success.

Nonprofits know donors are important. They could not exist without them. Yet most fundraisers are designed to get donations and achieve a dollar goal, as opposed to cultivating relationships with donors who also care about what the nonprofit is trying to achieve. That monetary focus creates the motive for failing to achieve a great post-donation experience.

Even the vaunted Knight Foundation Giving Day Playbook in its follow up section encourages community foundations to analyze the data so they can learn, and grow a bigger giving day (whatever their foundation-centric goal is). Umm, what about interacting with donors after they give? What is the community experience, Knight Foundation?

The biggest problem with the Knight Foundation’s playbook is that it completely focuses on galvanizing a community to raise money (or grow an community foundation’s fund, or…) by activating nonprofits, leveraging partnerships with media and the like, and mass communications. It ignores the donor experience. That would be like the NFL focusing solely on teams and media partners, and completely ignoring the fan experience. Huge mistake. But that is another post for a different day.

As Avinash Kaushik, Google Analytics wizard and product marketing evangelist, says “Suck Less” by focusing on the user (e.g. donor) experience as your primary driver and not data points. Nonprofits have to look at donors small or large as investors. Just like a Kickstarter, people give money for something: To affect change, support a friend, and/or to feel better about a problem.

When a nonprofit fundraises, it is to achieve something. That is the shared value, the goal that all parties want to see.

The customer wants to see and possibly participate in the achievement of that goal, or at least the attempt to get there. Getting back to charity: water, one of my favorite case studies features the nonprofit failing to drill a well in 2010. It was something investors experienced with the brand, and they responded well when the failure occurred. Founder Scott Harrison said at that time, “Perhaps people wanted to see us fail. Perhaps it was a triumph for the cynics and apathetics. But I don’t think so. I think people just want to know the truth.”

Investors want to be communicated with. They want to know what is going on, and they understand that the journey has bumps in it. Communicate with them. Which brings us to the lessons nonprofits can learn from Kickstarter.

Lessons from Kickstarter

An image from my personal trial Kickstarter for a book, Cuba: Seven in 10.

There are many aspects of the Kickstarter platform that are worth experiencing. From prompts to updates to how to structure a fundraiser and promote it for success, nonprofits can leverage a lot for their own efforts. It’s worth setting up a small personal fundraiser just to experience it. That being said, the three big Kickstarter takeaways for a nonprofit post-event experience include, communicate often and frequently, fulfill your commitments, and make it engaging.


Kickstarters require frequent updates. Successful campaigners communicate often, as they deliver not only the product, but also offer a level of transparency into their efforts. That is true during the Kickstarter when someone is soliciting. It is also true afterwards when brands fulfill their promised product or action for their backers.

Nonprofits often communicate frequently during the fundraiser, but afterwards most simply solicit investors for more dollars. Worse, these solicitations tend to bore investors!

Instead, provide regular progress reports. Show your donors/investors how their dollars are making an impact. Do it without asking for a donation every time, too. You might be surprised how well that will go over, and create additional fundraising opportunities in the future.


Kickstarters promise a result. You can communicate all you want with your backers, but if you don’t fulfill it is a fail.

Many people feel the same way about nonprofits, and won’t donate to a cause again if it fails to achieve success. So the biggest way to garner repeat donors is to actually show progress. Demonstrate that you are achieving your mission’s results. If you fail, communicate why and what’s next, just like charity: water did.

Some fundraisers back a specific action or program. The same principle applies in those cases: Show results for that action or program.


Kickstarters are inherently exciting and engaging. With Kickstarters people create videos, add stretch goals, and send fun promos, which are all part of the solicitation process.The post process should continue that experience. Let people have a say, let them experience the execution of the product first hand. The meaningful part of engaging in an activity or with a cause cannot be underestimated.

One of the better executions I’ve seen was a contest my client Meyer-Optik ran for its customers. They bought a product, the Trioplan 100, and it has shipped. Was that the end? No, you could win a contest with pictures you are taking with the product.

The point is find ways to let people experience how your cause is changing the world. Invite them to an event, let them see field work via video, or meet the executive director via a Hangout.

A nonprofit can always create other ways for people to engage beyond donating, too. Volunteer, or send messages of encouragement, or advocate. Find ways.

What do you think?

Who Cares More, Coke or Pepsi?

Image by Orin Zebest

Much has been said about Pepsi’s falling market share and its social media driven Refresh cause marketing effort. Extremists have dubbed Pepsi Refresh as the iconic symbol of failure for social media as a marketing mechanism. Like many conversations about social media, this view is too simplistic. It fails to acknowledge several key issues, including product weaknesses, the fact that PR and advertising were well integrated into the effort, and the debatable use of cause marketing as the primary thrust behind Refresh. Meanwhile primary competitor Coca Cola continues to widen the gap with its marketing and quieter CSR initiatives.

The lack of a tangible theory of change, the over-focus on PR 2.0 participation metrics, and generally a failure to report the results of its community investments, lead one to question the authenticity of Pepsi Refresh. The market has been repeatedly told about the great marketing successes, and in context, there’s a notable under-emphasis on the social good results from Pepsi. On the cause side, nonprofits who have won grants have grumbled about the lack of post-award support from Pepsi.

Because Pepsi Refresh did not have a tangible theory of change, a measurable approach towards social good, one can conclude that these outcomes are natural. They also show a lack of understanding about corporate social responsibility, authenticity and social media. In short, now that the fanfare is over, what good did the company achieve, and how do people feel about their participation in the campaign since the primary reported result is that they posted about Pepsi Refresh?

Social good campaigns only work when people feel the company genuinely cares, and when social media is used that participants feel their contributions have had a societal impact. Pepsi has not successfully communicated either outcome. On the contrary, Pepsi’s approach to reporting Refresh results have been short sighted and undermined some of the good will built with community investments.

In fact, when closely examining Refresh’s “social good” and market leader Coca-Cola’s CSR efforts, one cannot help but question which soda company really cares more? Coke has taken incredible strides in water stewardship, and while it doesn’t market this activity, it actively communicates its strategy to resolve an issue that its products directly impact. It works with environmental partners, and reports back on lessons learned.

Let’s be clear, from a holistic standpoint, Coke’s CSR efforts are not ideal and leave a lot to be desired. They don’t even use many of these efforts to promote themselves, but at least the company works towards tangible end goals. There’s an authenticity to Coke’s efforts that one does not get from Refresh.

In considering corporate social good it seems that quiet authenticity is more effective than fanfare in the long term. The hare loses to the tortoise. The primary reason why is not the method, but the intent and purpose of waging social good. Who do you think cares more, Coke or Pepsi?

Join Me for the @LiveEarth Run for Water

National Harbor

Many of you know I volunteer as a weekly blog writer and social media advisor for Live Earth. But my commitment will go farther this Spring as I participate in the Live Earth Run for Water on April 18.

No small commitment from me, because though I am a gym rat and partake in cardio five times a week, I hate running. The environment is worth it, so no whining from me.

There are events throughout the country and the world, but the DC 6k will be a signature Run for Water event:

The 6k course, which is still being finalized, will be hosted by the National Harbor. If you haven’t been to the National Harbor yet, it offers stunning views of downtown Washington, D.C. and Old Town Alexandria (my neighborhood), and is just a 15-minute drive – or water taxi ride- to the heart of DC.

In fact, if you are one of my readers and you feel so compelled to run in the DC event, I’ll buy your first drink afterwards. So join me for the Live Earth Run for Water.

Geoff Livingston is a regular contributor to the Live Earth blog.