Fri - 19.01.2018

When non-profits meet innovative platforms

When non-profits meet innovative platforms

In the recent past, one of the biggest criticisms of the non-profit sector was its ineffective method in "selling itself." Many non-profit organisations admittedly encountered problems in their marketing and advertising, or what some in the field prefer to call "advocacy." This often led to sub par fund raising events, awareness campaigns that rarely reach beyond the inner circles, and difficulties in bringing in new constituents. Several organisations still rely solely on the older methods of fliers, newsletters, and mailing or phone lists, but clearly these avenues are becoming more and more limiting. In a digital age, advocacy is not what it used to be, and non-profits, with their lack of funds and manpower, are finding that they need to work even harder to keep up with current and potential supporters.

"The history of advocacy and marketing goes like this: we started with face to face approaches, then it went to snail mail, then TV and radio, then email, and now we've rapidly moved into a society that is growing more into the online space," Rob Wu, founder of the networking and fund raising platform CauseVox, pointed out. He went on to talk about the prevalence of social media marketing and the use of technological innovations in this field.

"Social media marketing is very hot right now...[but] no, it's not a fad. It's definitely going to stick around for a long time because it's just another channel that reaches's going to stay especially because the younger people - people who are 35 years and younger - are plugged into this online space and are comfortable with finding non-profits and causes through this medium."

The goal now is to get non-profits into the same space where their supporters are. But how is this effectively done?

Taking a look at Restore NYC, a start-up that officially became operational a year and a half ago, one can see the power of a small non-profit when it takes social media, the Web, technology, and innovation by the reins. Founded by three friends sitting around a dining room table one night, Restore seeks to bring holistic care to international sex trafficking survivors in New York City. Their services range from counseling to ESL to job training to legal advocacy.

Being in the heart of New York City, one of the major epicenters of digital progression, Restore knew that they had to do more than just create postcard-like fliers to hand out. Even having a website was barely enough; after all, who didn't have a website nowadays?

"When I first started in the summer of '09, we only had a website and it was really poor," said Lance Villio, operations coordinator at Restore. "It wasn't up to date in any way and even the information on it was inaccurate. Our website is supposed to be the face of Restore to a majority of the public; I felt we really needed to change it." He mentioned that they also had a Facebook account, but that it was not being maintained well.

Working alongside one of Restore's board members, Greg Wong, a partner at the marketing and branding firm the Longitude and co-founder of the social enterprise Hello Rewind, Villio made sure the organisation not only had a functioning and informative Facebook page and website, but also an active blog and Twitter account.

"For non-profits, I think it's vital to have a Twitter page," Villio said. "And to be consistent with it, otherwise people lose interest. For our supporters, it just keeps people in the loop...For us, it allows for us to track what we've done, see other organisations and what they've been networking, basically."

Restore felt strongly that having an online presence wasn't just to stay socially or digitally savvy but also to remain transparent. "Transparency is really important in any non-profit. People want to know -- and we want people to know -- what they're being a part of and what they're giving to," added Villio.

He pushed their online presence further by encouraging video logs (or vlogs) on the website as well, allowing followers to "get real faces, and get to know what's going on first hand." Despite the limited resources available to the agency, Restore honed in on what it did have and what it could do.

Through these mediums, they were able to connect with people and groups they would not have likely encountered in "real life," including videographers, photographers, magazines such as Red Rover Style and Her Journey Magazine, people in various industries such as fashion and retail, and social media gurus like Desiree Frieson, who happens to have a passion for advocating against sex trafficking.

Restore felt that it was doing well reaching its current supporters and being discovered by new fans. Their online presence was active through Twitter and Facebook and their events and projects were successful. Then the young agency decided that they needed to hold a large campaign with the goal of raising at least $50,000 to maintain the first ever safehouse for internationally trafficked women in NYC. Faced with this goal, Restore knew that Tweeting for donations was not going to cut it this time around. Fortunately, through yet another connection, they discovered CauseVox.

According to its website, CauseVox is a "brandable platform that engages...advocates, reaches more supporters, and effectively tells [the non-profit's] story, all in a fresh, easy to use, and affordable service." Founder Rob Wu felt strongly that small- and medium-sized organizations were "struggling with technology and how to utilize it" as well as encountering difficulties in fundraising. CauseVox tackles both issues with one platform. Because technology isn't easy to use - "especially for smaller organizations," said Wu - he and his friend Jeff Chang developed a supporter-based, or peer-to-peer, fundraising platform. Wu also calls it network fundraising.

Remarking about non-profits in general, Wu agrees that they are seeing the need to "latch on to the social media movement" but that this needs to go beyond just having a Twitter account under the agency's name. While the methods Restore and other media-savvier non-profits are utilizing are "good for raising awareness, building and getting your message out there, it's not so much a platform for fundraising." Regardless of whether an organization is not-for-profit or for-profit, all need a flow of funding. Unfortunately, awareness-building doesn't necessarily bring in those needed dollars.

"Yes, there is Twitter and Facebook fundraising methods," Wu said after giving some specific examples, "but the reality is that the returns are not that high and the higher returns are seen when non-profits utilise more than that."

CauseVox was created exactly for this purpose. It caters towards non-profits in an easy-to-use way to create support. It is completely customisable, "like having a blog," with modules that the organisation can play around with.

Non-profits often have a passionate group of supporters, and CauseVox allows for them to tap into these supporters' networks. Restore's campaign, titled Brick by Brick, was the perfect pilot project to demonstrate this. It ran from August 22 to September 30 and was entirely an Internet-based campaign. A supporter could create his or her own fundraising page and blast that out to friends, families, coworkers, neighbors, etc. via mediums like Twitter, Facebook, email, text, and blogs. Those friends, families, coworkers, and neighbors then donated to that supporter's page. So now Restore, rather than just getting the support of one person, now gets the support of that one person and his or her network.

"Brick by Brock was really effective because it gave people a voice on their own pages as well as a way to help," Villio stated. He acknowledged the ease of use with CauseVox, criticizing only one detail. "It would have been better if there was a way to link emaill addresses in supporters' contacts or address books rather than manually sending out the page to each person. Obviously, anything to take time off of what our supporters need to do is best."

Wu also acknowledged that there were minor tweaks that needed to be done with CauseVox but mainly they were moving forward to building up and adding to the platform.

"The cool thing," Wu added, "is seeing how social media is incorporated. Our next step actually is to integrate something similar to Facebook posts or blog comments. We'll plug in the ability to leave comments on one another's fund raising page. This allows for non-profits to extract data; see who is supporting who, what conversations are emerging, and what their constituents care about."

On both Restore and CauseVox's ends, they reported that there were nearly no problems throughout the process of the campaign. Wu mentioned that a "hiccup" involved may have been exporting data in terms of the platform - gleaning out email lists, for example. But other than that, both parties acknowledge that there were no hurdles and the campaign went smoothly.

In fact, Restore NYC raised nearly $130,000 from the Brick by Brick campaign, including a gift from an anonymous donor that matched dollar for dollar every new donation made during the campaign. With this money, the agency can provide two years of safe housing for sexually exploited women in NYC.

Villio expressed Restore's gratitude for collaborating with CauseVox, saying, "[CauseVox] is going to be a very successful program. It's genius because it allows people in their own words to describe what they are doing -- people want to personally send out a message for a greater good in their own way."

Restore is one of the many smaller non-profits that realize that handing out informational packets it not enough; even "doing" social media is not enough, but that social media and advocacy is an entire package. Through their utilization of innovative technologies such as CauseVox, coupled with the power of mass social media through networks like Twitter, blogs, and Facebook, they showed that even a young and small non-profit can be digitally relevant and change lives.

"The key to all of this is learning how to use each tool specifically," Villio commented in regards to mediums like Twitter, Facebook, blogging, and other platforms. "They can perform so many different functions, you just have to be creative and purposeful with them."

This article is appearing on in partnership with TubesCodeContent, a companion website to a course at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, taught by Michael Cervieri.


Leah McBride Mensching


2010-10-25 23:34

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