Today, I’d like to welcome back Maureen Carruthers (pictured at left).  Maureen is a non-profit consultant, and the force behind the excellent blog “Low Hanging Fruit Communication” which covers many topics including social media for non-profits.

Maureen’s goal is to help nonprofit leaders reach their right people more quickly so their organizations have a greater impact,  She has over ten years experience working in and around nonprofit organizations, most recently as the Workforce Development Program Manager for the Dayton Tooling and Manufacturing Association, where she managed a robot competition based on the BattleBots television series. Previously, she managed the Orchestra Forum program for the Institute for Cultural Policy and Practice and served as House Manager for the Delaware Theatre Company.

I have spent some time on Maureen’s blog, and I highly recommend you check her site out.  I learned a lot!  You can even sign up for Maureen’s free e-class and newsletter.

I want to extend a warm thank you to Maureen for sharing her time and wisdom with us.  We hope to see her back here at Step By Step many more times!

Online Fundraising for Tiny Nonprofits: A Case Study

Nonprofit fundraising is never easy, but it’s a special kind of difficult for tiny, all volunteer organizations.  The people responsible for fundraising in these organizations generally have little or no experience or training to support their efforts.  It’s also difficult to teach themselves the skills they need since fundraising training resources tend to focus on organizations with professional staff and a donor base far beyond their own.

Therefore, I’m always excited to see examples of tiny organizations coming up with creative ways to start raising the money they need to move up into the “small nonprofit” category.

This is one of those stories.


Kids Are Heroes foundersKids Are Heroes Founders: Gabe and MaryMargaret

Kids Are Heroes is a A non-profit based in Frederick, Maryland that empowers, encourages and inspires children to become leaders through volunteerism and community involvement by showcasing and supporting children who are changing the world through their selfless acts of giving

As part of his research into ways this young nonprofit could raise money, Gabe O’Neill, co-founder of Kids Are Heroes, discovered on-line “Donor Walls,” where people can buy “squares” or “bricks” on a website “wall” for a relatively low amount of money.  In return, the donor gets to have their picture on the square, along with some text and a link to their website.

Gabe, who supports his 12-year-old daughter MaryMargaret as the founder of Kids Are Heroes, doubles as the webmaster and instantly loved this idea when he heard about it. Since he is also a programmer he saw the opportunity to get a jump on things and build one of these walls himself.  He calls it the Kids Are Heroes “Foundation Wall.”

The Rest of the Story

The public story of how the donor walls came to be is inspiring on its own, but does not give other nonprofit leaders the information they need to determine if a similar fundraising strategy might work for their organizations.  To that end, I asked Gabe to share the “behind-the-scenes” experience of launching the walls.  I started with the basic questions–please continue the conversation with questions of your own in the comments!

What was your inspiration for the online donor wall?

I had seen that companies are coming up with this concept to deliver to both for and non-profits, charging 15% plus fees. The idea hit me right away as something that really could work. I hate asking for money but this not only makes it fun, I am giving something of real value in return. We invite our 31k+ Twitter followers to see who is on the wall on a regular basis. So for a very little amount of money a person or company can get some great exposure.

What worked better than you expected?

I guess the walls itself. When I think I have a great idea they always don’t work out that way. We had tried many different ways of asking for donations on Twitter. Charity gift cards, magazine subscriptions, MaryMargaret and I even did Twitterthons on Friday nights where we would send out songs by request and have trivia contests. Some people really enjoyed them, others complained we clogged up their twitter stream. Nevertheless, few people donated any money at all. The walls seemed to take off right away. So far we have made over $1000 in our first three weeks. To some that might not sound like a lot, but it is pure profit and all it takes is tweeting the walls out on occasion.

Which seemingly easy parts of the project turned out to be difficult?

I didn’t use a company to do the walls. They were still in beta when I discovered them and I wanted to get started. So being a software developer by trade, I built them myself. I love the freedom it gives me to react to any trends I might see, and to brand them any way I see fit. The walls were really not that difficult for me to build. What I found surprising was that people in the beginning tried to hack them so they would become disabled. The walls were never really in danger, but since it happened on several occasions I had to add extra preventative code to combat their efforts. That seems to have quieted down quite a bit as of late. It was very frustrating to me to think that someone would stoop to that level to harm a charity.

How have the donor walls  impacted the organization–in terms of revenue, exposure, mission etc.?

We are a small non-profit. Up until we built the Donor Walls we were running on fumes, basically ones supplied by us. As I stated before I’m just not that good at asking for money. The walls have given us a lot of hope. They may have slowed down from the beginning (as I expected), but I am now learning from one of our ambassadors how to establish relationships with donors. I will always try to keep the walls fresh and exciting, as evidenced by our addition of a second link to one’s Twitter account that each premium brick can now enjoy. We will develop walls for certain events, like our big Tweetup in May and Kids Are Heroes Day in October. I haven’t seen much evidence of new exposure obtained directly from the walls, albeit I expect that some people may have found out about us through them. It is a delicate balance though. It is so tempting to tweet about them all the time, but then I would be spamming. I really have to control myself and be patient with them.

What advice would you give other organizations considering a similar campaign?

Be as innovative as you can. Try and make it as fun as you can. Keep the values low enough so that your donors get real value. Think out of the box. We are working with one of our heroes on a partnership basis. They are a young rock band that has raised more than $100K for Haiti. We plan to roll out a live wall that can be projected at the event where people can buy bricks with their smart phones and we will update the bricks in real time. I am really looking forward to seeing that in action. But be careful not to tweet your wall(s) out too much or people will get tired of it. Try doing it at different times of the day to attract a new audience.

A final word from Gabe. . .

I honestly don’t know how long these walls will last as far as staying productive. We are trying to do something different with them as much as we can. But until the fun runs out, we will keep working with them.

Your Turn

What did we miss?  Ask your questions about Kids are Heroes or the Donor Walls in the comment section and I’ll ask Gabe and/or MaryMargaret  to stop by and answer them.


Looking for more fundraising ideas for tiny nonprofits?  My free fundraising guide might help.

Posted on 12 April 2011

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