Case Study: Vassar College's Vassar500 24-Hour Crowdfunding Campaign
Sometimes the best fundraising ideas come from one aha! moment. Other times, it takes the culmination of factors for the proverbial lightbulb to go off.
For Poughkeepsie, N.Y.-based Vassar College, three main factors played into the liberal arts college’s decision to try something completely new for its February fundraising appeal.
It began with the class of 1989, which “began making noise about how they wanted to try something different as they were working toward their fundraising project” for the 2014 25th reunion, which happened this past June, says Willa McCarthy, senior director of alumni affairs and the annual fund at Vassar College. The class of ’89 expressed its unhappiness with Vassar’s online giving form — it was too institution-centric, wasn’t fun, asked for too much data, took too long to fill out and, perhaps most distressing, there wasn’t anything inspiring about it. That got Vassar thinking about becoming a little more creative and innovative in its fundraising.
In addition, in February 2013, Vassar received some unwanted visitors, as the notorious Westboro Baptist Church planned a protest on Vassar’s campus. In response, Vassar alumnus Josh de Leeuw launched a crowdfunding campaign with the goal to raise $100 for every minute that Westboro planned to protest, with the proceeds going to the Trevor Project, which supports LGBTQ youth.
“It really galvanized the entire Vassar community and then went viral and well beyond the Vassar community and raised more than $100,000 through Crowdrise,” McCarthy says. “And it was an experience. People really felt engaged and connected. In that particular instance, there was an attack on the values that we all hold dear here at Vassar, which are nondiscrimination and inclusion and excellence. Many alumni enjoyed being a part of that experience, and the class of ’89 came to us and said, ‘We want to do something like that.’”
After that, crowdfunding really piqued Vassar’s interest. Then it began to see many of its peer institutions and other universities embarking on 24-hour crowdfunding giving challenges, which had giving at the center of the campaigns but veered from the typical appeal. They were all about creating experiences and building community to support the institutions.
Vassar knew it wanted to get into the crowdfunding game, but it also wanted to test this new fundraising channel before utilizing it for the class of ’89’s 25th reunion campaign. It targeted its third fundraising appeal of the fiscal year, which dropped in February and historically performed the poorest of the college’s four annual fundraising appeals.
Copy and steal everything
To get started, Vassar participated in a webinar from fellow liberal arts institution Illinois Wesleyan University, detailing its “All in for Wesleyan” 24-hour crowdfunding giving challenge.
“We just thought it was very interesting and decided, in the spirit of CASE — copy and steal everything — we’re going to see if we can replicate a version of that that’s for us and see how it works.”
To tailor the Illinois Wesleyan idea for the Vassar community, instead of using the president of the college as the face of the campaign like Illinois Wesleyan did, Vassar asked its student body president, Deb Steinberg, to be the lead, since typically the February appeal comes from a student.
“She was all over it and thought it was really fun. She got really excited, and we let her run with it,” McCarthy says.
Steinberg wrote the appeal, found the visuals, came up with the Vassar500 campaign name and thought through the entire thing, McCarthy adds. Of course, Steinberg had plenty of help, including with the name. Historically, the better of the February fundraising appeals for Vassar had brought in about 500 donors, so the goal of this new crowdfunding initiative was to bring in 500 donors — thus the Vassar500 was born.
And the materials, from the day-of appeals to the little teasers and the visuals to the Vassar500 site — which was set up on the Launcht crowdfunding platform — were pulled together in about four weeks.
To aid in amplifying the campaign, Vassar also lined up a challenge gift from a legacy family. If the campaign reached its 500-donor goal in the 24-hour period, Virginia Cretella Mars, her daughter Pamela Mars and granddaughter Bernadette Russell — all Vassar alumni — would donate $175,000 to the annual fund, which the Vassar500 campaign would support.
The Vassar500 … or is that Vassar1000?
With the goal and materials in place, it was time to launch the campaign. However, Vassar did not promote the Vassar500 months, weeks or even days before Feb. 20, the date of the challenge launch.
Instead, it did a silent outreach to its volunteers about a week before the campaign describing the Vassar500 challenge and asking them to participate and help spread the word — but also to keep it a secret. Included in the information was a volunteer checklist to encourage volunteers to participate, send emails and post to social media about the campaign on the day of.
“We wanted to create an experience for our volunteers that made them feel good and useful and gave them very specific things to do at very specific times,” McCarthy says.
Then, on Feb. 19, Vassar sent a very short teaser email — advice from Illinois Wesleyan — that simply read, “Tomorrow is an important day for Vassar College. Check your email in the morning for a message from Vassar Student Association President Deb Steinberg ’14,” below the Vassar500 logo.
“We put the Vassar500 logo on that because we wanted people to be like, ‘Huh? What’s that?’” McCarthy says.
Then at 9 a.m. the next day, Steinberg’s first message dropped announcing the challenge, stating the goal, laying out the challenge contribution from the Mars family, and asking for alumni to participate and spread the word. By 11:30, the campaign was already almost at 500 donors, and in the first four hours, the Vassar500 had already exceeded its goal.
“We were completely shocked when we met that goal in the first four hours of the campaign. We really did not expect that,” McCarthy says. “So we quickly reconnoitered and said, ‘What do we think? Let’s make it the Vassar1000 instead and see if we can get there.’”
By the time the first image update was sent around lunchtime, the goal had already been met, so Vassar adjusted its wording to read, “We slashed through our 500 donor goal and challenge you to 1,000!”
From there on out, the image updates were all labeled as the Vassar1000, upping the ante and showing the flexibility a crowdfunding campaign allows for. The second image update was sent around 5 p.m., the third on Friday a few hours before the end of the campaign and the final thank-you image that used the pun “‘Tank’ you” in reference to the well-known tank the French government had gifted Vassar following World War II in honor of the Vassar women who served as nurses during the war.
The volunteers who had been prepped in advance were extremely engaged, sharing, soliciting and promoting the campaign, and it continued to amplify. Just as Vassar had hoped, a real-time, personal experience was created, and the community was engrossed in the campaign.
“We had one woman from a class in the 1940s who was watching it like daytime television. She kept calling us — ‘This is so fun! This is so exciting!’ It was really cool. She was very engaged,” McCarthy says.
With the Vassar500 challenge met so quickly and the campaign rebranded on the fly to the Vassar1000, the question really was whether or not the college could actually double the initial goal. Turns out it did and then some.
Overall, 1,236 donors donated to the Vassar500/1000 campaign through the Launcht crowdfunding website with an additional 110 donors who sent money to the campaign via mail for a total of 1,346 donors. That equated to nearly $150,000 donated directly through the crowdfunding site, and $174,451 total raised over the 24-hour campaign overall.
Digging a little deeper, every class from 1941 to 2013 had members donate to the campaign with the exception of 1956 — which was removed from the campaign at its request because it was doing its own fundraising effort at the time. The majority of donors were from the classes in the new millennium, as Vassar expected, but the fact that at least 26 donors from every decade gave proved that crowdfunding is not just for the younger generations.
In addition, 132 new donors were acquired through the Vassar500, and 342 retained donors from 2013 sent second 2014 gifts to this campaign. Vassar typically does not solicit donors who already gave during a fiscal year again that same year but decided to include all donors in the Vassar500 because it knew the campaign would go viral and all donors would hear about it. Vassar didn’t want them to feel left out for not being included. Also, 453 supporters who hadn’t yet given in the fiscal year donated, while 367 lapsed donors renewed through the campaign.
And while most of the gifts came in at $100 or less, McCarthy was surprised that 39 gifts of more than $1,000 were given, three of which were $10,000 gifts and two more of at least $5,000.
“We just never expected that the larger, more leadership-level donors were going to be inspired to make their gifts through this crowdfunding site,” she says. “But they were, which was great. And of course, it added to the fun of the experience.”
Oh, and then there was the $175,000 gift from the Mars family, which brought the total to nearly $300,000.
There were many things Vassar learned through this crowdfunding campaign. One, which it was prepared for at the recommendation of Illinois Wesleyan, was to have staff assigned to responding to messages coming in about the campaign. From the moment the Vassar500 launched to the moment it ended, McCarthy says, people were calling and writing in about the campaign. So having staffers on hand to handle those inquiries and conversations was vital.
Another lesson was that not everyone was comfortable making gifts through the crowdfunding platform. It was an unfamiliar vehicle for them, so Vassar allowed those folks who wanted to participate but weren’t comfortable with the crowdfunding site to give via the phone or through the mail. Piggybacking on that, some donors called in and said they wanted to make pledges but that there was no option to do that. Some supporters were traveling or out that day and didn’t have their credit cards but wanted to participate, yet they couldn’t without a pledge option — something Vassar has taken into consideration.
And of course, McCarthy wonders what the longer-term effects of the campaign may be on the donors who participated. Because crowdfunding campaigns typically result in smaller gifts, would it mean donors who gave last year and then again gave through this campaign would give less overall? It’s a concern for sure, but McCarthy also says the main goal of this campaign was participation. So while she’s keeping an eye on those longer-term financial implications, she is very pleased with the campaign’s outcome.
“All in all, we walked away from this campaign very excited and energized,” McCarthy says. “It created an experience for people that really felt interactive and creative, and reminded people about community and what mattered to them. That’s what really drove this.
“It’s very different than just sending somebody a wallet envelope or giving them a link to your online giving form. This was almost like an event, a virtual giving event,” she adds. “From that perspective, we felt like this was very much a good thing to do. It created a lot of good will, and it was really fun for everyone.”
McCarthy says that while Vassar probably won’t embark on crowdfunding campaigns that often, it will most likely continue to do one annually. And she feels crowdfunding campaigns are best for short campaigns with specific deadlines and goals, which is why the Vassar500 became the Vassar1000 and succeeded and vastly surpassed its goal.