How a Nonprofit Significantly Grew Its Impact and Fundraising Results in 3 Years
The team at The Farmlink Project presented its new film, “Abundance” to Congress two weeks ago. The nonprofit’s co-founders have received numerous awards, including The Congressional Medal of Honor, The Jefferson Award for Public Service, Forbes 30 Under 30 and a CNN Top 10 Hero Award.
Aidan Reilly, the nonprofit’s co-founder and head of partnerships, and his team started out small, driving moving trucks before being able to afford professional drivers; using spreadsheets before being able to afford logistics software, and relying on student volunteers to achieve impact.
The organization has grown from a nonprofit that relied on Zoom and Google Sheets in the early days of the pandemic to an organization that has integrated a variety of technologies to grow its mission and fundraising effectiveness. In its three short years of existence it has managed to move 135 million pounds of food from hundreds of farms throughout North America to food banks and was a $50 million nonprofit in 2021 — the most recent year in which data was available from Candid’s GuideStar.
Last week, Reilly was the closing keynote speaker at the inaugural BridgeTECH, a day of programming dedicated to exploring the intersection of technology, fundraising and marketing hosted by NonProfit PRO, the Direct Marketing Association of Washington, and the Association of Fundraising Professionals Washington, D.C., Metro Area Chapter.
Here’s a look at four areas of The Farmlink Project that have resulted in larger impact or fundraising numbers thanks to the assistance of technology.
Since yielding crops requires advanced planning, food waste is a logistical problem that can stem from a geo-political conflict, a natural disaster, a shift in consumer preferences or an economical change. When the unexpected happens, farmers’ crops may perish before locating a new buyer. That’s what The Farmlink Project stepped in to resolve.
“What we’ve got to do is we’ve got to make it easier for a farmer to go to a food bank than it is to go to a landfill because no farmer actually wants to dump their food,” Reilly said.
He and his team came up with the idea to create an online regional marketplace for the nonprofit’s farmers. The only problem was the farmers hated the system. The team soon realized that it failed to listen to the farmers who are a vital part of The Farmlink Project’s mission. After realizing a human contact was necessary for the farmers, the team adjusted, learning that innovating isn’t about recreating but listening to improve current practices and infrastructure to build toward innovation.
“What we ended up getting was this data warehouse that we use today, which still is human-led on either end, but the data comes through and we’re able to track it to incredibly high detail every time the food goes through. Basically, the traceability is unparalleled and it’s something that we not only rely upon now but are going to continue to build up to create algorithms that can actually predict when food is going to go to waste in some regions.”
Nick DiGiovanni, YouTube influencer and lead brand ambassador for The Farmlink Project, posted a short video alongside fellow influencer Jimmy “Mr. Beast” Donaldson to raise money and awareness for World Hunger Day last year. What resulted was one of the most commented YouTube shorts of all time. The week-long promo alongside has accumulated more than 136 million views, 16 million likes and four million comments to date.
“This little video that went online is a reminder for me daily that if you’re hitting your head against the wall trying the same thing over and over again, sometimes you have to zoom out a little bit, look at your audience a little differently and recognize you have to shift five, 10 degrees,” Reilly said.
When it comes to messaging, the nonprofit relies on its analytics to understand what works and what doesn’t. It may be hard to keep up with what’s performing well, but paying attention to what each audience responds to has been a winning formula for The Farmlink Project.
“It’s not that we’re going to go and stick to the script always,” Reilly said. “We’re going to do weird stuff. We’re going to do funny stuff, but we’re going to make sure that it’s done with intention and that we’re not just trying to play catch up with trends all the time, but rather know our audience.”
Reilly acknowledged that charitable donations from individuals are becoming more scarce. However, compiling data points on donors has helped his organization pinpoint its best prospects.
“When we have this information, rather than just blasting people our emails — people who don't care or saw us on the news once and seemingly are never interested in giving to a food organization again — we can actually pinpoint [who to engage or re-engage]. That way, as a nonprofit that’s small and limited on resources, we can best direct the few resources we do have to target that individual.”
He shared a real-life instance of the organization trying to get funding for its Running Our Operations Together (ROOT) Fellowship, a program that provides payment for students who would otherwise be unable to accept the unpaid position. The nonprofit’s corporate sponsors wanted to fund its programs, so they sought an individual donor. Through technology, the nonprofit discovered a donor who had given small gifts previously but had a much larger capacity — and had given historically to fellowship and youth-education programs.
“We were able to reach back out to this donor with this knowledge, re-engage them and what came out of it was several weeks of conversation, with that ending with that individual deciding to fund the program for the next five years,” Reilly said of the process that took place last month.
The nonprofit’s beginnings were virtual. Many nonprofits are now struggling with virtual, hybrid or a return-to-office workplace. Reilly cited the sense of community as a main factor for his employee base, which averages 15 months, a lengthy term when considering most staffers are college students.
“As we now have been to get together in person over the last year, we’re recognizing that we’re not developing a culture in spite of technology, but we’re actually developing it through technology,” he said. “… Building a culture around real connection regardless of virtual or not has benefited our organization incredibly and has allowed us to get people from all over the world at this point.”
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