The Great Schlep
For fundraisers, 2008 was a year of change and challenge. Plummeting endowments, budget cuts and other lows added pressure to bring in new money while spending even less than before.
At the same time, a new era of fundraising was born online. Widgets and badges and videos (oh, my!) hit our sector big time — and even the smallest and most old-school organizations had to admit that it was time to wake up and smell the coffee brewing online.
There were many sites built that use these new tools. Perhaps one of the most notable of the successful sites is www.thegreatschlep.com. Featuring a saucy video by comedian Sarah Silverman, this site launched during the pre-election run-up to inspire young Jews to make “the great schlep” to Florida to persuade their grandparents to vote for Barack Obama. Considering that Obama won Florida’s electoral votes by less than a 2 percent margin, it’s easy to imagine how the hundreds of people who made the great schlep played an important role in winning this battleground state for him.
If you’re not familiar with Silverman, it’s probably because you don’t fit into her demographic: Her Comedy Central series, “The Sarah Silverman Program,” and potty-mouthed comedy typically appeal to 20-somethings,
or those with a high threshold for off-color language and inappropriate topics. Silverman’s video for The Great Schlep takes on just about every taboo you can imagine, including racism, anti-Semitism and even prostitution.
The video, which is the cornerstone of www.thegreatschlep.com, went viral so fast it was dizzying — and within a day, there wasn’t a Jew, millennial or fan of crass comedy that hadn’t seen it.
Like a matryoshka nested doll, The Great Schlep is a project within a project: The Jewish Council for Education & Research (a partisan PAC founded in 2008) created JewsVote.org to get out the Jewish vote, which then created The Great Schlep specifically to get young Jews to take action.
While I’m not a fan of sub-branding or microsites just for fun, these folks understood that the audiences for these projects were motivated by different things, and they built campaigns and Web sites that spoke directly to their unique points of view.
JewsVote.org, for instance, provided tools to speak, call, e-mail or otherwise get the pro-Obama message out in a fairly straightforward, noncontroversial way (appealing to, say, my 72-year-old, Obama-supporting, Jewish mom). More than 7,000 people signed up for free memberships on this site in about four months, then sent, collectively, more than 10,000 e-mails.
JewsVote.org was designed to reach a much broader audience than The Great Schlep. I’d bet my hat that the hundreds who actually went to Florida to get out the vote after watching Silverman’s video would have clicked away within 30 seconds of scanning JewsVote.org.
This probably also is true for the 15,000 individuals who made gifts ranging from $10 to the legal limit of $5,000 to The Great Schlep. Why? Because The Great Schlep was more than a Web site — it became a micromovement custom-built for young, progressive Jews with contacts in Florida, an audience many Jewish organizations covet but fail to connect with.
Should you do it?
If your organization is debating whether to create a microsite, campaign or sub-brand versus creating something that’s more a part of the mother organization, ask yourself if the audience for the new initiative is different from your core audience. The next question is how far you’re willing to go to speak to its members in their language.
Organizations debating whether or not to create a microsite also should consider goals. Sometimes the main organization’s site might serve as a catchall, whereas a microsite might exist for a specific purpose like a virtual event or fundraising campaign.
Although most organizations will never have the perfect storm of ingredients to create something truly viral online, there are other aspects of thegreatschlep.com you can learn from and adopt.
First, the design is uncluttered and features only the most important elements using simple, compelling graphics. Silverman’s video is the star, but a huge donate button was almost as central. If you’re not going to schlep or give, you’ve got some other options: buy swag, join a Facebook group of schleppers (which nearly 24,000 people did), even make a “virtual schlep” by calling and e-mailing.
The irony of calling products and premiums “swag” might be lost on someone outside of the target generation — perhaps another reason it’s so effective. (About 2,000 people bought Great Schlep products online.)
All the language is like that: colloquial, young and hip. This is an insiders’ club, one that’s cool to belong to if you get it and clearly not for everyone.
Would your organization be willing to risk alienating some people in order to build a closer relationship with others? This is the risk of tight positioning when you define your work so specifically around a particular group that an entire universe of people might never know or care that it exists.
But the flip side is the extreme loyalty gained by those who get it — not the least of whom are your donors.
I know, I know: You’re a fundraiser and I’ve been yammering on about programmatic content, so you’re wondering how this relates to your side of the office. Well, as any good fundraiser knows, great programs are easier to fundraise for. They give you something to brag about, something that demonstrates the value of a donor’s investment. Plus, having a big reputation or huge visibility is the best possible door-opener.
This site isn’t big; wasn’t expensive to build; and doesn’t use every possible widget, gadget or tool. Leveraging connections and staff mojo, thegreatschlep.com was built (and the video produced) for less than $50,000 and brought in more than $250,000 in less than four months. It’s a relatively simple site built for a specific audience that includes only the content it needs to take action.
The Great Schlep demonstrates the power of the Web when an organization is willing to take risks and, perhaps, piss off a few people in order to create real change. FS
Sarah Durham is founder and principal of New York-based consultancy Big Duck. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sarah Durham is president of Big Duck, a New York City-based branding, marketing and fundraising firm for nonprofits. She serves on the boards of the National Brain Tumor Society and the New York Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP).