We’d all like to think that beyond the warm and fuzzy feeling we get from donating or volunteering, our efforts lead to some form of sustainable change. But how can we measure our impact amidst all the negative news about wasted aid and futility? We certainly don’t profess to know the answers, but in the five years that we’ve kept Givology going, we’ve emerged with our own set of best practices–a practitioner’s guide to giving, so to speak.
More importantly, we’ve witnessed so many transformative acts of giving–creative, inspirational, and heroic stories from within our network of grassroots partners and volunteers that we hope to share with you. Looking at statistics of global poverty, it’s easy to think, “How can one individual ever make a difference when the problem looms so large?” We have an e-book A Guide to Giving (available for download on Kindle) that delves into these topics in detail while sharing inspirational stories and best practices from our partner schools & organizations around the world.
In the meantime, here are the top 10 lessons for aspiring social entrepreneurs, from our experience in launching Givology.
1. Launch cheaply and quickly. You can’t possibly plan for everything. Better to be out there first and then adapt later.
Admittedly, we have a tendency to dive in head first–it took us no more than four months between Givology as an idea and Givology as an actual website (albeit very basic in functionality with just one partner and ten student profiles). Our website had many bugs to test out as we experimented with payment systems, analytics, messaging, blogging, front page news feed, sorting, groups, and account features. Looking back, we can laugh at the shortcomings of Givology 1.0, but if we hadn’t gotten out there with a site, we would have never known what actually matters to donors. A lot of great ideas never make it off the drawing table not because they lack promise, but because we’re either too picky or we tend to over-plan. It’s too tough to anticipate the market reaction and to ink out all the details beforehand. Sometimes things can look great on paper, but don’t really turn out well in reality. You’ll never know until you try. Although one can never compensate for good market research beforehand and careful idea screening, actual execution will likely bring to light many challenges requiring significant adaptation.
2. Learn social media early.
This is extremely important, especially if you’re on a shoestring budget, as social media can be a critical tool to reach your audience and raise awareness for the cause. When we started Givology, we basically had one choice–Facebook–but nowadays, we’re constantly on Twitter, YouTube, and Tumblr, as well as experimenting with Google+, Pinterest, Flickr, and other networks. We’re hardly experts on social media, but over the years, our social media team has discovered some best practices to increase your network (at no cost!):
- First and foremost, focus on quality of content
- Promote your interests, but make it only a reasonable proportion of the total number of posts: We try to follow the 60/30/10 rule – 60% retweets and pointers to include items from other users and site, 30% conversation and responses, and 10% announcements and events
- Be generous in your posts and reciprocate
- Follow and create a direct communication chain with interesting people and organizations with influence and a common connection
- Regularity is essential–social media is a real commitment!
3. Focus on quality first, scaling should be secondary.
When we first launched Givology, we focused only on China. Since then, we’ve gradually expanded to other geographic locales and built up our network of partnerships. Although we understand the motivation to scale, we’d rather do so in a measured manner, matching our capacity to take on new projects with our available resources. As we add new partnerships to our network, we remain steadfastly focused on the quality of the communication, updates, and impact model. There’s nothing wrong with having a grandiose vision, but we would rather take everything in small steps first.
4. Diversify and experiment with figuring out what works.
On our weekly conference calls, we’re constantly bandying around new ideas for campaigns and initiatives. Even though we have an overarching campaign throughout the year (such as our 12/12/12 campaign), we still have plenty of room to do small scale initiatives on the side, such as our Holiday Challenge and our Teachers Appreciation Week giveaway. Admittedly, sometimes these small scale initiatives peter out in terms of interest (or we’ve concocted a hair-brained idea that didn’t make much sense once we tried it), but we learn some valuable lessons for the next time around.
5. Motivate volunteers by giving them meaningful projects and freedom to come up with their own campaigns and solutions.
We treat our volunteers like our core team members. Even though each volunteer has a mentor on the Givology team and works collaboratively on existing projects at first, we encourage them to lead an initiative of their own once they become familiar with the Givology mission and organizational culture. We’ve had interns come up with a YouTube video challenge for education with prizes, completely re-design our newsletter, organize the logistics for an art exhibition, start their own local chapters, build Givology presence on new social network platforms, and start our international impact consulting project, among other activities. When the project is interesting and one’s own personal stake high, the level of commitment and dedication skyrockets.
6. Have a strategy for organizational turnover early.
As a 100% volunteer-run organization, we have to deal with turnover a lot more than organizations with salaried staff. After trying different strategies over the years, we now have a policy in place of having each functional team leader write a primer to his or her role and store it on our internal intranet. We find Google sites a really helpful tool to aggregate documents and to build a repository of information to help transfer know-how. We use dynamic Google spreadsheets for shared information, such as our contacts, list of current projects, links to useful sources, among other information.
7. Have a sustainable funding plan in place.
Recurring donations and/or funding are essential, as it’s exhausting to constantly find new donors and new users. We consider this issue one of our greatest challenges and opportunities, especially as we enter our fifth year of operation. Newly launched ventures can benefit from press and media available for a short-term spike in interest, but sustainability over time requires commitment and regularity. Even though we still have much to improve on this issue, we believe the following can be useful to organizations:
- Implement a regular newsletter
- Build in a self-financing revenue model
- Find your core group of supporters and engage them on a special level
- Use campaigns as a way to reinvigorate fresh press and media interest
- Personalize e-mail notifications and customize communications
- Adopt “game” and “achievement” features to your community
- Build a chapter network
- Make it easy to have recurring donations
8. Collaborate with similar organizations–expand the pie.
When we first started, we reached out to Kiva.org and other crowdfunding websites to get advice and learn from their experiences. Similarly, now that we’ve established ourselves, we try and help other social enterprises and initiatives as much as possible. For budding social entrepreneurs, don’t be afraid to get your name out there at conferences and seminars. Even though the private sector may take a secretive zero-sum-game approach, we urge social enterprise and nonprofits to adopt a different mindset of collaboration rather than competition. In fact, collaboration can yield some truly amazing benefits. By featuring others, you can get yourself featured as a residual effect. Similar to social media, by being generous to others, you can build your own influence over time.
As an example, in our “Meaning of Giving” campaign, we went around filming thought leaders from philanthropy, education, business, among other sectors. In capturing their stories and sharing links, we generated a lot more press and awareness as our featured interviewees publicized this content to their own networks, while linking back to Givology. Moreover, through cross-blogging and holding joint events, like we’ve done in the past with our “$10,000 for 10 schools” auction and our Young Professionals Mixer with the 10×10 Documentary Group, we not only gain exposure to new potential volunteers and donors, but we gain a new perspective on how other organizations function and solve problems.
9. Match expenses with inflow–see if you can do without first.
We keep costs very low at Givology. As a virtual organization with in-person meetings in public places, we save thousands of dollars in rent each year. We won’t even consider salaried staff or paid contractor work until we reach a scale no longer manageable. Rather than purchase equipment or online services for marketing or financial applications, we see if we can get comparable products and resources donated to us. We don’t print out our marketing brochures and materials unless we have a direct link to a revenue source, such as a particular event. When we hold a fundraiser, we always build a financial model to see the threshold attendance and pricing necessary to achieve at least two times our initial outlay to make it worthwhile. As such, our average return on fundraising has been a remarkable 270% over the years. More importantly, by scrutinizing all our costs and keeping our overhead as low as possible, we’ve built a cash buffer that allows us to support our partners’ projects and students in times of need. This gives us great flexibility to invest in new initiatives and keeps us sustainable over time.
10. Leverage art and video to make a difference
We discovered the power of art in connecting people, raising awareness, generating funding, and reaching new networks. Video and photos communicate powerful messages succinctly and resonate with people. When we have our fellows go abroad for international consulting projects with our partners, the footage they take goes a long way in educating people locally about different cultures, traditions, and education systems. We’ve had our fellows put together art and photography exhibitions that go to the benefit of our grassroots partners. For example, we put together the $50 exhibition in New York City that featured the drawings and photographs from our Ugandan partner Circle of Peace School.
As an example of public art to inspire change, we had Joseph Kilrain of Gigaxpixel Creative paint a gigantic mural of the world in 20 panels. We had a group of volunteers out in Union Square, New York City, with fingerpaints asking bypassers to “make their mark” on part of the world they wanted to help. By getting pledges per fingerprint placed on the mural, and then auctioning off each panel in a large gala, we raised over $10,000 for our students and projects. In addition, we divided the money in the way the finger prints fell on the map. To help extend the impact beyond New York City, we partnered with Jubilee Project–a YouTube phenomenon–to film the entire outdoor exhibition.
Most recently, to diversify our revenue stream, we’re leveraging art as a funding tool. We partnered with two entrepreneurs to put together the “Temporary Tattoo Project,” in which we had Brooklyn tattoo artists create designs each dedicated to one of our students from Flying Kites in Kenya. We’re also in the process of launching a new product line of socially conscious T-shirts where 100% of the proceeds go to our education causes. In the same way that FEED and RED merchandise helps draw in more interest and funding, we’re leveraging creative designs for good.