Major Hurdles with International Fundraising (and how to avoid them)Posted: August 3, 2014
So, your heart beats for activism, but your not entirely sure what you want to do with that passion inside of you. The sexiest approach would be to hop on a plane and go visit some developing communities in Africa or Asia or South America and come back with a video of a story that paints you as a humble activisty savior who happens upon an inspiring situation who can now motivate the nation to help bring water/peace/freedom/expression/etc to a tribe/village/city/nation/continent. Although I’m a big fan of local activism, I’m not here to discourage anyone from pursuing their dream. However, there are definitely some huge difficulties in starting an international campaign like this, and you should be aware of a few things before proceeding. Let’s look at some of them.
But first, a quick story. In 2012, when I found myself back in Central Arkansas with no money, no plan, and no job, I was still volunteering with a handful of organizations that HQ’d several states away. I was trying to convince college kids to start clubs to fundraise so that my organization could hold music-based peace seminars in Central Africa. It was a cool idea, but as I crawled up on my hamster wheel and started making calls and sending emails, I quickly became frustrated at the lack of tangible results (read: the lack of fundraising income). WHY?? I wondered. After having several years to ponder, I have two ideas as to why that might be.
1) Facetime-to-Facetime with Volunteers.
One of the most difficult aspects of international fundraising is that you generally have your organizations HQ in New York or DC or LA or wherever, and you’ve got somebody in your office assigned to “manage” volunteers in different states. It’s a particularly hard job because you don’t have any face to face interaction with your volunteers. This, in my experience is the typical volunteer experience:
You call up a volunteer that has put their name on a petition or donated in the past or that you heard was pretty cool and might want to help and you present them with your very powerful idea. You explain how they can be the catalyst for change in such-and-such community overseas and you ask them to be a leader. Their job? To increase awareness about said project in their city/state/college in order to solicit additional volunteers in order to host outrageously successful fundraising events. “And I’m here to help”, you say. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” What’s unfortunate is that you live on the other side of the country. “Anything you can do” is literally defined as being a cheerleader and giving additional ideas of things that the volunteer can do to bring more awareness or money to the project.
And, you know, at first the volunteer is extremely excited about your organization, and you’re extremely excited about them. They’ve caught “it” and you report back that they’re going to be a good one.
But then something strange happens. The excited volunteer puts pen to paper and realizes that, “Holy shit, the number of man hours I’m going to have to put into this thing is unreal if I’m going to take this seriously. And I don’t want to half-ass anything, because I’m not that guy.” And then the phone rings and it’s the wife/friend/frat bro/whoever and they think “I’ll come back to this tomorrow.” Since you’re not physically there to ask them how they’re doing, it gets placed on the back burner for the rest of the week. When you talk to them a week later, the answer is, “Well, it’s been a crazy week and I’ve gotten started on some stuff but I’m planning on having some time tomorrow.” I’m sure you know what happens next. And what happens after that. And I’m sure you’re not surprised that eventually they’re not answering your call because they don’t want to tell you that they haven’t made any real progress and they don’t want to let you down.*
Is it their fault? Nope. They were given a project that was too big for them and given zero support. How could they have succeeded? Damn near impossible expectations coupled with no help a beaten-up volunteer does make.
2) Lack of Tangible Results.
So, you get a good one. One that actually, in spite of your lack of support and crazy expectations, manages to throw a fundraiser. Congratulations everybody, we’ve received our first donation, and it’s for $300! (We won’t let them know that we were hoping that they would bring in closer to $2,000 or that we need $10,000 to even send our first wire to the beneficiary, but, hey, $300 is better than nothing.) So, we get the check in the mail and we put it into our donation/project/program fund account, and we wait for another $9,700-ish to come in so we can wire the money to such-and-such community because, let’s be honest here, $300 is not going to get the job done and with wire fees and such, it’s a better financial decision to hang onto the money until we have more. So, you thank the volunteer and send a postcard and maybe even a picture of a well/school/artsy thing/hospital for them to frame. But the question that they ask themselves is “What is my $300 doing?” And the unfortunate fact is that, for the time being, it’s sitting around while we figure out how to motivate the rest of our unpaid/overworked/bummed-out-by-crazy-expectations/frustrated-at-lack-of-support volunteers to finish their fundraisers.
Now, eventually, over the long haul does that $300 make a difference? Yes! But are we able to communicate that difference effectively to the supporter in a way that excites them about throwing another fundraiser, one that’s bigger and better than ever? Probably not, because it’s hard and often expensive.
So, now what?
We’ve recognized that, in the very bottom of your heart, you’re an activist’s activist. You’ve decided that you want to do some kind of development/aid/art/whatever-the-case-may-be work overseas. And you’ve decided that you want to start a campaign to get folks here involved in the work that you’re starting there. Good luck to you! But, before we plunge into the cold waters of International Nonprofitlandia, let’s think long and hard about the two hurdles brought up above. The answer for each sector and each organization is different, but if we begin to ask these questions as we are starting out, our odds for success should be considerably higher.
So, my fellow Slacktivists, let’s talk. How might you plan to accomplish this? What organizations have you worked with that have done a great job engaging their volunteers and what’s their strategy? Sound off in the comments!