How did you raise all that money? Strategies behind raising $29,000 for charity: water in 9 weeks.

Three months and twelve days ago I was given $100. The $100 was given to me at a conference promoting world domination. It was timely; as the founder of the conference had just published a book called the $100 Startup—and he asked each of the 1000 attendees:

“If it only takes $100 to start a business, what could you do with this $100 over the next year?”

“Consider this an investment in you. What will you do with it?”

I decided to figure it out before I left the conference. I didn’t want to take a year to figure it out; I’m not that patient. I like doing things now. What could I do right away? One of the talks at the conference was by Scott Harrison, founder of Charity: Water, and he talked about one billion people on this planet who don’t have access to clean water. As an open water swimmer, lover of all things water, and general life enthusiast, I was turned. I decided to raise money for my birthday (I’ll actually be 29 in just a couple of days), and put a target of 1000 people donating $29 so we could raise $29,000.

We blew it out of the water (oh yes: start counting the puns). We raised $32,398 in 72 days and there’s still money coming in. In the aftermath of the campaign, I’ve been inundated with queries about successful fundraising strategies. Last week I gave a talk “29 thoughts from raising $29,000,” at PowderKeg. Granted, there are differences between raising a million dollars and a couple thousand; and there are also significant differences between raising money for charity versus for business—but there’s also some interesting overlap–so for everyone who’s curious, here’s a recap of some of the strategies I used.

 “29 thoughts from raising $29,000"—highlights

I won’t go over everything from the talk, but here’s a list of the highlights of what I learned and what I’d do differently (or again).

(1) Be audacious. Go after something big. I don’t raise money. I have a full-time job. I have a part-time job. I have freelance clients. Who has time to campaign on the side? Let’s rephrase this: why not? who has time not to?

(2) Put yourself on the line. Go all in. We believe in people who do crazy things. If you meet someone who has a conviction for something, who can’t shut up, who loves the way this crazy conductor / part works or the man that jumped from the sky from more than 24 miles and broke the speed of sound—those are the interesting people. Don’t fit in. Do something weird, and people will love it. And the crazier, the better.

(3) Actions, not words: be crazy. As part of the campaign, I put a crazy goal up there and coupled it with an equally-crazy promise. I said:

If people donate more than $29,000, I’ll swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco.

In my birthday suit.

That’s right, naked.

It was a… flashy campaign. (#pun)

(4) Tell a story. People want to be a part of your story. Do you have a business or a project that they can become a part of? Bring them into the narrative of the story. Humans are natural born storytellers. Facts aren’t persuasive, but emotions and stories are.

In this case, we created three stories—and this is an important point—your different storylines and the way you capture the narrative will resonate with different audiences.

Story 1: “Here’s to the crazy ones.” A play on Jack Keroack and Steve Jobs. By the way—it’s a Jack Kerouack quote, not a Steve Jobs quote.

Story 2: “The power of micro-actions.” A lot of people don’t donate because they don’t feel as though their contribution actually makes a difference. I broke it down into pieces that made it a community effort – if 1000 people donated just $29, we could do this.

Follow up thought:*Asking for money takes the same time no matter how much you’re asking for. I would definitely up the ante and ask for a lot more money next time. Know what’s cooler than $29 from 1000 people? $29,000 from 1000 people.

Story 3: Water is life. There are 800 million people in our planet that don’t have clean water. That’s one out of every nine people who can’t turn on a faucet to run water down the drain. Who walk through dangerous conditions to get water to live. Who don’t have an education because they’re searching for water instead. It’s an entire economy waiting to be activated. As someone who splashes through oceans, runs on beaches, takes deliciously long hot showers, drinks an abundant amount of coffee—this made me sick. The world is not fair. I’m ridiculously over-blessed and I can’t sit and whine about not having the latest iMac or iThing when there are other things do do.

 More people die from dirty water and poor sanitation than all forms of violence. $29 can change someone’s life. It’s actually pretty easy to do.

(5) Ask. You don’t get what you don’t ask for.

The art of asking is a funny business. Most people will tell you a story and then leave the table without explicitly stating what they would like you to do. Tell people what you want them to do and what, exactly, you’d like to get from them.

“I’d like you to invest $300,000 in my company.”

Keep it simple. Put the ask on the table. Look them in the eye. And—this is the most important part—then shut the fuck up. Ask, simply, and then wait. Don’t throw a bunch of garbage words into the space between your ask and the person’s response. The waiting part—that silence—is defeaning, but critical. For more on this scenario, ask me in person. I have lots to say about this.

(6) Ask, Part 2. Ask everyone. I asked my bus driver, my taxi driver, the brunch group, people at my swim, the coffee barista. I ended up having one of my @lyft drivers laughing so hard that he gave me cash straight out and volunteered to graffiti-paint my body for the swim. You. Must. Ask. Everyone.

(7) Do The Math. I didn’t set a goal and then sit back and wait. I obsessively graphed and charted each scenario for how much I would ask and what I needed to accomplish my goal. Would I ask 1000 people for $29? Would we get 100 people donating $29?

The final distribution was 460 people donating, plus an additional collection of $2900 from the party (raffle tickets and party tickets were $29-$87). With approximately 300 people donating $29; 80 people donating $58-87; 10 donated $100 and another 10 $290, a single $1000 donation, a single $2900 donation, and a single $5000 donation. The majority of the donations were under $100.

(8) Have A Plan… and Show Up.

I crafted a group of 400 people I knew and emailed them every two weeks throughout the course of the campaign. (For more on email design and templates, I have all of them saved with responses collated). I posted nearly every day on social media outlets (Facebook and Twitter) and owned the fact that I was doing it (“I will be posting until this campaign is over!”). I made a press commitment to try to publish one article a week for 12 weeks to gain attention and eyeballs for the campaign. (We ended up with ten essays throughout the course of the campaign over 9 weeks, not as evenly spaced as I would have hoped).

(9) Email is King. Your fastest and direct connection to most people is through their email inbox, and it’s more scaleable than telephone calls. Treat these emails with respect, and use them wisely. The highest return on the campaign came after each time I sent an email.

(10) What you hear is not what they hear. I got nervous that I was talking incessantly about my project (I was). I got sick of my own voice. The thing is, people receive your emails or see your tweets (or don’t) and they are busy—out shopping, eating, running errands, at work. They want to donate, but forget. The email follow-up in two weeks triggers people who want to donate to take action.

People generally need to see your ideas 4-7 times before they really familiarize themselves with it. Multiple messages is okay. If you send one email and no one responds, you might need to send another message. Just because you are talking about it all the time does not mean that they hear everthing you’re saying.

And if you create a great story—and you sweep people up in your project, they will rally behind you and want to know how the campaign is doing, and they want to know when you win. People love a good story. The additional messages aren’t a nuisance if they’re well-crafted—they’re bringing people into the story and along for the ride. Share your enthusiasm with them.

(11) Make people feel good about helping. If you’re awkward, they’re awkward. Believe in what you ask for.

(12) Say thank you. you can never, ever say thank you enough.

(13) Swim Naked. Okay, this isn’t really a necessity, but on September 20th we crossed the $29,000 threshold and 36 hours later, on Saturday, September 22nd, I got into a boat early in the dark morning, motored out to the island, took off all my clothes (less a swim cap) and swam from Alcatraz to fulfill my end of the bargain. Which brings me to the next point…

(14) Do what you say you’re going to do. People will rally behind you if you’re consistent. If you’re reliable. Even if it’s crazy. If they can trust you. Do something, and then hustle like crazy to make it happen.

There are at least 15 more thoughts on how to run a campaign and fundraise successfully–I’ll link to a couple interviews that are coming out and feel free to send a question to me here or here and I’ll share more.

 There are a billion people in our planet that don’t have clean water. That’s one out of every nine people, who can’t turn on a faucet to run water down the drain. Who walk through dangerous conditions to get water to live.

And you? Start your own campaign. Do something. Today. There were fewer than 48 hours between hearing the story in Portland and setting up my campaign on Monday, July 10th. I’ve already heard of at least 3 spin-off campaigns. You can do it. You can also still donate: trust me, I’ll find a way to get the money to Charity: Water. In fact, I’d be thrilled to tell Charity: Water that we still have donations coming in. You can find me.


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