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You Get What You Give: How A Potato Salad Can Teach You To Run A Good Donation Drive - The Watchtower of Destruction: The Ferrett's Journal
July 8th, 2014
10:19 am

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You Get What You Give: How A Potato Salad Can Teach You To Run A Good Donation Drive

I had a friend who wanted very badly to go overseas.  Sadly, I can’t remember why she wanted to go overseas – we’ll get to that – but what I do remember was her disastrous donation drive.

She set up an Indiegogo account – a.k.a., “The place we go when we’re pretty sure a Kickstarter would fail” – and set up various tiers of rewards if she got enough money to go overseas: little tiny things like postcards, et al.  And what I remember was that the tier pattern went something like this:

  • $30 – I will write you a personalized Tweet when I am in Czechoslovakia.

That’s where I started to feel a bit… insulted?  Overlooked?  Taken for granted?  Not a good feeling when I’m being asked to reach into my wallet.

As a writer, for me, being paid six cents a word – a word – is called “professional rates,” meaning it’s what the top-tier markets get.  And this campaign designed to induce me to give my friend money was giving them Tweet-rights of two cents per letter.

And I Tweet a lot.  I know how much time I spend composing a very thoughtful Tweet, which is at best three minutes.  So what my friend was saying to me, quite literally, was, “I think three minutes of my time is worth several hours of your paycheck while I relax on the beach in foreign lands.”

Already I was feeling a little dazed here.  And then I got to the next tier, which was something like:

  • $50 – I will allow you access to the personalized blog where I detail my trip to Czechoslovakia.

That’s when I thought, oh, no, no, you’re doing it all wrong.  My friend was thinking entirely about what she wanted, the trip, and how much work each tier would be for her, then pricing them accordinglyWhich is the wrong way to look at it.

Here’s the secret to every donation drive – and keep in mind, I’ve run quite a few – the donation drives are never about what you want.

Every donation drive is about how you make the donator feel.

That’s actually true of every piece of written communication, but is especially true when you’re asking people to give you money.  When you do a donation drive, you are not trying to go to Czechoslovakia – you are trying to make a total stranger feel excited about getting you to Czechoslovakia.  And as such, your entire focus must be answering the question, “Why would someone who doesn’t know me feel wonderful about helping me to go on this trip?”

The whole reason I’m writing this now is because there is an infamous Kickstarter for potato salad – literally, the entire point was “If this funds, I will make myself some potato salad” – and it is, as of this morning, it is funded at $37,500 with 24 days left to go.  And I had several baffled sick friends saying, “I held a donation drive to pay off my crippling doctor’s bills and stalled out at $150, and this guy gets thousands for a goddamned potato salad?”

Yes.  Because potato salad guy actually seemed like fun.  It was goofy to even ask for such a thing, and funny, and people felt like “Hey, a guy like this I feel good about throwing away $1 to.”  In other words, “He provided me with $1 worth of amusement.”  And several thousand people joined in.

And watch carefully, my friends, as to how he reacted when all this escalated: did he hunker down when his stretch goals were made?  Hell no.  When this started to go viral, the dude said, “Well, hell, if people want this, I will throw a potato salad party,” and threw open a call for anyone in the area to come on down to Columbus and make some potato salad with him and dance around in the joy of potato salad.  The potato salad guy sounds like a fun time!  Hell, he’s in Columbus, I am damn tempted to go down for his potato salad fiesta.

The question is, did your donation drive provide $1 worth of entertainment?

Look, I’ve raised somewhere in the range of $5,000-$10,000 for Rebecca Alison Meyer, my goddaughter who died of brain cancer a month ago.  And that’s not nearly as celebratory fun as a potato salad party, but the reason I was so successful – as people have told me time and time again, sometimes to my chagrin – is that “You made Rebecca come alive for me.”  Being a writer, I tugged on your heartstrings to feel empathy for a beautiful spitfire of a girl that you’d never met, and so many of you donated to CureSearch for Cancer in her name.

I hesitate to use the term “entertainment” for such an awful travesty, but the point is people felt good either way about donating.  They felt like it was worth their money, emotionally.  And too many people, like my friend, get caught up on the tiers of rewards, thinking, “What can I churn out?” and forgetting that the rewards are merely another way of making people feel more excited about donating.

And when I see these medical donation drives, what I see is often a relentless stew of pain: “I’m miserable and broke and have to buy duct tape to hold in my shattered skull.  If you donate $5, well, it won’t actually make a dent in this mountain of medical debt I have, it’s all hopeless really, but if you’ll let me weep on you for some time I’ll send you a postcard to remind you exactly how little of a difference you made.”

Then they get no traction.

No, man, if I was poor enough to need funding to, say, buy myself some new glasses, I would ask this simple question: “Why would people feel good about giving me money to buy glasses?”  And by proxy, “What could I tell them to make them feel empathy – to make them go, ‘Aw, man, I’ll feel happy if this balding dude in Cleveland gets his glasses’?”

And I’d think, “Well, I have all these books I want to read.”  And I’d start making a list of all the books I’m excited about reading but can’t, but could if you helped me, then talk about these upcoming books and the very specific reasons I’m excited about reading them – going on about my love of, say, Jo Walton or Stephen King or Robert Bennett – and make you feel excited with me.

And then I’d say, “Why, I’d be so grateful if you helped me with these glasses, for $30 I’ll buy a book that you love and read it and tell you all the lovely things about it!”

Would that work?  I don’t know.  But I do know it’d work better than, “I’m broke and I need glasses, give me the cash.”

The lesson about Kickstarter or Indiegogo or any donation drive is that you get what you give.  My friend shouldn’t have made her blog a $50 tier – the blog access should have been for donation $1, the lowest possible level, telling people, “If you sign up in any way, I will let you into my world and tell you of all the wonders I find in Czechoslovakia.”  As it is, honestly, I don’t remember why my friend wanted to go to Czechoslovakia, which is a sign of how badly the drive was presented to me – she was my friend, I cared about her, and I couldn’t tell you what it meant to her aside from a thrusting hand in my face.

And, of course, her donation drive didn’t get anywhere.  What happened was what happened with most of the donation drives: her close friends gave what they could, a handful of acquaintances pitched it, and it stopped there because if you didn’t know my friend, well, this donation page would not have told you a darned thing about her.  She was very sad, even if she was resistant to changing her donation page because she’d worked so hard on it.

The lesson: be the potato salad.  Even if you’re sick and life is terrible, find a way to get people invested in your journey.  Give them only things that make them feel more invested in your journey.  Make them feel triumph when you succeed, and I can’t guarantee you’ll get potato salad money, but you’ll get more than you would have.  For sure.

(And if you’re looking for a good couple to donate to, may I suggest helping my friends Jeff and Tracy Spangler?  It couldn’t hurt.)

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

This entry has also been posted at http://theferrett.dreamwidth.org/417620.html. You can comment here, or comment there; makes no never-mind by me.

(16 shouts of denial | Tell me I'm full of it)

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[User Picture]
From:quirkytizzy
Date:July 8th, 2014 03:23 pm (UTC)
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This can be applied and extended to so many things, especially as to how to not only get the right support you need, but how to give the right support, too. Not just for money, but others time and energy.

BE THE POTATO SALAD. This is like a new motto.

Edited at 2014-07-08 03:24 pm (UTC)
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From:whipchick
Date:July 8th, 2014 03:25 pm (UTC)
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I'm passing this link out to as many people as I can - you really, really put your finger on why I despise so many donation drives, and why I end up giving to the ones I do.

Hilariously, the UAE government web censor won't let me get to your "Ferret's Real Blog." Now I *really* want to know what's over there!
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From:theferrett
Date:July 9th, 2014 01:41 pm (UTC)
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I wrote a lot about sex early on, and submitted my site to several "adult" places in an attempt to be responsible. Of course, they turned into censor lists, and there's no way to get off most of them.
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From:roomette
Date:July 8th, 2014 03:36 pm (UTC)
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I get tons and tons of Kickstarter and Seed and Sprout requests as an indie filmmaker. I pass along very, very few. But I'm a pretty successful fundraiser in my own right, though I've always just done it on a personal level. I just produced something and I had to go back to almost every artist involved and remind them this was a commercial gig.

So I think I have a tiny bit of insight. I really agree with you, strongly.

Too many of them come along and use the "awesomer" concept. As in, "I'm awesomer than you and you could never do this, this amazing thing I'm doing. But you can have a bit of the stardust by contributing and then you can say you know me and were part of this and I will say thank you. And then you can go back to your regular job and do regular things but now you know me and you had this brush. So YAY US and thank you to you!"

Yeah, I'm too alpha bitch to buy it.

That message of "us" versus "you" is off-putting. I think that someone who processes my DMV paperwork correctly and quickly is going to have a lot more impact on my life than the average indie filmmaker. Or the guy who answers the online Verizon customer service. I just had that guy and he was awesome and fixed my world. I'm pretty grateful to the gal who bags my groceries. I can't lift them this pregnant and she always gets the heavy stuff in the cart in a way that my sons can unload it. <3 her. I'd contribute to her Kickstarter to … whatever. Because she is involved with me and we are equals. I'm not better than a grocery bagger cause I make films. I just do different things.

Writing it down makes it important. Filming it makes it seem real. Pretty powerful. And we both know that even though we do them and it can change someone's life or have a big impact, we still can't mend a bone or broken heart with them. I think knowing your proper place in the world is the first step to successful fundraising. Honest to God. My projects succeed because I start out by asking people what they think of them. I say, "I need help with this. Do you know of anyone who would find helping rewarding? I don't want to do this alone." Because that's the truth. When I see help I am seeing collaboration. Equality. I want my peers involved and if my peer doesn't work in film, that doesn't matter. They still know a lot about story and what they like to watch and there, we intersect.

The charitable fundraisers seem to go for a pain brokerage that operate on pity. I don't want to pity anyone, I want to HELP. Pity means I think you kinda earned your spot where you are and I'm helping but there's a feeling of… ugh. Shouldn't I be helping someone who didn't earn where they are? Aren't they in just as much pain? And it becomes about a pain measurement which is … weird. As if we can measure pain. But as humans we try.

When you lay down money for a medical fund, or to help when it's not in the arts, its because you know that that these experiences can,and may some day be universal and we stop worrying about the pain measurement and remember the person. If money is the last way we can help we do. It's a community collaboration. One of the best ones I saw said, "I want to raise enough money that it would represent buying a really nice cup of coffee for every day the nurse was here when she was caring for our sick child." And I thought, "I see what you want to do. You want to offer the daily thank you gesture that you wish you could have when she was there. And all my internet well wishes can help, I can be the person that brings the coffee that day!" Let me see how I'm helping! Let me see the collaboration!

Let me help. Everyone who helps says, "I want to make a difference."

I'm rambling because I'm pregnant and fasting for a test. But I keep thinking about during 9/11 I had a friend who was searching for survivors. At the end of each day she was defeated. There were so few. The search and rescuerers started to hide in rubble to be found just to keep the spirits up of the rescue dogs who were also getting depressed. Lesson learned: we have to be able to help. For anything you donate to, you have to be able to HELP. Change things. Make a difference.

[User Picture]
From:quirkytizzy
Date:July 8th, 2014 03:57 pm (UTC)
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I want to marry this comment and you.
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From:theferrett
Date:July 9th, 2014 01:42 pm (UTC)
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You're on a roll, kid. A serious roll
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From:deep_blue_see
Date:July 8th, 2014 03:53 pm (UTC)
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And this campaign designed to induce me to give my friend money was giving them Tweet-rights of two cents per letter.

I think you mean twenty cents per letter?
($30 / 140 characters = about $0.21 / character)
(My brain checks arithmetic instinctively...)
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From:cahwyguy
Date:July 8th, 2014 04:17 pm (UTC)
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I read this, and some interesting thoughts came to my mind. I've just been elected President of our men's organization at our synagogue, and we're moving away from the model of fee for service (otherwise known as membership dues) to supporting an organization because you want to.

Reading your post in that light, it got me thinking about how we request support for non-profit organizations. Think about that local theatre. Do you support them because they are in trouble? Do you support them to get tickets? If you subscribe, why do you subscribe?

I'll opine that a lot of support comes from connections: If you can see a connection between you and what you are supporting, you're more inclined to support. What can you offer that will build that connection, as opposed to a goodie for giving? The latter is what I expect from a CD kickstarter, and why I tend to sponsor those only at the level that gets me the CD.
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From:cynic51
Date:July 9th, 2014 12:58 pm (UTC)
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I have volunteered for 15 years at a local college/community station that does a telethon for one week every year. We do mandatory training for the event, and the number one thing we stress is "talk about what the listener is getting out of it." Pitches might include:
- maybe you love hearing new kinds of music you can't hear anywhere else
- maybe you love that you can call up and talk to the DJ and it's actually someone here in Cleveland who will answer your questions
- maybe you value the concert calendars, ticket giveaways and support for local musicians.

The key bit is "maybe YOU". Because it's all about the donor. Sure, we talk a little bit about what we plan to spend the money, but we always pitch that in terms of benefit to the listener, like "maybe you heard the signal dropouts we've had the last few months. We will take your donations and fix that problem so you never have to hear them again!"
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From:xiphias
Date:July 9th, 2014 01:31 am (UTC)
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Let's not say "entertainment."

Let's say, rather, "connection."

"I will tweet to you" is an obviously faked connection. And fake connection feels insulting.

"I like potato salad. Do you like potato salad?" is certainly dumb -- but it's honest. It's real, and it forms a connection. A superficial, silly connection -- but a real one. And what's wrong with being superficial and silly?

"This is my goddaughter whom I love. Let me show you how I love her, and then you'll love her, too" is a connection -- a deep one, and a real one.

As an aside -- this is why personal one-on-one charity will never take the place of foundation and/or government assistance: one-on-one charity helps people who have a specific skill set. "Making people feel a connection to me" is a job. If you don't have that skill set, if you can't hold down that job, you can't get one-on-one charity.

I say that because Harvard Square has some of the best beggars in the world: people who approach begging as a job, with tricks, skills, and talents. Beggars who trade tips with one another, and with buskers, whose skill set overlaps.

Buskers, beggars, crowdsource funding recipients: it's all about creating an emotional connection, a relationship, and an identity with your audience. "Entertainment" is one form of connection. But not the only one.

(Beggars in Harvard Square have some of the BEST signs. "IF YOU SMILE AT THIS SIGN, I'VE PROVIDED YOU AT LEAST 25 CENTS WORTH OF ENTERTAINMENT. PLEASE PLACE QUARTER IN BOWL BELOW." Stuff like that.)
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From:theferrett
Date:July 9th, 2014 01:42 pm (UTC)
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Yup. This.
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From:tfcocs
Date:July 9th, 2014 03:11 am (UTC)
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The Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic are two separate countries, and have been since 1/1/93. Perhaps neglecting to acknowledge that fact might have dissuaded potential donors from contributing?
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From:theferrett
Date:July 9th, 2014 01:43 pm (UTC)
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Well, I used a purposely bad country so that the details were obfuscated. Remember, I do that a lot.
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From:dharawal
Date:July 9th, 2014 06:24 am (UTC)
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Bingo!!!

I donated to a kickstarter for a lady of my acquaintance who wanted to go to the UK, I donated not because I thought she deserved a holiday, but because she was going to travel the UK wearing a Unicorn onsie.

And I just had to be part of that, to see the pictures, and the hilarious responses she got from people as she went about her travels in a Unicorn onsie, she set up a website and blog for anybody who donated to read, she sent postcards, she didn't have too many tiers, but bloody hell they were all fun things she was going to do in return for sponsoring, and people wanted to see her in her onsie, travelling the UK and having fun.

For me that was worth the $5 I threw her way, I got far more than $5 worth of entertainment from it.

[User Picture]
From:theferrett
Date:July 9th, 2014 01:43 pm (UTC)
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An excellent way of doing it. And I suspect she had more fun that way.
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From:xuenay
Date:July 9th, 2014 05:11 pm (UTC)
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an Indiegogo account – a.k.a., “The place we go when we’re pretty sure a Kickstarter would fail”

(Or the place where you go if you don't have a presence in the very small set of countries where you have to live in if you want Kickstarter to approve your project - currently US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the Netherlands.)
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