The Boom in Creative Fundraising: Have We Reached Saturation Point?

Anna Spargo Ryan looks at the boom in creative fundraising, from abstinence (Febfast) to extreme activities (runs that push you to your limits) to the quirk factor (Frocktober).

Does all this activity help charities fill their coffers, or does it blend into a white noise that means we no longer hear the messages? She talks to charities and fundraising participants to find out.

In some ways I feel I have cheated my chosen charities. I have given up drinking and smoking and coffee and showers and television for free. When I looked for ways to raise funds for beyondblue last year, I couldn’t think of one single marketable skill or inherent talent that I could offer the fundraising community. I was viceless, and thereby voiceless.

Australia plays host to — and has indeed invented — a great number of community-focused fundraising endeavours, each designed to challenge, embarrass or torture until the funds are earned. There’s actually an activity to suit just about everybody.

Running is a big one, obviously. Each year, Run Melbourne raises multiple thousands of dollars to a host of different charities. Folks come from everywhere to pop on their blue Asics or their pink Reeboks or their silly costume and go headlong around the ‘Tan, and at the end they get a medal, and everybody wins. There are Colour Runs (start in a white t-shirt, finish with pink dust in your eyes) and Night Runs; there are runs on bridges and runs on hills; there are triathlons and biathlons and just plain athlons (I think).

At the other end of the spectrum is abstinence. There is big money in taking something you love and removing it from your person. We can now choose to be dry in January (Dry January), February (Febfast), July (Dry July, brother of Dry January) and October (Ocsober). Going without alcohol is megabucks, but in the event that you are already sober, you are invited to give up something else you adore (chocolate, coffee, sex, et al). There’s a sense of camaraderie in doing something difficult or inconvenient to raise funds and awareness; stuff that’s hard to give up or stuff that’s physically gruelling.

For me, it was a wise Twitter participant who saw Nanowrimo (an initiative that challenges participants to write a novel in a month) as a potential outlet, and Fundorimo became a thing that I did. For every ten cents raised, I would write one word. It had all the hallmarks of a fundraising activity: I was publicly accountable, the task was laborious, and I had to wear a t-shirt. I wrote 12,870 words and raised $1,287 for my nominated charity, beyondblue, and the only thing I had to give up was time. I puffed out my chest accordingly.

Activities like these are everywhere. Unsurprisingly, the major complaint from fundraisers and donors alike is that everyone seems to be doing it. Are we developing fundraising blindness? Is my disdain for Dry July about being a friendless teetotaller, or is it that I’ve reached saturation point?

Prashan Paramanathan is the CEO of Chuffed, a digital service that allows its users to crowd-fund charitable donations. ‘The issue is with potential donors developing a form of ‘banner-blindness’ to traditional fundraising channels and ways of asking,‘ he says. 'The challenge for our sector is figuring out how to use new channels to create compelling experiences that donors actually want to be part of.’

He says that with it being so easy to become a fundraiser, the main reason people give to these many, many, many causes is to support their friend or colleague. And that’s not the same thing as supporting the charity, which means donor loyalty is changing.

Diabetes Australia’s Michael Goldman (General Manager, Corporate Partnerships) echoes this sentiment. ‘You hear that Katie’s doing a fun run, but you don’t know what the fun run is for. You will actually find there’s been a slow degradation of causal awareness, because people don’t know what everyone is supporting. What matters is your connection to the person that’s participating, before or even instead of the charity.’

With donors making decisions based on the person instead of the charity, the vice itself has become something of an asset. Given the choice, we are more likely to support Dry July if our friend is usually a heavy drinker. Similarly, I suspect I might be able to raise a few dollars by taking up drinking for a month.

This kind of fundraising is not about the charity, but about the relationship between an individual and other individuals. That’s a trend that is echoed across all areas of corporatised Australia, but is perhaps most pertinent to charity.

Says Goldman: ‘The truth is that the onus is on us to try to innovate — to not do the same old thing — in order to reach these individuals. We have to make sure our messages are strong enough to stand out from the pack.’ He suggests that some of the messages coming from the charities just aren’t powerful enough to overcome the sheer attraction of a gimmick. But neither does he believe that the gimmick is detracting from the primary goal.

‘Whether or not we like these fundraising events, they are hugely successful awareness generators. They are about taking it to the streets. I think they do an amazing job of getting people to take notice of issues that don’t normally — and I’m talking about policymakers.’

On the one hand, this puts the public — the Facebook user, the Tweeter, the email spammer — under new pressure to try new things in order to make their chosen charity stand out from the pack. But on the other, the charity that brings in the most funds isn’t necessarily the one with the strongest message, as much it’s the one with the most influential and creative participants.

And they are certainly that. I spoke to three fundraisers who are doing weird and wonderful things for charity.

'With Frocktober, people follow via social media to see the daily frock.’

'With Frocktober, people follow via social media to see the daily frock.’

One such activity that’s gaining serious momentum is wearing dresses. In 2013, Rebecca Jolley participated in Frocktober — wearing a different dress every day and sharing photos on social media in the name of fashion, embarrassment and ovarian cancer research. ‘Keeping people’s attention for a whole month is the issue. With Frocktober, people follow via social media to see the daily frock.’

Rebecca’s reasons for choosing Frocktober didn’t echo mine (angry lady chooses to be spiteful about nothing), but instead were considered and deliberate. ‘To make an impact, gain attention and maintain attention for a full month or week is imperative,’ she says. ‘Frocktober really stood out as an opportunity to engage in a meaningful and ongoing way.’

Elsewhere, we find Dan Camilleri. Dan likes video games, and he’s managed to turn his passion into a fundraiser — the Lame Game Marathon. He and his mates spend 24 consecutive hours playing the worst video games they can find, in the name of supporting children in need. ‘As much as I love gaming,’ he says, ‘I realised it was a privilege in my early years that is worlds away from what some children on the other side of the world will ever get to experience. I liked the idea of us using this element from our childhood in order to try and help disadvantaged children and maybe make their childhoods a little bit better.’ That love of video games has seen the group donate $20,000 to Unicef in the past three years.

The Lame Game Marathon has raised $20,000 for Unicef in the past three years.

The Lame Game Marathon has raised $20,000 for Unicef in the past three years.

Moving forward, it seems the charities that will have the greatest success are those that can differentiate, and push through this donor malaise.

Emily Orpin — who also participated in Frocktober — says the main issue is that fundraising is everywhere. ‘People stopping you on the street, emails, snail mail, collection buckets on every counter,’ she says. ‘There are so many worthy causes out there, it is a bit overwhelming. So yes, it is really important to have an activity that stands out, that generates a bit of fun and excitement.’

Whether this flurry of activity in social media channels will be reflected in higher figures in the first quarter of 2014 is yet to be seen, but Goldman offers these words of insight: ‘People who consider themselves to be influencers don’t necessarily have the same level of financial investment as those who see themselves as donors. There is a big distinction between influencers and donors — the influencer thinks, “I’ll get the message out and that’s my bit”.‘’

The lesson to internet-based fundraisers might be this: raising awareness is a terrific first step, but it’s not the only one. At the heart of each of these activities in a charity doing good work, and that should remain front of mind.

Maybe the vice I’m looking for is ‘donating to a charity’. If only I could figure out which one.