Crowdfunding: A Sustainable Source of Long-Term Funding for Non-Profits?

When most people think of crowdfunding, they think of one-off campaigns used to raise seed funding to launch an individual product. The product goes to market, donors receive an update and a perk, and that’s the end.

At Sarus, we have a different vision of what crowdfunding can be for organizations with a social mission. 2015 marks the fourth consecutive year in which we have used crowdfunding to raise a significant portion of our annual operating budget. More importantly, crowdfunding has served as a primary means of connecting stakeholders from around the world and cultivating our virtual community.

We’re currently running our fourth crowdfunding campaign. Each year, we’ve met increasingly higher goals: $10,000 in 2012, $15,000, in 2013, $20,000 in 2014, and now we’re aiming for $26,000 in 2015. In sum, more than 600 donors from over 25 countries have contributed to our campaigns. Far from experiencing donor fatigue after repeat crowdfunding campaigns, our donors have increased their giving over time. We’ve also seen repeat donors share their own personal Sarus story within their networks creating a ripple effect that has led not only to more donors, but also more engaged, enthusiastic donors.

At the heart of Sarus exchange programs is community. We use intentional community as a vehicle for building peace between groups of people in Asia with a history of conflict. With crowdfunding, we can reinforce and activate the existing Sarus community, while also bringing into the fold new people from around the world. Crowdfunding is a powerful tool for fostering virtual community. Through every detail of the campaign, we strive to foster the same type of intentional, authentic community that our programs build on the ground in Asia. For example, each perk is designed to engage people in a personally meaningful manner with the Sarus mission, vision, and values, while also creating individual connections between diverse Sarus stakeholders. Perks such as handmade cards from alumni or a student-made documentary on discrimination against ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia are intended to be conversation starters between our alumni and our donors.

This year we wanted to take intentional virtual community to the next level, so we created an open application for anyone who wanted to join our crowdfunding team. Our team includes 25 people from 7 different countries. Team members are staff, former staff, program alumni, donors, partners, and people we’ve never met before. While we hope that these team members will help us reach our fundraising goal and develop skills in the process, the ultimate goal is to create connections between people who would not otherwise meet and to build authentic community. To what extent it will work, we’ve yet to find out. But whatever the case, we’ll learn and grow as an organization. And, that’s key: Crowdfunding provides a unique space for us to experiment, to play, and to learn.

Another crowdfunding lab experiment for us this year is the Sarus Workshop Series. We’ve been recruiting Sarus stakeholders with expertise on topics of relevance to the Sarus community such as non-violent communication, human-centered design, and open facilitation techniques to share their knowledge and experience through a series of workshops with those who donate to our campaign. We see this as a win-win perk for all parties: facilitators can test out new ideas and gain experience, workshop participants (donors) can learn a new skill, Sarus can develop its program curriculum, and most significantly, everyone will have the opportunity to connect with people they’d never otherwise meet, all of which will give added breadth, depth, and energy to the Sarus community. We don’t know how this will work out, but, again, the point is that crowdfunding allows us to learn and grow as an organization, while also simultaneously raising funds and building community.

A final crowdfunding value-added for Sarus is that these campaigns create a space for us to explore, re-discover, and share our story. Each year, we have the opportunity to articulate what we do and why we’re doing it with our supporters. As different members of our community from around the world share their own individual, personal Sarus stories during these campaigns, our collective story evolves and unfolds. As opposed to a fixed and rigid hierarchical storytelling that emanates from a single source, crowdfunding allows us the space to have multiple perspectives on Sarus, multiples stories. And from this difference sprouts beauty and community.

We’re under no illusion that crowdfunding is a fundraising panacea. It’s slow, difficult, and not always the most time- and resource- effective way to raise money. But if your intention is to also build community around a cause and mature as an organization, then you may want to consider integrating crowdfunding into your organization’s ongoing fundraising strategies.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on crowdfunding as a sustainable funding mechanism. And we invite you to share your feedback on our current crowdfunding campaign: “Not Your Typical Exchange.”

Written by Sarus Founder & Executive Director, Wesley Hedden.