Lessons Learned: Crowdfunding with Social Entrepreneurs

Daniel Jensen is a second year MPA-PNP student at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. In 2014, he co-founded Art in Your Space, a non-profit that teaches urban teans leadership and project management skills through an art, tech, and design curriculum. Before that, he taught English and worked with Amnesty International in Mexico. He is also Vice President of Communications for the NYU Entrepreneurs Network and Vice Chair of External Affairs for Bridge at Wagner. His favorite movie is Magnolia by Paul Thomas Anderson.


If you've ever tried running a crowdfunding campaign, you'll know it's harder than it looks.

People have raised over half a million dollars for fly-murdering salt guns and one guy even raised $55,000 to make a frickin' potato salad. If people are so willing to throw their money away on clearly useless things, why is it so hard to get them to put their money towards a good cause?

Students from all across NYU got some answers last night at Crowdfunding for Social Entrepreneurs, co-hosted by Bridge at Wagner and three other student groups from CAS, Stern, and Poly. The event was sponsored by the NYUEN Collaboration Fund. John Vaskis, head of Indiegogo's gaming vertical, gave a fast-paced presentation on Crowdfunding 101, filled with stories of surprise successes (like the aforementioned fly swatter-turned nerf gun) and spectacular failures. Then participants heard from a panel of social entrepreneurs, both seasoned and fresh out of the gate, moderated by Erin Morgan Gore, Director of Strategy at Purpose and Adjunct Professor at NYU.

As someone who's consulted with social enterprises on fundraising strategies a number of times in the past and had challenges raising capital for my own non-profit startup, I can say we learned much more last night than can be summarized in a simple blog post. However, here are some of the highlights of the night for those of you who couldn't make it:

  1. Don't start a crowdfunding campaign if the only thing you want is money. John Vaskis lives by this slogan when advising clients on crowdfunding strategy. A successful crowdfunding campaign can do a lot to raise your visibility, test the market for a new product, and get valuable feedback on your concept, but it's also almost a full-time job. There are a lot of easier ways to get $1,000,000, like selling yourself 250,000 ways on Fiverr.
  2. Use a personal touch. Taryn Miller-Stevens of Get // Out recounted how they segmented their mailing lists in ridiculous detail using tools like Gmail's contact groups to create personalized messages for different groups of people who might be interested in the campaign for different reasons. They found that personalized asks worked better than anything -- including paid Facebook advertising.
  3. Remember to say Thank You...Publicly! Peter Stolarski shared the story of an unidentified man in the Bronx who gave $25 to Get // Out for a BLT sandwich. The video documenting Taryn and Peter's trip to personally deliver the sandwich went viral almost immediately.
  4. Don't underestimate the amount of work that happens after the campaign. The Heat Seek team has been up to their ears in emails back and forth with contributors about t-shirt sizes, the most popular item on their Kickstarter, ordering the t-shirts and dealing with backorders. Peter and Taryn are writing hundreds of individualized thank-yous. The list goes on.
  5. Take your campaign with you to a funder. Amy Merril regularly counsels her clients on how they can use their Change Heroes campaign to convince funders of their proof of concept. A successful campaign shows that there is both support and demand for your product or service -- a critical element when convincing a donor or VC to write a check for your project.