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Think outside the kettle: Three holiday fundraising case studies

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Like retail, charities get much of their revenue during the winter holiday season: those few precious weeks bracketed by the lead-in to American Thanksgiving in November and closing with Christmas.

With the glut of fundraisers, toy drives and calls for festive donations dominating the charitable landscape at this time of year and the proliferation of technologies that are changing how those donations are made, what can make a nonprofit's campaign stand out?

"If you're the first to adopt a strategy or technology in a given space, you have First Mover Advantage: that's significant and not to be undervalued, because you can leverage it into media coverage," says Darren Barefoot of Capulet Communications in Vancouver, British Columbia.

But the rush to be first can create hazards for an organization that is more committed to standing out than standing firm on what made them important to their core supporters.

Here are three approaches (not all of them successful) to give you festive food for thought.

The Salvation Army "Rocks the Red Kettle"

A straight-ahead appeal to tweens, teens and Gen-Y, Rock the Red Kettle concerts, first held in California and Florida last year, are aimed at raising awareness of the Salvation Army among American youth and growing a relationship with them – instead of raising funds. Last year's concert raised a very modest $5,000 from the kids who took in the shows.

This year's tour features the Rolling Stone magazine-touted band Honor Society, who will make stops across the US as well as in Toronto and Montreal. The band is also encouraging fans to volunteer with the Salvation Army by offering the chance to be in the band's next video — when they help their local Salvation Army feed the hungry.

And wither the red kettle? There are now online Red Kettles and the Salvation Army is also experimenting with mobile devices to collect kettle donations: the Salvation Army in Massachusetts is trying QR codes on its kettles; and some bell ringers in four major US cities will be equipped with Square, a credit card reader that attaches to a smartphone.

But traditionalists, take heart: there are still the iconic street-side kettles and bell ringers — a Minnesota DJ has even set a Guinness Record for non-stop bell-ringing (30 hours and one minute) during the Salvation Army's Kettle Kickoff this November. Also, the Salvation Army in Canada offers a website search feature that gives the location of Red Kettles in your neighbourhood.

Keeping the kettles and bells at the forefront of their strategy, even in a digital age, keeps the Salvation Army in the popular imagination — a position it has earned after a century of doing good with small change and ringing bells.

"You want to hold on to what makes you iconic," says Barefoot. "UNICEF got rid of their orange Halloween boxes and I never understood that decision. The Salvation Army is still respecting tradition — after all, they could just hold up a poster with their QR code on it.

"But there is a trend away from using cash, and as an organization you need to respond to that. They're wise to test-market Square: people will be rightfully skeptical about giving their credit cards to a stranger on the street to swipe with a smart phone."

The technological take-away for your nonprofit? Keep an eye to trends but don't commit too early.

"Finding little pilot projects and testing is the way to go," says Barefoot.

"We play a bad game so kids can play good games": The Desert Bus for Hope video game marathon

Desert Bus is a video game designed by magicians Penn & Teller and it is alleged to be the most boring game ever made. Players drive a bus through the desert on an eight-hour return trip between Las Vegas and Tucson – that's it. Loading, Ready, Run (LRR), a Victoria, British Columbia-based sketch comedy group, started Desert Bus for Hope, a gaming marathon, to raise funds for Child's Play which brings video games, toys and books to children's hospitals worldwide.

LRR group members play Desert Bus in a combination marathon and telethon that is streamed online. The length of game play is determined by donations, in a kind of driven-by-the-cruelty-of-the-donors way: the more donated, the longer the team has to play the boring, boring game. Last year's marathon took a grueling six days.

But it's working. This is the fifth year for the Desert Bus drivers: the fundraiser has grown to 20 volunteers from four and has raised more than $400,000 in total, all of which goes directly to Child's Play. Most of the donations are from high school and university students who relish the power that their donations give over the hapless players.

"The mixture of generosity and spite is a really powerful thing," says LRR founder Paul Saunders.

What's even more surprising?

"We have no nonprofit experience," says Kathleen De Vere, an LRR actor and the group's media relations officer. "This started out very organically and we had no idea how successful it would be."

Running Desert Bus for Hope during the holiday season is also equal parts organic and pragmatic.

"A lot of our audience is American, so we time it around US Thanksgiving so people will have time to watch and take part," says De Vere.

With many nonprofits worrying about youth engagement, what can this gaggle of gamers teach your organization about connecting to Generation Y?

"Charities seem to be faceless organizations that are run by older people," says De Vere. "There's a real change in the way that people are forming their connections, and how they engage with the causes that are important to them.

"We reach out and engage in the way young people want to engage: it's not "I give you money and I don't have a say in how it's spent."

"Bad gifts don't save lives": Meaningful giving with WarChildGifts.ca

Last Christmas, War Child did its part to steer holiday spending away from tacky gifts to purchases that could make a difference in war-ravaged countries, launching a catalogue that offered bread ovens, seeds and toolkits that donors could purchase to benefit people overseas.

Toronto-based advertising agency John St. created tongue-in-cheek ads to drive traffic to WarChildGifts.ca, like a woman plummeting from ladder while putting up Christmas lights and a choking man giving himself the Heimlich by falling across a ghastly gold leopard statue that he got as a gift.

The tagline: "Bad gifts don't save lives. War Child gifts actually do."

War Child is known for riding the edge when it comes to their awareness-building campaigns; an ad from 2007 showed the horrors of the lives of child soldiers by ironically setting their experience in a regular summer camp.

"War Child tends to do things in an audacious way," says Stephen Jurisic, partner and creative director at John St. So ads that showed a dramatic fall from a ladder or a glob of partially chewed food splattering on the floor should have grabbed widespread attention — especially in the morass of poignant carols and warm-fuzzy imagery that typify holiday fundraising.

Except it didn't.

One year later, the WarChildGifts.ca domain seems to be dead and there is nothing in the War Child website that references it. Even the War Child Shop section only offers the regular T-shirts, buttons, CDs and greeting cards — not a bread oven in sight.

"Overall, it wasn't a big success," admits Jurisic. "We did try to get it out there but it didn't receive the traction we were hoping for. War Child is not known for gifting and they were competing with organizations with ten times their budget."

So is it worth trying to ride the wave of holiday giving?

"The challenges are immense," says Jurisic. "It's a very crowded arena and everybody wants your attention. But the benefit is that it's a time for giving, which means people are searching for their charity. [B]ut if you're small, like War Child, you'll get lost."

What should nonprofits do during the holidays? Go big or go ho-ho-home?

"My advice would be to stay very focused on the loyal donors that you have, especially if you're a small to medium-sized organization," says Jurisic. "Do something more engaging at a less crowded time — or don't advertise during that period so that you don't get smothered by the other charities that are out there."

Benita Aalto is a writer and communications consultant with extensive experience in corporate communications as well as in print and broadcast journalism. She has been a featured guest on TVO, CTV, CBC Newsworld, and CBC Radio, among others.

Please note: While we ensure that all links and e-mail addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other web sites and e-mail addresses may no longer be accurate.

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