Crowdsourcing for Nonprofits: What You Need to Know

Crowdsourcing can be defined as enlisting the services of a number of individuals for a particular cause usually via the internet. It is also very reflective of common community organizing techniques where you trust the established network or community has all the experts it needs to accomplish a goal. Additionally, crowdsourcing, as with community organizing, allows a community to come together for the purpose of working towards a common goal using their own skills and their own ideas. Most importantly, it can be a method of empowerment, albeit a digital enfranchisement.

You’ve probably heard of ‘Crowd funding’, a fundraising side to crowdsourcing. Websites such as Kickstarter, Crowdtilt, IndieGoGo, and others exist to pool funds from many people to create something- a new product, a realized idea, t-shirts for a community center, or whatever else. There are even nonprofits that exist solely on this crowdfunding model: Benevolent,  Watsi, and others.

How Does this Apply to Nonprofits?

Nonprofits use crowdsourcing in many ways to accomplish the same goals in the digital world that they would have otherwise used in more traditional methods. The upside of crowdsourcing is that it’s free and requires much less time and effort to track down the experts or resources you need. The only requirement is that you must have access to an online community infrastructure ready to call upon. In this digital age, many (should be all) nonprofits have some sort of online presence. Websites such as VolunteerMatch or Idealist also help with gathering people who have very particular skills and knowledge.

How Can You Start Using Crowdsourcing?

The simplest way to get what you need is to ask for it. The fundraisers in the audience will know exactly what I’m talking about. If you want people to donate $500, you don’t have a default option on your mailing cards to donate $5. You start at $500 and work your way up. You have to ask people for exactly what you want if you want to get it.

In order to ask for what you need, you must have a way to communicate with people. Email campaigns or social media are the correct venues to do this. But, in order for those to work, you have to know who your supporters are and why they support you. This will require data gathering and analysis. In addition to spending face-to-face time with your supporters, you will also need to study their online habits. When are they most likely to donate? Is it after a press release, or during the holidays? How should you word your emails in order to get the best response? You need to connect increases in exposure to tangible events that you can test by repeating. Mention is one great way to practice some online- listening for free.

This online listening infrastructure will be the most difficult task for you to complete. Not because setting it up is hard, or because understanding what you’re looking for is difficult. It’s easy to see a sharp spike in website page views and know that something good happened. The hardest part of this is the discipline that it will require in order to be effective.

You cannot just set this stuff up and leave it alone. You have to spend a few hours a month making sure that what your supporters found interesting before is still interesting. Or, if a new social media platform comes out, you’ll have to adapt. You’ll have to pay attention to the news and respond if relevant media coverage might affect you or your services. These things are not difficult to do, or overly time-consuming. It’s much easier to check your Google Analytics page once a week than it is to keep pumping out press releases and social media posts that have zero views and get you nowhere.

In a nutshell, the steps to beginning crowdsourcing are:

  1. Establish an online presence.
  2. Establish data collection and analysis tools.
  3. Get people to look at your stuff and sympathize. (Get more people using step 2.)
  4. Ask them for something.

Examples of Successful Nonprofit Crowdsourcing:

Any volunteers can be found through VolunteerMatch, Idealist, or any other online platform.

A community center needs its roof repaired. It asks its newsletter subscribers.

A New York radio host wants to know the cost of food in different neighborhoods across New York City. It asks its listeners to comment with the prices and where they live.

A Charter School attempts to raise enough funds to open.

The American Red Cross uses digital volunteers and social media to talk to and track disaster victims. Learn more from Amanda Palmer’s Ted Talk – The Art of Asking.

Published by

Rachel Lendzion

Rachel Lendzion obtained her MSW from the University of Michigan where she studied Community Organizing and Nonprofit Management. She is strongly interested in the intersection of technology and social change. Her background includes work with transitional aged youth and persons without stable living conditions. She hopes to forward her career through nonprofit development and marketing. You can learn more on her website: For regular posts on the use of technology and social work, follow her on Twitter. View all posts by Rachel Lendzion

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