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.

50 Years Later The War on Poverty Continues

Homelessness in America

50 years after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Poverty, the US continues to struggle in the fight against poverty. However, recent legislative decisions would not lean towards alleviating poverty for the 15% + of Americans living below the poverty line today. With food stamp surplus monies cut in November, and Unemployment Benefits ending for 1.3 million Americans next month, times are hard and it doesn’t seem as if there will be relief anytime soon.

According to the New York Times:

“Without the panoply of government benefits — like food stamps, subsidized school lunches and the earned-income tax credit, which provides extra money to household heads earning low wages — the nation’s poverty rate last year would have reached almost 31 percent, up from 25 percent in 1967, according to the research at Columbia.”

The way that we socially define poverty changes as society changes. If we were to compare ourselves now to families living in the 1960s- we’d be very wealthy indeed.  However, the formula for the “poverty threshold” has not changed since 1963 as stated in a recent article by the Wall Street Journal.

This formula assumes that the cost of food will make up 1/3 of a family’s expenses. That is not at all true today, when food costs are an average of 1/5 of a family’s expenses and housing costs are creeping over 50%.

As the Wall Street Journal mentions:

“Today [the poverty threshold], it falls short. It fails to account for noncash benefits such as food stamps; for changing expenditure patterns that have shifted the poor’s burden from food to medical expenses and housing; and for regional variation that makes a dollar go further in the rural South than, say, in New York.”

The threshold is updated annually to account for inflation- but that is the only change made to the formula in over 50 years.

Just about everyone agrees that the formula is outdated and does not reflect an appropriate measure of poverty. But finding a solution that appeases bipartisan legislators is difficult. The cost of raising the poverty line to a number that adequately reflects the state of poverty in the US would increase the total number of persons eligible for government assistance by 1% (i.e.the total number of persons in poverty would be 16.1%, up from the 15% quoted above).

What are the long term effects of hiding the number of poor in this country behind an outdated formula, and what will it mean for our country?

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