The Power of Many: Crowdfunding for Choruses
Choruses are finding crowdfunding success, from raising money for specific projects to participating in community giving events.
With study after study showing that online giving is on the rise, it’s no wonder that crowdfunding has become such a buzzword. Defined as “funding a project or venture by raising many small amounts of money from a large number of people, typically via the Internet,” crowdfunding uses the power of community to make lots of little donations add up to one big number.
It’s hard to think of a type of arts organization better positioned to capitalize on this trend than a chorus. After all, choruses are skilled at turning the contributions of many—singers, staff, and volunteers—into something that is far greater than the sum of its parts.
When social media is involved, crowdfunding campaigns have the potential to go viral. Composer and conductor Eric Whitacre recently used the Kickstarter platform to raise $122,555 for his Virtual Choir 4, a project that edits together thousands of videos submitted by singers from around the world into one choral piece. But your chorus doesn’t need a global fan base to make a winning crowdfunding appeal.
Choruses of all sizes are finding crowdfunding success, from raising money for specific projects like recording a new album to participating in local and national “giving days.” Along the way, they’ve learned a lot about the different tools available and the best ways to leverage the power of communal giving.
Pick The Right Platform
At their most basic, crowdfunding platforms allow individuals or organizations to set up a fundraising page through which people can make online donations. But features differ from site to site, and with literally hundreds of options available, the landscape can feel overwhelming. That may be why choruses looking to raise money for specific projects usually opt for sites with name recognition, like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Both sites launched as crowdfunding was just starting to be widely talked about—Indiegogo in 2008 and Kickstarter in 2009. Although only available in the United States and United Kingdom, Kickstarter in particular has become virtually synonymous with the crowdfunding movement. The site has raised over $599 million to fund more than 40,000 creative projects so far, and those numbers rise daily.
Shelley Johnson, executive director of Rockport, Maine’s Midcoast Community Chorus (MCC), became intrigued by Kickstarter when she saw that other nonprofits were using it. “I heard that it was a very interesting and creative platform,” she says. The MCC used Kickstarter for their first crowdfunding attempt at the end of 2012, successfully raising over $5,000 for a commission by Maine composer Paul Sullivan. Commissioning a new work was an important part of the five-year-old non-auditioned chorus’s long-range plan, and they wanted to perform the piece with a specific soloist and with Sullivan as pianist. “We knew that would mean we had to take on a lot more in the way of concert costs than we’re used to,” says Johnson.
The National Lutheran Choir was part of GiveMN's record-breaking Give to the Max Day, which raised $16.3 million.
Kickstarter is a project-based platform, meaning that postings on the site must be projects with a tangible result as opposed to causes or general fundraising. For Johnson, this was a draw. “It really appealed to me to get outside of the box of thinking of it just as fundraising and get people excited about the project itself,” she says. She also thinks Kickstarter’s all-or-nothing model, which doesn’t collect pledges from donors unless a project reaches its financial goal, helped created a sense of excitement and urgency around MCC’s campaign.
This model isn’t for everyone. When KellyAnn Nelson first considered crowdfunding for the Young Professionals’ Choral Collective of Cincinnati (YPCC) in November 2011, she was unsure how much support to expect for an organization that was less than one month old and had only 40 singers. “We kind of made a promise that since the World Choir Games were in Cincinnati that year, we would participate, and quickly discovered the costs that entailed,” she says. She turned to Indiegogo because the site’s option of collecting partial funding was “a nice cushion against the fear factor of not reaching our goal.” YPCC ended up surpassing its $2,200 target by several hundred dollars, and Nelson liked the Indiegogo model so much that she used it again this spring for a campaign to support the group’s 2013-14 season. She feels it’s less geared towards nonprofits (which YPCC is not) than many of the other crowdfunding tools she has researched.
Aside from these popular choices, choruses looking to fund projects are also turning to newer sites like power2give.org. Launched in August 2011 by the Arts & Science Council of Charlotte, North Carolina, the platform was developed specifically for nonprofit cultural organizations. “We noticed that there was a reasonably low adoption rate by nonprofits of using for-profit crowdfunding options,” says national director Laura Belcher. While not yet widely available, power2give has partnered with local host organizations in 14 different locations, and has four more sites going live this summer. Gifts made through the sites are tax-deductible, and the platform also uses matching grants, a familiar concept in nonprofit circles, to provide extra motivation for donors.
Charlotte’s Carolina Voices, an auditioned chorus of over 130 singers, has used power2give to fund “6 or 7 projects over the last couple years,” says associate executive director Beverly Seitz. She attributes a lot of that success to the matching grants that the site has been able to attract from organizations like the Knight Foundation and Wells Fargo. “That makes all the difference in the world, especially to our donors,” she says. “They feel like their money is going farther. We’ve definitely had the most success when there is a match out there.”
Giving Days: A Rising Trend
Crowdfunding isn’t just for organizations that want to raise money for a commission, an event, or another specific project, however. Giving days, or 24-hour fundraising campaigns accompanied by widespread community promotion, are rapidly gaining. While the concept isn’t new, these one-day events were particularly successful in 2012 and digital strategists like David Neff, author of The Future of Nonprofits, predict that the trend will continue to grow.
GiveMN, an organization that aims to grow online giving in Minnesota, made headlines this past November when its Give to the Max Day broke a world record by raising $16.3 million for Minnesota charities in 24 hours. The National Lutheran Choir (NLC), a past recipient of Chorus America’s Margaret Hillis Award for Choral Excellence, collected $21,000 in donations during the event. Randall Davidson, NLC’s administrative director, says that Give to the Max Day has steadily gained momentum since launching in 2009 and is now “somewhat of a phenomenon.” On this year’s giving day, choir staff arrived at the office to find that the amount of people trying to donate all at once had temporarily overwhelmed the site, which is powered by the online fundraising platform Razoo. Billed as “the fastest growing crowdfunding platform for causes,” Razoo has made giving days one of its specialties, partnering with 14 communities nationwide in 2012.
"It really appealed to me to get outside of the box of thinking of it just as fundraising and get people excited about the project itself." ~ Shelley Johnson
The giving day trend has also gone national. After last Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday had competition from a new holiday: #GivingTuesday. The campaign’s mission was to get people as excited about donating to their favorite charity as they might be about lining up at midnight for a great deal on the newest iPad. Over 2,500 nonprofits, foundations, and other organizations participated in the inaugural #GivingTuesday and promotion through social media and partners like the Huffington Post made the event successful enough to be hailed as a new seasonal tradition. Companies that process online donations, such as Blackbaud and Network for Good, reported spikes of more than 50% in online donations compared to amounts processed on the same day the previous year.
For Don Scott Carpenter, executive director of San Francisco’s American Bach Soloists (ABS), the first #GivingTuesday was an easy way to experiment with online fundraising, something his organization wants to explore. “Even if we got one donation, it was a win,” he says. ABS did much better than that, taking in around 13 donations, including four from new donors, a statistic that Carpenter says is more significant to him than a dollar amount. The organization already plans to be a part of 2013’s #GivingTuesday, scheduled for December 3.
Want to Get Funded? Tell a Compelling Story
Whatever platform your chorus chooses, those with crowdfunding experience say that it is vital to make your appeal resonate with potential donors. That boils down to two key elements: posting a project that is meaningful to your community and telling your story in an engaging way that forges a personal connection.
Carolina Voices has used power2give.org to fund scholarships worth $4,000 for show choir summer camp programs in both 2012 and 2013. These projects do well, Seitz says, because almost anyone in the community can identify with the outcome. “People like kids and they like summer camp,” she says. The chorus encourages those positive associations by sending donors thank-you notes from scholarship campers.
Seitz and executive director Sue Wheldon also sometimes craft crowdfunding appeals around a program that they already know interests certain donors. After a number of people mentioned wanting to support the Festival Singers, Carolina Voices’ classical chamber choir, Seitz and Wheldon posted a project to offset expenses like sheet music, guest musicians, and the Singers’ travel to Charleston, South Carolina’s Piccolo Spoleto Festival. While any gift can be designated to one of the organization’s three choral groups, Seitz says that contributing through power2give makes donors feel a special connection with their investment. “I think for the donors it’s more personal,” she says. “They know their money is going to support the things the Festival Singers are actually doing.”
The National Lutheran Choir has found ways to make those connections personal even when not using crowdfunding for a specific project. In 2011, “we went into Give to the Max Day saying ‘We need to be telling stories,’” says director of development Tina Meckel. “We need to turn this away from being about an institution to being the stories of many different people.” The choir turned to its singers, shooting a series of short flip cam videos that asked them to finish the sentence “My NLC is…” Choristers shared personal stories about finding time for spiritual reflection or listening to an NLC CD with a hospitalized friend suffering from depression, and the Choir released the videos at intervals throughout the day. Meckel says that Give to the Max Day really took off for the NLC the year of the video campaign, with donations skyrocketing from $4,500 in 2010 to $19,050 in 2011.
Part of the reason for this success was that the videos encouraged singers to share news about Give to the Max Day with their family and friends. Meckel says that this is one of the advantages that choruses have when it comes to crowdfunding: a ready-made community of people who have already demonstrated “a generosity of spirit and a generosity of sharing their artistry with others.” The Midcoast Community Chorus also tapped into their network of singers to help spread the word about their Kickstarter campaign. “We kept telling our choristers, ‘Here’s your chance to brag about this wonderful thing that you do once a week and why it matters to you,’” says Johnson.
Don’t Forget the Marketing
When power2give.org’s Belcher talks to arts organizations in communities getting ready to launch the site, one of the first things she tells them is that they need a marketing plan. “Post it and they will come is not a marketing strategy,” she says. “We know that there’s a direct correlation between project funding and project promotion.”
Carolina Voices has funded scholarships to summer camp programs through projects posted on power2give.org.
Choruses that have tried crowdfunding feel that marketing through e-communications and social media was key to their success—and they plan to ramp up their efforts for future campaigns. “When we first launched on Indiegogo, I sent out an email and put a post on Facebook and then waited for the money to roll in,” says Nelson. She quickly learned that the days when she reposted the link to YPCC’s Indiegogo page on social media were the days that YPCC received donations. For her next Indiegogo campaign, she prioritized having “a consistent voice and a consistent presence.” She also shortened the campaign’s time frame from six weeks to four so that she could maintain frequent messaging from start to finish.
When American Bach Soloists participates in #GivingTuesday 2013, Carpenter plans to start talking up the event earlier to prepare his constituents. “The more chatter that can happen in advance to get people looking at it rather than on the day of, the better,” he says. Without the support of a solid marketing plan, he feels that 24-hour giving days have a blink-and-you-could-miss-it quality. “It’s that 21st century social media feeling that right now is the only thing that matters,” he says. “You need to stay on top of it.” Part of that is making sure that every communication includes a simple way to access your crowdfunding platform with just one click.
But is all this marketing helping organizations reach new donors? While the degree of new reach varies from chorus to chorus, the answer overall is yes. “I loved checking the project backer’s list for updates, because I rarely recognized a name,” says Johnson. The majority of donors to the Midcoast Community Chorus’s Kickstarter project came from outside the small community of Rockport and were not already in her database.
Meckel also found that Give to the Max Day attracted a different audience to the National Lutheran Choir—one year, 23% of all donations came from new sources. “That’s just gold,” she says. “Building those new relationships is the lifeblood of any organization.” And while Seitz said the projects that Carolina Voices has posted on power2give generate “some, not a lot” of new donors, she also shared that the very first day her organization put up a project to fund summer camp scholarships, it received an out-of-the-blue donation of several hundred dollars from someone with no prior connection to the chorus.
These kinds of stories are not unusual, says Belcher. Research done in partnership with Charlotte nonprofits shows that 46% of power2give donors have never before given to the posting organizations. She says that the most frequent gift through power2give is a $50 donation; the average is around $100, depending on the community. Choruses report that most of the donations they receive through crowdfunding fall somewhere within the $25-$75 range.
Even more encouraging, the donors that are getting involved are staying involved. Out of the four new donors that gave to American Bach Soloists on #GivingTuesday, all have either donated again or bought tickets. One has even become a subscriber. The National Lutheran Choir has also been able to continue cultivating donors that first came to them through GiveMN.
Davidson says the Choir’s experience confounds the assumption that connections forged online and through social media aren’t “real.” “The connection doesn’t go away, because the people who are promoting what you’re doing are the connection to your organization,” he says.
An Opportunity to Engage
The more research Johnson did on crowdfunding, the more she came to think of it as an engagement tool instead of just a new way to raise money. That’s how she pitched it to her board, and she says this strategy has paid off. Several months after completing its Kickstarter project, the Midcoast Community Chorus has a stronger online presence, a younger community of singers and audience members, and an active Facebook page that includes members from other countries. “The funding was important, but I really feel like the greater success of that project was the fact that we made a connection with the broader community,” she says.
“Every choir that I know of in town and around the country is really having to reinvent how they communicate with different audiences,” says Davidson. The National Lutheran Choir sees online giving as a part of that shift. “We’re not going to give up other methods of raising money—personal letters, program envelopes, phone calls,” says Meckel. “But we are going to embrace everything that’s available.”
Davidson’s advice for those considering dipping a toe in the crowdfunding water is simple. “Try it,” he says. “You’ll like it.”
Liza Beth is editor of The Voice magazine and director of communications at Chorus America, leading organizational branding initiatives and content creation for print, online, and social media channels.
This article is adapted from The Voice, Summer 2013.