In 2004, nine-year old Austin Gutwein of Mesa, Ariz., raised almost $3,000 by shooting 2,057 free-throws, one for each child orphaned by HIV/AIDS during a typical school day. He used a fundraising page he set up himself, with technology from Firstgiving, and directed the proceeds to orphans in Africa by way of World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization operating in 100 countries.
The idea caught on, and this year the group, known as "Hoops of Hope," aims to recruit 10,000 people from across the U.S. to shoot free throws with the goal of raising $150,000 to build a medical facility in Zambia. Hoops of Hope now is an independent nonprofit, with World Vision acting as its feet on the ground in Zambia.
That's the power, and potential, of viral fundraising, experts say. Based on the passion and energy of one individual, an idea can catch on and spread like wildfire - with minimal help, or control, from nonprofits.
The tools are here
The tools to do it have arrived, and with the explosion of social-networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, so has the individual savvy.
"The macro trends online with social networking, blogging and other ways individuals interact with one another, have helped this concept of peer-to-peer fundraising achieve new heights," says Mark Sutton, CEO of Firstgiving.
His company allows individuals to set up their own fundraising web pages, upload photos and messages, and designate a specific charity to receive proceeds. Information on charities is provided by GuideStar, nonprofits pay processing fees only when a donation is made, and individuals create and use their pages for free.
With the average page raising upwards of $400, says Sutton, the company in 2006 hosted more than 36,000 pages benefiting about 2,000 charities. That likely will increase when Firstgiving offers its applications on Facebook late this summer, allowing users to include widgets, or button links, to their fundraising pages on their Facebook profiles.
"That helps individuals connect wherever they live on the Internet," Sutton says. The technology has opened up a new world of donors to World Vision, says Dana Buck, director of new opportunities for the group.
Well over 1,800 people have used Firstgiving pages to donate to World Vision, he says, resulting in more than $725,000 in online contributions. That's still a relatively small amount, he says, considering the charity raised more than $2.1 billion last year, but it's another tool in the group's arsenal.
"We don't have the ability to stage big sporting events," says Buck. "But we can give people choices. We want to meet people where they're at - whether they have time to raise $100 or $10,000."
The events are virtual
Most viral fundraising to date has revolved around walkathons, races or other events, but that's changing, with people raising money in the absence of any such hook. "All of a sudden there's a transition to events that aren't always happening in the real world," says Madeline Stanionis, CEO of Watershed, an online fundraising and advocacy consultancy.
That could limit the upside potential for such fundraising, she says, given that there's no event for nonprofits to organize around and no real-world effort to motivate individuals. "The strategies haven't caught up with the tools yet," says Stanionis. "While you don't need a real event, you need something," she says. "What is the right amount of structure and 'there there' that will make it successful?"
While she believes viral fundraising led by the individual won't replace the hard work of traditional development efforts, the rewards for some will be great. There are many successes already out there already, she says, but most of them are small, and all of them are driven by individuals or pockets of donors, similar to young Austin Gutwein and Hoops of Hope.
"Donors will be responsible for evolving this into something good for nonprofits," Stanionis says.
It's hard to let go
Handing over that kind of power and responsibility to individuals can be hard for nonprofits, especially the big ones, experts say. The advent of viral fundraising is causing a shift from control to enablement, says Sutton, and that can take nonprofits out of the driver's seat.
The upside is that individuals can unexpectedly mobilize their friends and family toward a certain cause, without any action from the development office of a charity. "If you can give them the tools to engage those groups, the amounts of money they can raise far exceed the amount they could personally give," says Sutton.
The downside, however, is that you lose a degree of control over your message and branding, and that breeds anxiety. Sutton says he rarely sees objectionable material, and tools like Firstgiving have some safeguards in place.
World Vision started out slowly.
"We've eased into it," says Buck. "We did a lot of learnings in controlled channels. It's a bit of a two-edged sword when you give your ministry and your message into someone else's hands."
The charity reviews its Firstgiving pages regularly, and if donors get "too creative," the nonprofit contacts the person, and if necessary has Firstgiving disable the page. That loss of control often means that smaller nonprofits, those with fewer staff and resources, are the most successful at peer-to-peer fundraising, says Stanionis.
By necessity they have learned to be comfortable with the ad-hoc activities of their volunteers and supporters, and are more willing to stand aside and let them take the lead. And perhaps relinquishing that control is the very thing that will make viral fundraising a success for nonprofits, says Stanionis.
"Maybe the way it works is that it's not to be harnessed," she says. "There is something that is less than manageable about someone who gets an idea in their head. So you want to get out of the way rather than manage it."
"Nonprofits aren't good at getting out of the way yet," she says.