Raising Donations Online to Fuel Freedom to Marry’s Work
Beginning in 2010, Freedom to Marry placed a bigger emphasis on strengthening its digital presence including building a robust email program. With that enhanced digital program came a more intentional focus on generating donations online – given that Freedom to Marry was now becoming the actual central campaign and would need to raise not just more money, but
“c4” political money as well as the “c3” tax-deductible public education money it had previously confined itself to. Between January 2010 and August 2015, we raised more than $3 million in online donations from more than 18,000 supporters.
Freedom to Marry partnered with the digital firm Blue State Digital, widely known for its innovative work with the 2008 Obama presidential campaign to develop its online fundraising strategy. The initial focus was on building a strong list of email supporters and then converting those email supporters into donors.
Development of the Online Fundraising Program
The primary driver of online donations was our email program, which included a mix of general, rapid response; state specific and other targeted messages. In 2012, we added premiums to online fundraising program and subsequently offered a range of merchandise including t-shirts, posters, bumper stickers, beach towels, socks, books and works of art. In 2014, social media became a more important part of the online fundraising program though it did not generate results as strong as the email program.
The messaging for the online asks mirrored the focus on the overall digital program: strong emotional narratives that showed supporters how their donation would help to advance Freedom to Marry’s Roadmap strategy to win marriage nationwide; even in fundraising, Freedom to Marry always emphasized strategy. We targeted the email messages to supporters based on a range of criteria including previous actions taken, donor history, geography, and whether or not marriage was legal in the state in which the supporter lived.
The majority of funds generated in any given year online were the result of strategic end-of-year campaigns that captured the mood and political opportunities available at that moment. A significant portion of the end-of-year totals came in the final week of each campaign. Matching grants were also an important incentive for supporters to give online.
Key Responsibilities and Programs
The primary goal of the online fundraising program was to generate small-dollar donations through email, social media, and other digital means. Freedom to Marry’s digital team led the online program and also supported the work of the development team by creating donation landing pages and event landing pages; managing email campaigns focused on major donors; and creating creative collateral including graphics, signage, ads etc. for major-donor campaigns.
The digital and development teams partnered on each year’s end-of-year fundraising campaign with the digital team having primary responsibility for small-dollar donations and the development team leading outreach to major donors. The two teams collaborated on the campaign’s theme and messaging and creative collateral that were used.
The online fundraising program also including design, development, and management of organizational swa,g including t-shirts, posters, bumper stickers, beach towels, socks, books and works of art.
In any given year, the end-of-year fundraising campaign would account for about 35%-40% of Freedom to Marry’s small-dollar online fundraising total in that year.
- In 2010, Freedom to Marry’s end-of-year fundraising was launched with a $100,000 matching-grant from Chris Hughes and Sean Eldridge.
- In 2011, Freedom to Marry’s end-of-year fundraising theme was We’ve Waited Long Enough. The campaign was given a boost with a commitment by the board of directors to match all donations up to $100,000. We also set a goal of reaching 1,138 donations during that time period. That number was chosen because there are 1,138+ federal protections associated with marriage (and thus denied, at the time, to married same-sex couples by DOMA). By setting that kind of goal that was connected to our mission, we gave our supporters added incentive to donate while underscoring our larger message against marriage discrimination.
- In a partnership between the development and digital teams, Freedom to Marry launched the “National Engagement Party” in fall of 2012 to raise money to support campaigns in battleground states including Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington, the four states facing ballot-measures that year. The National Engagement Party campaign included six “anchor” events that were organized by Freedom to Marry staff and grassroots house parties around the country that were organized by supporters. For the grassroots house parties, our staff provided organizers with a package of materials including a video, swag and literature to hand out to party attendees.
- In 2012, our end-of-year fundraising theme was The Right Side of History. The fundraising campaign was boosted by a matching grant of $100,000 from board member Jordan Roth and his husband Richie Jackson. The campaign also included the “Right Side of History” t-shirt, which we offered as a “thank you” gift for supporters who donated $35 or more. The campaign worked so well that we carried the Right Side of History theme over into 2013 with a social media campaign in anticipation of the Supreme Court oral arguments on cases around DOMA and Prop 8.
- In 2013, our end-of-year campaign theme was Uniting for Marriage to reflect the multiple polls showing majority support for marriage and Freedom to Marry’s leading role in continuing to grow public support, while echoing the name of the campaigns we built in numerous states (New Jersey United for Marriage, etc.). Board member Adam Press made a challenge-grant matching donations up to $100,000. We launched the Love is Love t-shirt as part of this campaign. This t-shirt would become the most popular product we offered. We saw a relatively sizable increase in donations coming from social media. The total amount of the donations from social media was still a small part of the overall total raised during this period, but the majority of these donors were first-time donors. We followed this data point with additional testing to figure out ways to boost the number of new donors and the total amount generated from social media. We continued the Uniting for Marriage messaging into 2014 including creating a Uniting for Marriage email template and related graphics that we used until mid-2014.
- In 2014, the larger Freedom to Marry narrative shifted to America is Ready for the Freedom to Marry and the theme of the end-of-year campaign followed suit. The 2014 end-of-year campaign included our most ambitious campaign to date in terms of email segmentation, use of social media, storytelling, search and premiums offered. We leveraged a $100,000 matching grant from former Ambassador Jim Hormel and his fiance Michael Nguyen to help drive donations.
- In the spring of 2014, Freedom to Marry launched Team Marriage, a branded donor program of supporters who pledged to stand with us to “finish the job.” The campaign included three donor levels: Friendship Ring - $35, Commitment Ring - $100 and Engagement Ring - $1,200. The benefits of the program include exclusive t-shirts, lapel pins, bumper stickers and briefings from Freedom to Marry staff. We launched Team Marriage 2015 as part of the 2014 end of year fundraising at special pre-sale rates. We ended the program after the Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage nationwide.
- In the spring of 2015, we launched a mid-year matching grant campaign to leverage a $100,000 offer from filmmaker Roland Emmerich. The campaign helped to raise much needed funds in advance of the Supreme Court oral arguments that ended with the historic ruling in favor of the freedom to marry nationwide.
- Freedom to Marry stopped actively seeking donations on April 28, 2015; the day the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the marriage cases. Before then, we worked hard to raise the money needed to fuel our work until we achieved the national victory and to be ready to continue that work if the Supreme Court had not been in favor of marriage nationwide.
Key Lessons Learned
- Leverage political or news related developments as opportunities for rapid-response fundraising
- Optimize for mobile because people are increasingly using their mobile devices to access email and social media.
- Segment your messaging based on factors including donor history, geography and action history
- Thank your supporters throughout the year
- Use swag to incentivize donors and amplify your message
- Leverage matching grants and other types of numerical goals to increase donations
- Test messaging, email send times, subject lines and other variables to optimize your campaigns