When I first learned that I would be responsible for running an all-or-nothing Kickstarter campaign to raise $100,000 in 30 days, honestly? I was terrified! I had never tried crowdfunding before — and neither had Planting Justice. We really didn’t know what to expect, but we knew we had a compelling project that we wanted to rally our community around, and we needed to broaden our fundraising strategy to take this ambitious project on. We decided to try our hand at crowdfunding — and ended up successfully raising over $100,000 in less than 30 days. You can check out project here.
At Planting Justice, we’re committed to open-sourcing our work as much as possible so that others might benefit and have access to the skills, knowledge and resources they need to maximize organic food production, expand job opportunities, and ensure financial and environmental sustainability in their own communities. While one successful campaign does not make us Kickstarter experts, we learned a lot and we’re writing this guide to share our experience with folks who are considering the crowdfunding route.
Prove Your Track Record
Our founders (Gavin Raders and Haleh Zandi) started Planting Justice 7 years ago, and we’ve been an official non-profit for almost 6 years now. Before we ever launched a crowdfunder, we built almost 400 edible gardens throughout the Bay Area, engaged thousands of Oakland students in our food justice curriculum, and supported 20 men transitioning home from San Quentin State Prison. I need to be honest that, no matter what I did with the Kickstarter campaign, we never would have been able to raise $100,000 without the 7 years of excellent work my colleagues had already done. You can’t fake 7 years of great work — and trust us, it speaks louder than any kickstarter video or viral tweet can.
Pick a Challenging But Reasonable Fundraising Goal
Kickstarter is an “all-or-nothing” crowdfunding platform, which means you don’t get ANY of the money you raise unless you reach your fundraising goal. While other platforms let you keep whatever money you raise, regardless of whether you reach your goal or not, our research found that all-or-nothing campaigns are actually more successful on average. We originally wanted to raise $150,000 — enough for the entire down payment on the land on E. 105th — but our research showed that less than 3% of all successfully funded Kickstarters had goals of $100,000 or more:
We didn’t have an extra $50,000 lying around that we could use to make up the difference if we didn’t hit the goal, so we decided to settle on a $100,000 goal and hope for an overwhelming success that we could stretch into $150,000. In hindsight, that was a really good decision! We ended up reaching our goal of $100,000 just 72 hours before the final deadline — better to get that $100,000 than to go for $150,000, just to come up short and not receiving any of the funds we raised. The urgency factor of the all-or-nothing campaign did make a difference in getting our project funded; our hero backer made a goal-reaching $4,000 contribution 3 days before our campaign was scheduled to end. Our advice is, harness the urgency of an all-or-nothing campaign, but temper your expectations and give yourself a little breathing room when choosing your campaign target.
Be a Good Neighbor
At Planting Justice, one of our core values is collaboration over competition. The non-profit industrial complex creates a dynamic where great organizations working on similar problems end up competing with each other for funds instead of collaborating. Fighting over funding crumbs is a killer of our ability to build strong movements that actually impact the systems we’re trying to dismantle/transform, so we work hard to resist that temptation and actively support other orgs working in the food justice & re-entry sectors. We actually pushed the start date for our campaign back 3 weeks when we saw that another local organization we have worked with launched a crowdfunding campaign a week before we were going to launch ours, so as to not compete for funds and promotions. We recommend conducting your organization in this way purely on principle — but man, did it help us when it came time for crowdfunding! When you support others’ work, it makes it a lot easier for them to support yours. The support of other organizations working around similar issues addressed by our project was a critical factor that made our campaign success.
Pitch Media Outlets, Not Celebrities
When we started our kickstarter campaign, we already had over 10,000 people subscribed to our email newsletter, 6,000 Facebook likes, and 2,000 Twitter followers. According to my research, conventional crowdfunding wisdom says that you can basically expect 1% of the people who hear about your campaign to give an average of $50. With a base of about 18,000 people, that still left us raising only about $9,000 — very far from our goal of raising $100,000. We needed to dramatically expand our base of support in order for the campaign to be successful. We had two mass outreach strategies: reaching out to celebrities with millions of Twitter/Facebook followers (folks like Michelle Alexander, Van Jones, Piper Kerman, Stephen Curry, and Tom Hanks), and getting newspapers and blogs to write stories about our project. Can you guess which strategy worked? None of the celebrities we reached out to promoted our campaign. Cold-tweeting and emailing famous people was pretty much a waste of time. I can imagine that they get too many requests to be willing to deal with it (Michelle Alexander’s assistant did send us a very nice email thanking us for our work but letting us know that she has a policy of not approving requests for crowdfunding campaigns).
Our hero promotion came by way of the East Bay Express, the most widely read newspaper amongst East Bay progressives/liberals. Our project (and the crowdfunding campaign) was a featured story in their “Sustainable Living” issue, which came out on the 3rd day of our campaign. Getting excellent coverage from the East Bay Express gave our campaign a huge boost, both in terms of legitimacy and in terms of word of mouth. Throughout the campaign, more newspapers and blogs covered our project, from the Oakland Post (widely read amongst Black Oakland residents) to blogs like Ecopreneurist and online magazines like Ignited Mag, and each article that came out gave us a noticeable bump in fundraising. After all, an in depth article is much more likely to convince someone to donate than a tweet, right?
A note: the difference between tweeting celebrities and pitching journalists is the difference between a 0/10 success rate and a 1/10 success rate - you’ll need to pitch a lot of journalists to get a decent amount of coverage!
Another note: I had know idea how to pitch journalists, and read many, many articles about the best way to do it (before being rescued by my trusted communications mentor April Thomas!). The truth is, there’s no need to overthink it. The key is to make it clear why this story would be of interest to the journalist’s editor/readers. Here’s the email I sent to the East Bay Express:
It's been a year since you wrote a story on Planting Justice for (your publication) - and we've been busy! The farm in El Sobrante is making fast progress.
We're about to embark on an exciting new project that will significantly expand the scale and impact of our work - purchasing an empty lot on E. 105th (in Sobrante Park, which has the highest unemployment & crime rates in Oakland) and transforming it into an urban farm & training center that will greatly expand access to fresh produce & living wage jobs. With this project, we aim to:
- bring the largest & most biodiverse collection of certified organic tree-crops in North America to deep east Oakland
- implement a replicable, drought-resilient model for growing 100,000 pounds of organic produce on paved & toxic land, with excellent, innovative water conservation strategies
- create at least 10 new, living-wage jobs for people coming home from prison
shift how prison re-entry is done in California and across the country
You're the perfect journalist to cover this story because you're skilled at connecting culture and politics (loved your recent piece on the displacement of the arts community in Oakland), and you're already familiar with our work. Let me know if you're interested in doing this piece - of course, I am here on standby to help with anything you may need to get the story up.
3 Strategies for a Strong Campaign Launch
My research showed that over 90% of Kickstarter campaigns that got 30% funded get fully funded. I knew we needed to at least cross that 30% mark in the first 48 hours of the campaign so that people would believe that our ambitious campaign was viable. But that meant raising over $30,000 in less than 48 hours! How did we do it?
- Use Thunderclap: Thunderclap is basically an “online flashmob” — it allows people to sign up to “donate” their social media influence by letting Thunderclap automatically post a message (that you write and each supporter can edit for themselves) and link to your campaign. Using Thunderclap as a tool, we were able to build buzz for the campaign before it even launched, and enlist over 150 supporters in promoting the campaign to an audience of over 200,000 people at 10 am on the first day of our campaign.
- Recruit a Few Big Money Backers to Pledge on the 1st Day: We made personal asks to some of our strongest supporters before we ever launched the campaign. Several folks stepped up to pledge big donations ($3000 — $10,000) within the first few hours of our campaign launch. These big up-front donations were critical in drumming up both excitement and confidence in our crowd-funder during that critical first 24 hours.
- Throw a Launch Party: I’m so glad we decided to throw a launch party to kickstart (hehe) our campaign — it was so much fun! We threw a backyard BBQ, complete with a “Plants as Medicine” workshop facilitated by our staff members, live music, and testimonials from our formerly incarcerated and youth staff about what this project would mean for the community. The party was a wonderful opportunity for us to connect face-to-face with our supporters and get them fired up about the campaign. Plus it was an excuse to make herbal cocktails and fire up the grill. Do it!
Enlist as Many People as Possible as Kickstarter Ambassadors
Unless your campaign “goes viral” (which let’s face it, most projects don’t), the majority of your backers will sign up because someone they personally know asked them to back the project. It took 878 backers for us to reach our goal — trust me, one person can’t make enough personal asks to raise that kind of money in less than 30 days! You need an army of campaign ambassadors who can deliver the message of your campaign to various audiences. Here are some strategies we used:
- Highlight Lots of Stakeholders: A traditional crowdfunding campaign usually highlights the founder of an organization or the originator of an idea. While our founder/originator Gavin Raders is one of the most amazing people we know, this project is so much bigger than just him — it’s about our formerly incarcerated staff, our permaculture warriors who are innovating to change the food system and save the planet, and our neighbors in Sobrante Park. We actually filmed and edited personalized calls to action from 30 different stakeholders in the project — and released a new video for each day of the campaign. This gave us content to keep our momentum going throughout the kickstarter and highlighted various reasons to invest in our project from an extremely diverse group of stakeholders.
- Ask Supporters to Throw House Parties: Before I started working at Planting Justice, I helped run a mayoral campaign, where I learned about the fundraising power of house parties. Ask your strongest supporters to throw a house party for your campaign will help you build buzz and recruit more backers for your project. The house party host just needs to invite 20–50 of their friends and neighbors and put out some snacks — nothing too fancy. Outsourcing the outreach and party-hosting enabled us to show up with a couple of staff members, show our video, give our pitch, answer questions, and collect donations from 20–50 new friends!
- Everyone on Your Team Needs to Send Personal Email Asks: Kickstarter’s analytics showed us that 45% of our donations came through someone clicking on a direct link to our project from a personal email or text ask. Personal asks are by far the most powerful, and you need to do a lot of them in order for your campaign to be successful! Make sure that everyone on your team is sending out personalized email asks to their own networks.
Plan for — and Interrupt — the Plateau
Every crowdfunding campaign pretty much follows a bell-shaped curve — with a lot of backers signing up in the first week, a lull or plateau during the middle of the campaign, and then more excitement and more backers signing up in the last week. At the halfway mark of our campaign, just when the plateau was becoming obvious, we donated $5,000 to our own campaign. We then advertised this bump as the campaign gaining steam — and then saw another $7,000 of donations roll in throughout the day. The narrative that our campaign was actually gaining steam when most would be plateauing helped us in the long run. You could plan to interrupt the plateau by donating to your own campaign like we did, or you could introduce some new rewards, or time a major media story to come out during the middle of your campaign.
Hold on to Your Humanity
I know this sounds a little dramatic — but an ambitious crowdfunding campaign can really warp your thinking if you’re not careful. I found myself thinking about money CONSTANTLY, which was new and unpleasant for me. You can start to feel desperate when you’re making asks all day and watching the numbers creep up slower than you’d like. The last week was such a nail-biter — we reached our goal less than 72 hours before the deadline! It’s important to stay grounded in your vision and remember that you’re raising money for a project because you really believe in it. Here are the practices that helped me:
- Keep Your Campaign in Perspective: When you’re psyching yourself up to ask people for money, it’s easy to get mentally carried away with how deserving your project is and how EVERYONE should invest ALL their money in it (real talk, I know I got myself into that headspace at times while I was crowdfunding). No matter how brilliant, necessary and innovative your project is, it’s important to remember that there’s a lot of great causes, awesome products, and pressing needs out there competing for folks’ money, which most of us don’t have enough of to begin with. And no matter how great your ask is, not everyone is going to say yes — and you’re not going to know why, and you should not waste your time wondering why. Back off the first time someone tells you they’re unwilling or unable to contribute, and be gracious about it. Don’t spam people. Know when to close the laptop and take a walk to get your mind right.
- Say THANK YOU: Stay grounded in gratitude for the people who are stepping up to invest in your project. Make thank you memes. Record thank you videos. When your friend from college write a thank you note on their facebook wall. When your aunt contributes, call her on the phone to say thank you. Remember that nobody owes it to you to back your project, and that every investment, no matter how small, is a gift. I made it a personal practice to say thank you OUT LOUD every time I got a notification that somebody had donated, and it helped me stay grateful and grounded even on the slow days.
- Keep Moving: If you act like your dreams are on pause until the money comes in — guess what? They will be! Actively working on our project during the crowdfunding campaign helped us build momentum and gave us a sense of empowerment. Continue to make what progress you can while you wait for that $100K to hit your bank account — the work will keep you motivated and focused and sharing your progress will encourage people to invest.
Well, there you have it! That’s how we raised $100,000 in 30 days.
I want to end this piece by naming that crowdfunding can be a wonderful tool, it is no substitute for transforming our economic system. Our motto at Planting Justice is “Compost the Empire.” We live in the richest country in the world and yet millions of Americans (particularly Black Americans) are born into poverty, segregated into neighborhoods where basic necessities like nutritious food and clean water are inaccessible and jobs and opportunities for economic self-empowerment are non-existent, while our elected officials waste the bulk of our tax dollars on paramilitary policing of these disenfranchised communities and a system of mass incarceration that is an international embarrassment. That is a system that needs to be composted - it needs to die so we can grow something new. Much love, solidarity and gratitude to everyone who is putting in work to facilitate that process.