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How A Church Used Gamification To Raise $25,000

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One of this year’s buzzwords in social and technology-driven fundraising is “gamification.”

Bloomerang is always excited to learn about, and help our customers take advantage of, new trends and services. But we also urge our customers to explore new services without losing sight of the core values of donor relationships and donor retention.

Recently, a committee at my church took on the mission of establishing a much-needed childcare center in our urban neighborhood — a task that required raising some $45,000, in addition to a seed grant from the church itself, from individuals inside and beyond our congregation for start-up costs.

They decided to work with a new firm in town that offers fun fund-raising solutions for small groups using a lot of gamification.

I’m not going to name the firm here because I’m using this blog to critique one aspect of what overall I think is a very good and exciting service.

Our committee liked what they saw and started making plans to work with one of the vendor’s programs.
At its simplest, the concept involves putting two hundred envelopes on the wall, marked with dollar amounts from $1 to $200. Everyone takes the envelope of their choice — or maybe two or three — and if every envelope is taken and returned with a gift in the amount of its label, you’ve raised $20,000 from 200 people at one event, and no one’s given more than $200.

After the event, assuming that there are envelopes left, this particular vendor then creates a “virtual” wall as a web-page, allowing others to “take” the remaining envelopes until every gift on the wall has been made. The vendor gets paid by taking a small percentage of each gift.

There’s a lot to like about this approach — it’s tactile, visual, fun, and egalitarian. Even kids can participate. But it’s not necessarily the best way to optimize your fund-raising success. So when I was asked to meet with this group a couple of days before the roll-out, we all agreed to a couple of tweaks that made a huge difference.

My primary concern was that, particularly in the case of our own congregation, this approach was going to leave money on the table. So the two changes we made were to make the amounts on the envelopes be only even numbers — $2 through $400 — and to add ten “golden envelopes” of $1000 (five), $2500 (three), and $5000 (two).

The Sunday that the committee made their pitch at a post-worship brunch, about thirty-five parishioners showed up. But afterwards, about twenty envelopes disappeared off the wall — including both $5000 envelopes. Two weeks later, about half of the envelopes have been taken down and returned to the church office with the corresponding donation inside. Almost all of the gifts under $100 have been taken. More than half of the $100 to $200 envelopes are accounted for. Very few of the $200 to $400 envelopes have been claimed, and most of those are in a cluster around the time-honored amount of $250. The vendor knows well, I think, that $200 is the limit for MOST people to make spur-of-the-moment or first-time gifts.

But I knew that there were enough people in this congregation with the capacity and interest in this project that the larger envelopes would not be wasted. Today, only one $1000 envelope and one $2500 envelope remains on the wall. Eight other members have donated $19,000 between the handful of them; and the grand total is approaching $25,000.

The point here is not that the gamification approach is bad. In fact, it’s working quite well; and I think the original unmodified proposal will work very well when rolled out at other neighborhood churches. For organizations that serve tight-knit communities, just like churches and schools, family-friendly fundraising ideas tend to perform very well when they incorporate elements of gameplay and competition.

The issue, however, is to not overlook the value of having built relationships. This particular cause was new, but the individuals who were working on it had rock-solid relationships with friends who understood the need and were willing to demonstrate leadership in getting the project started.

Within the context of a relatively small goal of about $45,000 in a relatively small window of a few months, I think that “settling” for ten “large” gifts totaling $21,000 as part of a gamified campaign that will still rely on a few hundred gifts of less than $200 was the right compromise. My instinct would have been to have spent at least an hour cultivating each of those four-figure gifts; and I’m sure a couple of those $1000 donors and even $5000 donors might have given even more if asked. But if a campaign is a success without completely maxing out every existing relationship, that’s a good thing, too.

We’re interested in hearing other experiences with gamification. What has worked for you? What has exceeded your expectations? What would you do differently?

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  • Karen A Gartman

    Any ideas on how to add a prize? Constraints overcome - how would you get people to donate larger amounts of they have the same chance donating a smaller one
  • Paul

    Shaun, Thank you for your reply - I will definitely take the time to read through the documentation you've listed (probably tonight haha!). Without making this thread an advertisement for my yet-to-be-started business, I would be interested in your thoughts on the business model we'll be implementing. Our business model is not a non-profit or even a fundraising organization, but rather a connection point for charities and donors (simplest analogy would be for charities & donors). In this capacity, our company will be a for-profit company with the mission to increase the outreach of charities across the US (and eventually beyond). The marketing and economies of scale should help lower costs especially of smaller charities that are not able to get volume discounts on product/shared services/human capital. And circling back to my original point, the marketing angle is something that most charities (especially small/local ones) cannot afford to be persistent with. I appreciate your insight and thank you for the source material you've already given. Thanks again, Paul
  • Shaun G. Lynch, CFRE

    Paul, I'm familiar with those arguments in favour of commission-based remuneration, but this is a issue that has been the subject of intense scrutiny and debate within the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP). You can find all of the details at the link I provided above, but I do want to underline the critical difference between commission-based remuneration in the private and voluntary sectors. In the private sector, purchasers are exchanging money for goods and services for themselves, and are fully aware that part of what they are paying for is the company's profit. Also, the issue of a long term relationship is not necessarily a factor, or at least not as much of a factor, as it is in the fundraising industry. But, more to the point, the rule was implemented to avoid abuses that were already widespread. Fundraisers paid by commission are much more likely to employ deceptive and manipulative practices in order to enrich themselves, with little concern for the long term wellbeing of the organizations they supposedly serve. As a member of AFP, and as a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE), I am absolutely forbidden to accept commission-based remuneration, or to encourage others to do so. I strongly encourage you to to take the time to read AFP's documentation on the subject before you implement a business model that you will position you as an outlaw within the official fundraising industry! Shaun G. Lynch, CFRE @shaunlynch3
  • Paul

    Hello - thanks for the article! I loved the idea and could see our church using something very similar and being successful fundraising for a small project. Just one comment @Shaun and @Steven - I'm not sure that I see the inherent "danger" in the service provider's pricing scheme. While I certainly can see the potential for abuse (as with anything though, moderation!), I don't consider it wise to completely rule out working with service providers solely because of this practice. My belief (and soon-to-be business model) is that charities need to access more of the population (grow the pie) and stay in the pockets of those that are already donating (increased "brand" loyalty). The best way to do this is through marketing and the best way to incentivize marketers is to pay them based on the amount of donations they bring in and the number of eyeballs they reach, etc. It works in virtually all for-profit scenarios. The donation rate as percentage of GDP has been stagnant for 40+ years (preaching to the choir, I know)! Something has to change and I believe that it's finally time in this much more connected world to win some of these causes! All the best - you guys do great work! Paul @charitylensPaul
  • Daniel

    In response to: "What is the "game" aspect of this approach", this paragraph from the "Gamification" link posted in the article provides some context. "Gamification is the marriage of gaming elements – like points, achievements and progress meters – and everyday tasks. The idea is that those tasks become less monotonous and more fun when you have the ability to track your progress in real-time while competing with yourself and others." So in this example, the fact that the envelopes are displayed on the wall, and then removed when someone claims them allows the whole community to visually track the progress of the campaign. Choosing how many envelopes and the amount of each one would be the personal competition aspect of this project.
  • Steven Shattuck

    Thanks, Shaun. We're no great fans of skimming either -
  • Shaun G. Lynch, CFRE

    "The vendor gets paid by taking a small percentage of each gift." Payment by commission for a philanthropic campaign is a violation of ethical fundraising standards, in particular those of the Association of Fundraising Professionals: "Members shall: 21. not accept compensation or enter into a contract that is based on a percentage of contributions; nor shall members accept finder’s fees or contingent fees." Even if the members of this church or the consultants that served them are not members of AFP, it would behoove them to inform themselves of the AFP ethical standards and the reasoning behind them: I also have a question about the "game" aspect of this approach: do the people taking the envelopes know in advance what amount they are worth, or are they choosing blindly? What is the "game" aspect to this approach?
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