Online community events in the Covid age – an experiment in digital fundraising

As mentioned in my SMART fundraising post, I believe that fundraising efforts have the most success when they offer something in return. I’m excited to report that working with Ed 2 – Parents united learning community, I had the perfect opportunity to put my framework to the test! This article is a longform write-up of putting those principles into action.

Ed 2 started as a spin off from the incredibly successful Boycott return to unsafe schools, with the aim of providing an oasis of calm, empathy, answers and support in these incredibly stressful times. With vulnerable families facing fines and educational policy an utter shambles, they picked up media attention, and quickly became the largest campaign focused on tackling this issue. The BRTUS page, at time of writing, sits at 12.7k members, and the Ed 2 group (originally named for the fantastic wordplay “Ed 2 Brtus”) currently sits at 1.5k.

I first joined and spoke with the admin team of BRTUS when they had ~4k members, and was involved from the beginning with Ed 2, providing maths support and writing encouraging articles. My orignal proposal was for Ed 2 to upskill parents with practical (if unaccredited) teacher training using this format (to use this as a threat/negotiating tactic to raise BRTUS media profile), but the group decided to focus on providing google classroom lessons and indexing resources, and operating as a Q&A helpdesk for panicked parents, with the support of some lovely and brilliant teacher volunteers.

From my first conversation with the admins of the BRTUS group, I encouraged creating regular events as a cornerstone of building community, in line with my SMART approach. The first event I was involved with was with the brilliant Lucy Rycroft-Smith (collaborative YouTube series coming soon). We managed to get a peak viewer count of 46, which we were very pleased with. We had some struggles with technology, and it almost looked like it would get cancelled at the last minute, but we managed to pull it off. This event was not advertised much at all, and we didn’t even have a facebook event, though all involved spoke very highly of it. The video currently stands at 762 views.

I followed up that event with a solo broadcast detailing some of the tips & tricks I use when teaching/tutoring.

Despite ensuring that this event did have a facebook event, and slightly more promotional posts in the group, we only reached a peak of 20 viewers, and whilst those who attended were very pleased with the event and had some brilliant questions, there wasn’t quite as much engagement. Still, the broadcast created a video that could be linked to parents asking for maths teaching guidance in the group, and it currently stands at 382 views, and I enjoyed creating it. With both videos I had suggested puting in a short “fundraise pitch” at the end, but had to wait til the third event to do that.

Given the groups soaring membership numbers (had risen by 500 in two weeks to a total of 1200 members during the planning stage) I proposed that the group launch a “themed week” to really encourage community engagement. I put forward a plan for poetry week and the group went ahead with it.

The plan for the week drew heavily on the SMART principles. Sharing favourite poems is a brilliant community activity that costs nothing, but can introduce people to the greatest works of poetry in the world. Competitions are an incredible tool that encourage participation & engagement, create free promotional content and allow an organisation to give back to the people who support it.

Our group had the brilliant Sarcastic Schoolteacher as a volunteer, who could provide professional English teachering during our events, and was very happy to. To highlight the target audience, the events also featured parents from the group who would be able to make sure they were suited to parents, and to clarify where teacher jargon took over. A friend and past colleague of mine, published poet, online broadcaster and English Teacher Leah Bailey agreed to put on a workshop for the group to support our work. With the input of all of these wonderfully giving individuals, we had an entire week of events, without spending a penny.

The only question remaining was prizes. To ensure participation in the competition, I felt that securing interesting and exciting prizes was vital. Despite several emails to potential sponsors, the financial aid that we sought was not forthcoming. I turned my attention to costless prizes – a title, printed certificate and publisher submission formed the start of this offering, but I pushed further.

With the glimmer of an idea in mind, I reached out to the fantastic Mel Simpson, who I wholeheartedly recommend people support. Mel is currently pioneering online dance teaching, offering her sought-after GCSE, BTEC and A Level Dance Workshops on Zoom. She has also innovated a new workshop called ‘DANCE & DRAW’ which features a mixture of dance teaching, for those who wish to learn dance from home, but also encourages those who enjoy dance to create artwork based of her astoundingly graceful movements. She then showcases the work they produce, and asks only that those attend “pay what they think is fair.” This is a model that I believe is a phenomenal strategy for online entertainment. Mel agreed to immortalise the winning poem in dance, in support of the work we were doing.

We also managed to reach out to David Roche, who offered 3 copies of his poetry book as prizes.

Going one step further, we also created a justgiving page, and managed to raise £40 towards prize money. This was promoted in a variety of ways, my personal favourite being a short poem I wrote based off the first event broadcast, which had also included a “pitch”

So, with the competition now featuring a wide array of prizes, the events planned and ready, the only question left was promotion. Our promotional strategy featured “bumping” posts on the group, a video from Game of thrones actor Miltos Yerolemou and our Facebook event and several other videos specially recorded for us. In retrospect, we should have shared these videos publically with the creators tagged in to link into their follower networks, rather than privately within the group. Below is a sample of the posts and videos we put out.

All videos available on the Ed 2 Channel

Despite some technical hiccups, less engagement than we hoped for and several last might changes of plan, the events were brilliant fun to put on and recieved very well. showcasing our favorite poets and poems, and having a chance to all take part in sharing our love of poetry was a brilliant experience, and encourage many of us to pick up a pen and journal and rediscover the love of poetry.

On the Sunday before the event we did a brilliant Q&A on the importance of poetry, that also allowed us to make a pitch our fundraising efforts (56:05 for the fundraising pitch, should have turned off the screen share!) which was followed immediately by donations.

Our Tuesday workshop with Leah Bailey was a delightful event, and I’m now planning a collaborative weekly show to be able to celebrate creating poetry in that way. Here’s an example of my own poetry that will hopefully get you excited for that content!

Our Wednesday poetry reading event was delightful as well, though plagued with technical difficulties!

With technical difficulties mounting on a busy and more than stressful enough week, our competition celebration event was transferred to a facebook post.

The week was a lot of fun to put on, but as the group was set to private, everything we did was only visible to the group. Nothing could be shared. Nothing could be found by non-group members. As such, our reach was not what it could have been. While we had enthusiastic engagement from a core group of dedicated supporters, we had hoped for more. Our viewership fluctuated from 10-20 viewers throughout most broadcasts, which I will happily inaccurately extrapolate to an average donation of £2, meaning huge potential for an event that drew a larger audience.

Those who took part spoke highly of, and were very grateful for our events, and I take pride in knowing we encouraged lots of children to be confident and creative with poetry. I’ve uploaded the events to YouTube, and have learned great lessons for iterating this process! As is always the case with SMART fundraising, if you avoid costs, there can only be success.

Since the event I have been researching how other online groups are tackling the same issues we faced. One example of note is TechRadar:

With 594,189 followers, you might expect their public broadcasts to recieve high ratings…

But despite this huge following they weren’t that much more successful than we were.

One possible solution was raised by this promoted event:

It is clear to me that an interactive, live broadcast advert is inherently more appealing, and the transfer of her 18k page followers into a larger, more engaged audience.

Facebook’s algorithms operate fairly mysteriously, and if you want to promote your event using your own posts, you run the risk of people leaving or muting your group. Paying to promote your organisation during such a live event is one answer, but does mean that there is a risk of loss. Before committing to such an expense I’ll be sure to explore other distrubition channels (YouTube Live, Twitch, Instagram, Reddit, Twitter etc) which may have better algorthims. Keep posted for an article on this in the near future.

Hopefully I’ll be able to give some more details of my next experiment in digital fundraising soon!

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