NEW YORK -- Superstorm Sandy convinced me that I should do something new: raise money toward hurricane relief. If it weren't for the ease of nudging my friends and family to contribute by way of social media and online fundraising tools, I'm not sure I would have done it. I do know that I wouldn't have been as successful.
I have regularly donated in the past, particularly when people I know are raising money for cancer research, youth programs and other charities in connection with a marathon, a triathlon or some other big event. But I've never raised money myself. I didn't want to feel as if I had to run because I was trying to raise money, or that I had to raise money to guarantee a spot in a sold-out running event. I wanted to keep the two completely separate.
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The storm that devastated my city and lots more up and down the East Coast changed my thinking.
The Sunday after Sandy made landfall two weeks ago, I was supposed to run my 50th marathon in New York, 10 years to the weekend since I had run my first marathon, also in New York. It would have been a celebratory affair. Then Sandy came along, and after days of intense debate, the marathon was abruptly canceled. I channeled my energies instead toward raising money for relief.
Of the several sites I could have used to organize my fundraising campaign, I chose Crowdrise because I could link my efforts with a broader campaign by the marathon's organizers to turn the event into a Race to Recover. These and other sites make it easy to choose a charity to support and send appeals to friends and family. The sites handle the credit card transactions and tax receipts, and they forward the money to the charities, after taking out processing fees.
After signing up for a free Crowdrise account, it became clear it wasn't just a fundraising site, but a social network for raising money. When you join a cause, you are grouped into a team with others. Those teams are grouped into larger campaigns -- in my case, the New York Road Runners' efforts to raise hurricane-relief money for a dozen local and national charities.
The money I raised was added to the team totals, so I could see the cumulative impact of our individual efforts. Some campaigns let you see their totals, too. A few thousand dollars might be a drop in the bucket, but the millions collectively raised by people like me made a bigger difference. I could browse the site to see what strangers supporting my cause were doing. I could also see what other causes they were raising money for, whether related to Sandy relief or not.
If you're thinking of getting involved, for Sandy relief, cancer research or any other cause, here are some tips. Many of these steps also apply if you're using other fundraising sites, such as FirstGiving and Razoo.
Create or join a cause
To get started, I simply visited the New York Road Runners' Crowdrise page for Sandy relief. I could make a donation without signing up if that was all I wanted to do. I simply had to pick which of the dozen charities should get my funds and provide credit card information.
Because I wanted to raise money myself, I created an account and browsed through the listed charities. Some were devoted to restoring parks after the storm. Others were targeted at feeding people or rescuing animals. A few were broad relief organizations, such as the American Red Cross. I chose a local group that would disperse funds to where the needs are, The Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City.
The process is similar for other groups and events. United Airlines and the Equinox gym, for instance, are running similar campaigns for Sandy relief. You can create your own fundraising campaign as part of a 30th birthday celebration or a bike trip across the country -- people you know would try to raise money for your selected cause, not your bike trip! There's even one connected to a college football game next weekend between archrivals USC and UCLA (in that case, for cancer research).
If I weren't already part of an event, I could have simply clicked "I'm a Fundraiser" to search for a cause and raise money as an individual. Crowdrise already has a list of more than 1 million recognized charities, using a database from GuideStar, a research organization specializing in nonprofits. It won't let me create and raise money for a Buy Me a New iPad charity. For that, I'd need Kickstarter, Indiegogo and others that emphasize fundraising for personal projects.
Send out appeals
You're given a fundraising Web page, where you can describe the need and make your plea in your own words. Too lazy? Simply keep what's already there. You can also add photos -- such as those showing the devastation left in Sandy's path.
Crowdrise has a bunch of tools for sending out appeals using Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or plain old email. I ended up posting my own links on Facebook because Crowdrise's 420-character limit conflicted with my tendency to ramble. For Twitter posts, Crowdrise's tool would shorten it further to comply with Twitter's 140-character limit. Those limits do not apply to email, but a test message through Crowdrise's system ended up in Hotmail's junk folder. No, thanks.
I encouraged my friends and family to spread the word, even if they weren't able to give themselves. Many contributions came in that way, as people reposted links on Facebook or got in touch with others through email. I reconnected with a college classmate in the process and saw contributions from a friend's dad and from someone who used to babysit me as a toddler.
As my direct appeals (read: spamming) faded, I simply added a link to the bottom of my outgoing emails. It's there as a reminder, but also out of the way.
Track your progress
Donations trickled in following my various appeals. Crowdrise sent me a notification each time and recommended "dropping everything you're doing so you can send a personal thank you."
From your account, you simply hit a "Send Thank You" link next to each donor's name. There's a "Thank All Donors" list, too, if you're lazy. I preferred the personal touch. In some cases, I sent thanks through email or Facebook instead, though Crowdrise won't mark those people on your list as already thanked. (FirstGiving and Razoo send automated thank-you notices, though you may personalize those automated messages.)
I initially set a goal of raising $1,285, or $26.22 for each of the 49 marathons I had run (26.22 is the number of miles in a marathon to two decimal points). An orange bar on my fundraising page showed how close I was to the goal. I hit that in four days and increased the goal to $2,622. I returned to the site now and then to check on my progress.
Network and give
Once I hit that initial goal, I started responding to other appeals on Crowdrise. I gave to one friend's campaign for the American Red Cross and to another for a Brooklyn group that was trying to recover from the storm in time to serve Thanksgiving meals to the needy.
As I mentioned before, Crowdrise is more than a one-time transaction. It gave me the option of posting a notice about my donation to my Facebook profile, so that friends seeing it might give, too. Receipts I'd need for tax deductions are easily accessible from my account.
And on each fundraising page, including mine, is a huge button inviting donors to raise money for that cause, too.
Crowdrise tries to put the "fun" in fundraising. Getting people to part with their money isn't easy, particularly for ongoing needs that aren't revolved around a crisis continually in the news. Two weeks after the storm, many people have moved on. Contributions are slowing.
But Crowdrise does make it easier. I know that I'm more likely to give -- and give more -- when I'm supporting a friend's direct appeal. I love seeing that orange goal bar move closer to the 100 percent mark. I can only imagine that it's influencing others in a similar way.
The catch is that Crowdrise charges a fee on each transaction, at least 5 percent of the donation amount. Other fundraising sites do so as well, and when you're giving directly to a charity, there are similar amounts taken out for credit card processing and other costs. Crowdrise gives donors the option of paying a separate processing fee -- but doing so does nothing to increase the amount going to that particular charity. Rather, the for-profit startup says it keeps the money so that it can reduce fees overall.
That said, I'm reaching out to people who normally might not have given, either because they weren't thinking about it or didn't know whom to give to. Others might have given more knowing that I'm supporting the cause. So those extra donations more than cover the transaction fees.