Case Study: Non-Profit Uses Foursquare For Fundraising

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At BART stations in the Bay Area in 2010, commuters were encouraged to check-in on Foursquare to posters placed by Earthjustice, a non-profit focused on environmental awareness, as part of an effort to gain traction in the tech community. The group was further incented by a private donor who’d pledged $50,000 if Earthjustice achieved 5,000 check-ins. They hit 6,000 in just a few months’ time and earned media as well, in the New York Times, Mashable and elsewhere. Senior marketing manager Ray Wan discusses the organization’s strategy.

How did your fundraising effort with Foursquare come about?
We were offered PSAs in the San Francisco BART stations [in 2010]. They’re free ads, essentially, whenever inventory is not yet sold. We normally would put some normal brand-awareness ads up there, but we had the opportunity to do something very cool — because San Francisco is a nexus for a lot of social media and cutting edge tech — so we thought, why don’t we engage with this very tech-savvy audience using a social media tool that hadn’t been used before? At that time the BP oil spill was happening, and the issue of the environment was on people’s minds. For us, this was this perfect storm where it was a good audience in San Francisco and environmental issues were on people’s minds because of the BP oil spill. At that time, also, everyone was talking about Foursquare and it certainly was something that not a lot of groups had used before. We melded those ideas together and came up with a concept.

We chose three topics — the BP oil spill, protecting endangered species in California, and protecting Lake Tahoe, which is a very popular recreational spot for Bay Area folks — and we decided to create a campaign in which, if you checked-in in front of the posters that were in the BART stations, each check-in would generate $10 in donations from a major donor who had committed to funding this campaign. This major donor of ours unfortunately is a private donor, so we can’t talk about who it is. But this individual is from the Bay Area and is younger, and just really wanted to see how a non-profit could experiment with this kind of cutting edge technology. [The donor] had pledged a total of $50,000. That was the max that we could have gotten if we were to get the maximum amount of check-ins. That basically means we had to net 5,000 check-ins to receive the full amount [from the donor]. The campaign was at the end of the summer, leading into the fall. So in that series of a few months, we actually ended up with around 6,000 check-ins. We went way beyond what we thought we were going to do and we ended up maxing out on that and getting the [full] fund.

Obviously, one of the additional benefits that we had from the campaign was that we got a lot of media coverage. Because we were one of the first non-profits to use Foursquare, a lot of groups called us up and wanted to ask how they could implement the same system, and we were featured in a number of books that are out there. There is a book that just came out by Carmine Gallo, The Power of foursquare, and we’re featured in that. It definitely provided a lot of really good media coverage for us.

What was your advice to groups that wanted to know how they could implement the same promotion?
It really depends on the circumstances. I remember there was one organization that called us and they wanted to do it. They were holding a fundraising marathon race. The great thing about it, and why we recommended implementing a Foursquare campaign, was that at the beginning of the race, everyone is gathered around this one, centrally located area. They were going to see if they could put a billboard there, a very big one that basically said, “Hey, racers, check-in here. Each check-in, yields X amount of money from a corporate sponsor or a donor.” That made sense because it was a physical location and you had a huge number of people gathered in one spot. So that was a really great technique that we recommended they implement. For smaller non-profits, this may not be the way to go because you do need a critical number of ads up there to really saturate your audience. Having just one ad in one station is not going to do it. Also, even though the ad placement [at the BART stations] was free, you still have to pay for the production of the ad and printing it out. That’s not terribly expensive, but for a small non-profit, it may be a little more cost prohibitive.


Now that you’ve had time to analyze the campaign, how successful was it?
It met and exceeded every single one of our goals, so there’s absolutely nothing but good things coming out of this campaign. Going forward, we definitely are open to the idea of doing another location-based advertising campaign. Whether it be with Foursquare, we don’t quite know. We just know that if you want people to engage with your ad; if you want people to do something rather than just look at it and turn away and forget about it 10 seconds later, [then] you have to provide them with an easy way of engagement. Because so many people, right now, have smartphones with them, getting them to engage with you via smartphone or via some type of social media app is probably a good thing. It is a smart way of engaging with them. QR codes are something people are starting to experiment with. It’s not done very well right now, but people are starting to do that. What we don’t think is probably the best way of [running a promotion] is the way that almost everyone does it, which is just putting a web URL up there and hoping that people will either jot down that URL and check it out when they get home or immediately whip out their phone, open up that internet browser and then type in that URL. That takes a lot of work, and especially if it’s outdoors, people are not going to spend the time to do all of that. So, what type of engagement can you offer your audience that is easy for them to do, but also has a very low barrier of entry? I think that is where the social media apps really come in.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.