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Debra Askanase 11 min read

Why "Free Agent" Social Communities Rock

There is a lot of buzz about "free agent fundraisers" an individual using personal fundraising to raise money for a nonprofit organization. The free agent fundraiser is described in detail in Allison Fine and Beth Kanter's book The Networked Nonprofit. However, there is a new class of free agent out there, specific to social networks: "the free agent community."

The free agent community exists on a social network and decides, as a group, to raise funds for an unafilliated nonprofit organization. The community could be a blog community, a YouTube channel community, a Facebook or Ning group, or a reddit group. In the past year, there have been several notable examples of independent communities raising funds for other organizations.

The success of free agent community fundraising rests in the strength of the network relationships and whether or not participants can be involved and act as organizers. Similarly, Allison Fine notes in her excellent roundup of the America's Giving Challenge (AGC), contest winners understood the importance of building a community early and the need for participants to act like grassroots organizers.

As social networks mature, I suspect that we will hear of more and more free agent community fundraisers like the ones highlighted below. The challenges for nonprofit organizations will be participating in social social media such that online communities are aware of them, listening for opportunities, and have the resources to participate within independent communities that might be likely collaborators. These are big challenges, but the payoff in exposure, potential engagement, and fundraising is huge.

Three recent independent social community fundraisers underscore these points.

Reddit Fundraising Challenge Raised Close to $60,000

The Atheist, Christian, and Islam subgroups of Reddit, the social news site, decided to raise funds and challenge each other at the same time, in a good-natured way. On December 9th, redditor maggieed suggested that the reddit Christianity subgroup start a fundraiser. The group decided to raise money for World Vision's Clean Water Campaign. This conversation thread inspired the reddit subgroup Atheism to create its own fundraiser for Doctors Without Borders. As stated by member sjmarotta December 9: “Let the (sometimes pointless) animosity between our groups be used for good! Let the X-mas Wars and the overall battle for goodness in the world begin!” A week later, r/Islam group member tinkthank began discussing the fundraiser in the subreddit Islam group here, with the subgroup deciding to create an online fundraising page to benefit Islamic Relief.

Together the three communities raised close to $60,000 from approximately 1,000 enthusiastic redditors in two weeks' time. Many redditors donated to more than one fundraiser, and donor comments demonstrate cross-group support. Contributing to the success was the clear enthusiasm for the fundraiser from within the reddit subgroups, the fact that the groups chose the beneficiaries, and the closeness of the communities themselves. In this case, a good-natured challenge also fed the fundraising enthusiasm. (For more on the fundraisers, read interviews with the organizers of each fundraiser here, here, and here.)

The Cake Wrecks Blog Community Raises Close to $23,000 in 12 days for 12 Organizations

The Cake Wrecks blog began their Christmas Charity Countdown in 2009 to raise money for 12 different nonprofits in 12 days. As Cake Wrecks writes: "Many of you remember this crazy thing I did last year, when John and I skipped gifts and decorations and instead donated to a different charity each day for two weeks. I asked you guys to recommend places to give, and invited you to join us by giving a single dollar each day to the featured charity. But the really crazy thing is that a lot of you did." This year, Cake Wrecks reintroduced the Christmas Charity Countdown, asking for recommendations of places to give, and asking readers to donate $1.00 a day to 12 different nonprofit organizations. Over 12 days, the Cake Wrecks fundraiser generated almost $23,000 in donations. Over 4,500 people donated, primarily in increments of less than $5.00. Comments on fundraising pages include "so glad you're doing it again this year" and "$5.00 - I'm playin' catch-up, Jen!" Comments on the blog posts are just as supportive and community-minded. Contributing to the success was the enthusiasm for the idea of the fundraiser, the loyal blog readership, the inclusion of the readers in the selection of the nonprofit beneficiaries and, possibly, the low suggested donation amount of $1 a day.

Project For Awesome Raises $135,000 in One Day, Plus Millions of YouTube Views

Every December 17th since 2007 YouTube vlog brothers John and Hank Green urge their YouTube community to "hack" YouTube for charity as part of Project For Awesome. They encourage their 436,000+ channel subscribers to "take over" YouTube by posting videos about their favorite charities and including the hashtag #P4A. After the P4A videos are made, the YouTube community works together to comment on and rate the videos. As these videos climb the most-discussed and top-rated pages, the videos slowly start to take over the entire site. This year, Project For Awesome added a raffle for charity and commenting incentives. All raffle donations went to eight pre-selected nonprofit organizations. Hank and John promised to donate $.01 for every comment left on YouTube December 17 with the #P4A hashtag, up to $100,000. All told, the raffle raised $135,000 for charity, over 3,000 P4A videos were uploaded, users left over 600,000 #P4A video comments, and over 10 million P4A videos were viewed!

Though John and Hank are free agents themselves, it is their community that self-determines the causes and videos. Contributing to this success was the strong vlog brothers community, the fact that YouTube users could advocate for their own causes, and the history of Project for Awesome. The concept of the free agent fundraiser is easily extended to a free agent community. The challenge for nonprofit organizations is to find and collaborate with independent social communities. Though a difficult task, it's worthwhile for a nonprofit to invest in time within a strong social network.

*Debra Askanase is the community engagement manager at FirstGiving, where she helps nonprofit organizations and individuals expand the world of giving. Debra is an engagement enthusiast and strategist, and blogs about the intersection of social media, nonprofits and community organizing at Community Organizer 2.0. She also speaks on the topic at conferences worldwide and can be found chatting away as @askdebra on Twitter.