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3 Nonprofit Fundraising Lessons from March Madness


3 Nonprofit Fundraising Lessons From March Madness

It’s the best time of year for college basketball fans: the start of the NCAA college basketball tournament. March Madness is in full swing, with the first round and the women’s tournament already under way.

Even casual and non-fans get swept up in the excitement. It’s hard to avoid the water cooler hoops chatter and news coverage of brackets and bracket-busters.

So what can organizations learn about nonprofit fundraising from the Big Dance? What are the traits that turn casual observers into rabid fans of schools and teams they may never had heard of?

The Passion of the Play-In Games

Several years ago the tournament was expanded from a field of 64 teams to 68, adding a round dubbed “The First Four.” It gives four additional teams the chance to compete for two bids into the field. Usually these teams are smaller, lesser-known schools that have never come close to making the big dance.

For these teams just to make the tournament is like winning a national championship, no matter how far they go. They are given what is likely their first chance to represent their schools in the national spotlight. They’ve spent the season scrapping in gymnasiums the size of most high school facilities, and suddenly they’re transported to enormous arenas. Consequently the players go all out, leaving every ounce of sweat and energy on the court, sparing no effort. Their accomplishment also whips their fans into a frenzy of support.

The fundraising lesson here is to make the most of your opportunities. Use every available channel to get yourself in front of as many people as possible: social media, a mobile giving app, meet-up grounds, events. Keep grinding away through the tough times, and you can be rewarded with a key partnership or sponsorship that vaults your cause into the limelight. No matter how big or how small your organization, passion, energy, and effort ultimately determine your nonprofit fundraising success.

Cinderella Stories

In 2010 and 2011 our hometown Butler Bulldogs went to two straight national championship games. Though they had made the tournament nine times before dating back to 1967, to most they were an unknown. Even for a school that prides itself primarily on academics, the effect of reaching the national stage had an inarguable affect on applications and donations.

After their first championship try:

undergraduate alumni giving grew 10% over the previous year, and

applications ballooned by 41%.

Clearly the exposure they gained from basketball had overall positive outcomes for the school at large.

Perennial contenders like UCLA, Kentucky, Duke, and North Carolina are the Red Crosses and United Ways of basketball. Everyone knows who they are, everyone knows their reputations. Despite their histories, a smaller upstart can always come along and beat them at their own game and cement their own legacy.

Everyone loves a triumph of the underdog, David over Goliath story—and not just in sports. Crowdfunding for nonprofit projects has grown exponentially as potential givers are exposed to causes about which they are passionate.

Successful nonprofit fundraising is no longer a matter of being huge and staying on top. It’s all about finding the right audience at the right time and telling them an engaging story—an emotional story that’s easy to connect with and support.

Your nonprofit organization may not have the rich history and name recognition, but what you do have is a unique story. It’s your job to tell it.

Level Playing Field

Unlike professional sports, the college basketball tournament is one-and-done, single elimination. It’s the old “Winner plays on, loser goes home,” axiom.

In the tournament, teams with better records and stronger schedules throughout the regular season are awarded higher seeds, while weaker teams are seeded lower. The brackets are constructed such that the lower-seeded teams play the higher-seeded ones in four regions—so the 16 seed in the East plays the 1 seed, and so on.

This might sound unfair to the underdog, in that it weights the odds in favor of the bigger, stronger, better teams. But the net effect of this seeding is that increases the level of competition as the games go on, so that the truly better teams generally make it to the championship game. The cream rises to the top.

But upsets always happen. As I was finishing this post, 14-seed Georgia State just knocked off 3-seed powerhouse Baylor.

Why is this relevant? Just because the odds aren’t in your favor and some bigger, stronger, more recognized organization gets all the attention, you have the same chance at winning at fundraising as they do.

Just like basketball games are played on identical courts with standard equipment and the same rules, you have the same number of hours in a day as everyone else. Your nonprofit may not have the same budget, partnerships, or access to elite talent. But with grit and heart, and by measuring your success against your own criteria, you can still make your fundraising a winner.

mobile giving app is one great way to level the playing field. Developing your own can be expensive and time-consuming: two resources smaller nonprofits may not have. It’s worth looking into a nonprofit giving app to give you an extra edge.

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