Kristen Kurtz, as Associate Director of Digital Fundraising at the Michigan Medicine Office of Development, has a difficult job. Her department at University of Michigan not only oversees all of digital fundraising for Michigan Medicine, but also works with people who are fundraising in the community and student groups on Michigan Medicine’s behalf. Due to the department’s affiliation with the college and only one tax ID number, many of the benefits that other charities and nonprofits enjoy are not available to them. Though they work on a modest marketing budget, they are not eligible for a Google Grant or for Facebook’s Charitable Giving Tools. Still, with limited resources, the department has seen steadily increasing success, specifically in the recent years with their annual Block Out Cancer campaign.
Block Out Cancer is active in September, which is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. One of Michigan Medicine’s annual campaigns, Block Out Cancer features an annual t-shirt sale that has seen exponential growth over the years. Last year’s campaign sold $57,000 worth of t-shirts compared to the previous year’s $3,000, making for a whopping $135,000 raised compared to the previous year’s $81,000. Behind this success is a simple principle: know your audience.
“By identifying audiences that might be interested in a t-shirt, we were able to drill down on the people who were likely to click through and make that purchase,” says Kurtz.
The department achieved this in a variety of ways. First of all, Michigan Medicine engaged with people who were fundraising for U-M’s childhood cancer initiative through their own “micro-campaigns.” Student groups on campus, local elementary, middle, and high schools, and activists in the community were all considered part of the team.
Secondly, when it comes to audience, they knew how to leverage their assets. U-M boasts the largest alumni base in the nation, and a sizable group of devoted football fans to boot. While St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital can often monopolize the nationwide donor base for childhood cancer, Michigan Medicine was able to engage people in the state of Michigan with a specific interest in pediatric cancer and further define itself through the specificity of the annual September campaign.
The t-shirts were marketed digitally with boosted posts shared through Facebook, Instagram, and other crowdfunding services. A video featuring a cancer patient with Jim Harbaugh, head football coach at U-M, encouraged people to buy the shirts.
“We garnered so many new donors,” says Kurtz. “We were astounded. We kept seeing the numbers go up. We thought it was a typo.”
Kurtz expects to see another increase in donors as the result of the next Block Out Cancer campaign coming up in September. This specific project, however, is not isolated to pediatric cancer in its influence. Donors who purchase a t-shirt are added to the list of appeals for the annual Save a Heart campaign in February, which raises money for children born with congenital heart disease. Eight of the new donors that gave to Save a Heart last February were people who had purchased a t-shirt the previous September.
“Ultimately, our work in the digital space is about building pipelines and helping identify our next generation of donors,” says Kurtz. “As much as our team is raising money, we are measured just as much—if not more—based on how many donors we’re bringing into the fold.”
The success the department is seeing has resulted in developing even better, more efficient strategies for donor acquisition.
“What we learned is that we don’t need to pay for a list anymore,” says Kurtz. “By capturing these new donors in this way, we’re able to have a better return investment.”