Last week, I cast my first-ever vote for a contestant on The Voice. Until accidentally tuning in one day, I never understood the fascination with this show. Much less did I imagine admitting the show as a guilty pleasure in the first sentence of a blog post! But here I am, completely sold. If one of my favorite contestants wins or releases a song, you can bet I’ll download the single, tweet about it, and maybe even buy tickets to their concert someday.

The Voice has engaged me to the point of taking action and having a vested interest in the outcome. And that’s what smart crowdsourcing does.

Some Background

Wired magazine first coined the term “crowdsourcing” almost ten years ago when describing the phenomenon of businesses outsourcing to the crowd. They defined it as:

the act of a company taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined, and generally large, network of people in the form of an open call.

Does this sound familiar? Shows like American Idol and The Voice let viewers do the job of record executives. Lay’s Do Us a Flavor campaign selected a potato chip flavor from 14 million taste submissions. Back in 1916, even Mr. Peanut was created by the 14-year-old winner of a contest to design the new Planters logo. These days, we’re personally turning to the crowd for rides (Uber), vacation rentals (Airbnb), reviews (TripAdvisor), and so much more.

For-Profit Crowdsourcing

Today’s consumer expects to be more involved. Many for-profit companies are putting more power in the hands of their customers, because they know engagement leads to loyalty.

Starbucks has been involving coffee regulars for seven years on My Starbucks Idea. Members submit and vote on ideas, while Starbucks employees comment on, pilot, and make the ideas a reality. They recently introduced coconut milk at stores based on one of the most popular My Starbucks Ideas of all time. And watch out, Starbucks delivery is on the way!

Lego Ideas asks for actual models of your Lego set idea. Once an idea gets 10,000 votes, it goes before a review board and the best of the best become actual Lego sets, with inventors getting a cut of the profits. Current ideas include the Ghostbusters Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, Lego Golden Girls, and the RMS Titanic.

Dell’s IdeaStorm launched in 2007 and since then, 23,000 ideas have been submitted and 550 have been implemented. Unilever looks to their community to solve certain challenges, like making toothpaste that “amazes your mouth by creating a wow factor through taste, texture, or even sound.” The Food Network finds their newest culinary hosts, like Guy Fieri, from a public audition and viewer voting.

With all this crowdsourcing at the corporate level, is it time for fundraisers to up their game?

Crowdsourcing for Engagement

This form of crowdsourcing puts the power in the hands of the crowd by farming out decisions and work that will have a minimal impact on the actual business practices of the organization. The goal of crowdsourcing for engagement is to instill a sense of loyalty in supporters by allowing them to actively participate in the process.

For example, contests let supporters submit ideas and/or vote on them. Activities like t-shirt design contests or picking this year’s calendar cover through voting get your supporters’ attention. By inserting crowdsourcing into a fundraising campaign, you build a more engaged audience out of the gate – they’ll be more likely to want to fundraise to earn the t-shirt, or be first in line to purchase the calendar.

Crowdsourcing for Bright Spots

In Switch, Chip and Dan Heath tell us a tried and true way to solve problems is to copy success. When things aren’t working on a macro-level for your nonprofit, they suggest you start to identify micro-level bright spots. Where are things working and what can you do to copy them?

The American Diabetes Association’s Tour de Cure features “Red Riders”, riders who have type 1 or type 2 diabetes. Red Riders receive a special jersey, are cheered on along the course, and receive lots of perks. Not surprisingly, they also tend to be the best fundraisers. The program didn’t result from a brainstorming session of nonprofit staff, but was created by a volunteer in Colorado and implemented locally in 2007. Association staff identified the bright spot and developed a nation-wide program based on its success.

When you’re trying to solve a problem or raise more money, look to existing programs and volunteers for those rays of light. You can identify these bright spots easily by finding the diamonds in your reports, diving into surveys, or by paying close attention to Google Alerts. Never underestimate what might already be happening in the field. Your job in crowdsourcing for bright spots is not in creating something new, but in turning to your crowd for great ideas to mimic.

Crowdsourcing for Collective Impact

Through formal crowdsourcing, you challenge supporters to have a significant impact on the organization. You turn to the collective intelligence of the crowd, unencumbered by distractions like office politics, fear of change, or what hasn’t worked in the past.

In 2013, the Jimmy Fund held their first Big Ideas Contest, generating 150 innovative fundraising ideas. Cheer for Dana Farber is one of the ideas currently in action.

Right now, they’re seeking their next Big Idea and have set it up much like a business incubator. Ideas must have the ability to generate $100,000+, engage thousands of current and new supporters, and be easily replicated. Finalists will present their concepts to a panel of prominent CEOs and will be coached by one of them. Winners get to change the lives of millions of people affected by cancer, and can also win once in a lifetime experiences with the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots, electronics, gift cards, and more.

By formalizing the crowdsourcing process similar to the corporate examples above, nonprofits put greater power in the hands of their supporters, allow for greater transparency in innovation, and ultimately generate more funds.

As far as my own crowdsourcing venture, my inner teenager is cheering (and voting) for Sawyer Fredericks to win The Voice!


Shana Masterson has been a fundraiser since 2001. In 2014, she joined Blackbaud as a senior consultant. Her unique skill set as both a peer to peer fundraiser and a technologist allows her to focus on maximizing peer to peer campaign revenue through success planning, road mapping, communication calendaring, configuration recommendations and more.

Prior to joining Blackbaud, Shana led the American Diabetes Association’s online fundraising and communication strategy for the national special events team. She also worked for the National Brain Tumor Society, the American Cancer Society and the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Connect with Shana on Twitter or Linkedin.

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