In 2011, in the name of raising money for the Special Olympics, I participated in the Polar Plunge. As a native Texan going to graduate school in Wisconsin, I signed up on a sunny September day not only to support the cause, but also because it seemed like something that would make for a good story one day. When February rolled around, it was with shock and horror that I realized exactly what I had signed myself up for—blocks of ice had been removed to make a hole in a lake that was completely frozen solid several feet deep. After jumping in, you swam across the short length of the hole (about 10 yards), and emerge, wet and freezing, only to get to race through temps in the teens to try to warm up in a lukewarm hot tub. As a Texas girl, I am not exaggerating when I say I thought I literally might freeze to death.

But here I am, still alive. My graduate school class at the Wisconsin School of Business raised more than $10k for the Wisconsin Special Olympics. We each created our own crowd fundraising pages online and enthusiastically asked our friends and family, from all over the country, to donate to the cause to support us in our efforts. Our friends and family stepped up and supported this local branch of the Special Olympics, thousands of miles away from their home towns, securing donation dollars for the nonprofit that they would have never seen otherwise.

That’s the beauty of crowd fundraising.

But crowd fundraising isn’t just for runs, walks, or polar plunges anymore. Museums, zoos, and aquariums are finding that crowdfundraising can be a strategic tool to add to their fundraising playbook. All you need is a campaign that will appeal to the masses.

Bonus: No one has to jump into a frozen lake.

Here are 3 arts and cultural organizations that have given crowd fundraising a go for compelling causes:

National Air & Space Museum

The National Air and Space Museum raised nearly $720,000 in 30 days to conserve the spacesuit Neil Armstrong wore on the moon, far surpassing their goal of $500,000. Nearly 9,500 people donated, at an average of $75 per person.

Denver Zoo

The Denver Zoo raised more than $60,000 for the SNUGG – a Safe Nurturing Upright Gateway for Giraffes, which is a large, padded, weatherproof chute that zookeepers can secure giraffes in for medical care and other procedures. An added benefit? The Zoo staff cites that the crowdfundraising allows individuals to take ownership in the SNUGG and encourages them to come back to the zoo to see it, increasing visitation as well. More detail here.

Autry National Center of the American West

The Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles launched a campaign to raise $66,000 in 60 days for their exhibition on Route 66 (they raised $61,000 – 92% of their goal). Route 66 is a powerful symbol in the US, but particularly in the region where Autry is located. The exhibition contained something for everyone: vintage gas pumps, the original handwritten manuscript of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Woody Guthrie’s Martin guitar, and a classic Corvette.

What do all of these campaigns have in common?

These organizations based their campaign on a specific cause that would appeal to a mass audience.  They didn’t need to come up with a walk-a-thon, run-a-thon, or even a polar plunge to appeal to the public. Crowdfundraising allowed these organizations an opportunity for their communities to step up and support their missions, all while giving a smaller donor an opportunity to feel like they were a part of something.

Denver Zoo cited that they chose crowdfundraising for the SNUGG because they had heard interest from many, but had no individual donor passionate enough to fund it alone.

What project or ideas at your organization fit that description?

Are there works of art you want to restore? A young artist program you hope to get off the ground?  Give your community a chance to come together and help you make it happen, one small donor at a time. Think all of this is great but want some step-by-step advice on how to get a crowdfundraising campaign started? Join our upcoming webinar featuring the Columbus Zoo. They’ll be sharing the details of their recent campaign called DIY Care: Do-It-Yourself Animal Conservation, and you’ll get a sneak peek of their brand new peer-to-peer fundraising site!

Register here.


Nicolle Bowling, Sr. Marketing Manager for the Arts & Cultural team at Blackbaud, is passionate about helping nonprofits increase their awareness through social and digital channels so they can meet and exceed their missions. Nicolle has worked with several nonprofit organizations such as Hope for New York, Apostles NYC, Midtown Pregnancy Support Center and Ballet Austin Guild. In her spare time, Nicolle is a wannabe foodie, part-time world traveler, and full-time mom to #Chloe the maltepom pup. Follow me on Twitter for Arts & Cultural tips, tricks and updates! @nicolle_nyc

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