Going viral: how one organization was transformed by an unexpected windfall
A windfall is fabulous, right? After all, what nonprofit leader wouldn’t want to walk into work one Monday morning to find a pile of money, an unexpected gift, on their doorstep? Think of all that you could do with those extra funds—give your hard-working staff a well-deserved raise, pay off your organization’s debt, replace your cobbled-together computer systems, serve 10 times the number of clients whom you served last month, even provide the employee training and education that you’ve deferred for the past decade. In reality, however, a windfall is often accompanied by a unique set of challenges. Take for example what happened to Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a small nonprofit that has been serving immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Texas for decades.
One Monday morning in June 2018, RAICES’ CEO, Jonathon Ryan, awakened to find an email message notifying him that his organization was the recipient of a fundraising campaign to reunite asylum-seeking families who had been separated at the border. The timing was fortuitous, as he had recently learned that the federal government was canceling the primary source of RAICES’ funding, contracts to assist unaccompanied minors with legal representation during their immigration hearings.
Thinking that the organization would have to completely restructure and perhaps curtail services, he and the other attorneys and legal assistants on staff had quickly developed two funds, one to support their children’s program and the other for family detention and reunification, and posted them on their website—of course there were no dollars associated with those funds, but the organization had hope that they could quickly garner support to keep serving their clients even though they had never in their 30-year history conducted a fundraising campaign.
Monday morning’s email message gave him hope. It indicated that there was a possibility that the campaign was going viral—it had reached its target of $1500 within 40 minutes after Dave and Charlotte Wilner had posted it on their Facebook page on Saturday. By Sunday night, it had raised more than a million dollars, and, by Monday, $2000 per minute was pouring into the fundraiser. When checking RAICES’ online presence, Ryan encountered the much-dreaded website down message. All of these donors were being directed to the website and none of them could reach it. Ryan encountered the first challenge of an organization unprepared to deal with windfall—lack of infrastructure from years of dedicating all of their resources to serving clients and none to the organization itself. Their overhead ratio looked great, which was one of the reasons that the Wilners had selected RAICES to receive the donations; however, that lack of infrastructure also led to difficulties communicating with their new donors and with tracking and acknowledging donations—more than 250,000 of which poured in the first week to the Facebook campaign. In the previous year, they had received a total of 40 donations, which they’d tracked in a spreadsheet.
The widespread media coverage of this sensational campaign put RAICES squarely in the forefront of the national immigration debate. Thankfully, the nimble 5-member board of directors and the charismatic director were able to respond quickly and share with the public their plans for using the money via a newly built website, Facebook Live sessions, and other social and traditional media. This transparency was crucial in continuing to garner additional donations, which ultimately reached $30 million before the campaign ended 90 days after its inception.
Over the past nine months, RAICES has become a more professional organization. It has a new development department, led by director, Liz Dunn, who says that her biggest challenge is learning every day what constitutes the organization’s new normal. Rather than setting an annual budget, they have to adapt and try to project what that new normal might be, reevaluating as necessary. For the first time, her fundraising predictions for the month of January were spot on, so perhaps they are finally able to envisage their future. Her advice to others facing a windfall is to do something, even if it’s not perfect. She would love to personally thank their hundreds of thousands of donors, but she has email addresses for only 30 percent of the people who gave to the Wilner’s Facebook campaign. She’ll start there and be happy. After all, who wouldn’t want to have 170,000 donors to thank.