Just about all nonprofits struggle with fundraising, and nowadays many are also concerned with enlisting the support and engagement of the next generation of donors: millennials. Well, what if I told you that you can solve both these challenges simultaneously and that enlisting young people in helping raise money and awareness for your cause is the best way to get them engaged?
When I started RE-volv, a solar crowdfunding platform that raises money for solar panels for nonprofit organizations in 2011, I had a vision for empowering people around the country to deploy clean energy in their communities. It seems obvious to me now, but launching a crowdfunding campaign—or even a platform—is the easy part. The real work is building a community of supporters, a movement of change-makers. Here’s how we did it, and what we learned in the process that you can apply to your own movement-building efforts.
Our first three crowdfunding campaigns were run by our small but mighty staff and me. We shot the videos, wrote the press releases, and ran social media campaigns. We emailed everyone we knew, hosted events in the community, and put up flyers at coffee shops and laundromats. Partner organizations helped promote the campaigns and sponsors contributed seed money. And lo and behold, it worked! With an investment of staff time, a few hundred dollars on events, and about $1,000 per crowdfunding video, we crowdfunded over $120,000 and put solar on three awesome organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area that otherwise wouldn’t have been able to get solar financing.
Still, we wanted to make a bigger difference. While I knew that many people would be interested in what we were offering, there are a lot of things fighting for our attention these days. How could we cut through the noise and really connect with people? How could we build a movement that would be big enough to make a difference around climate change?
Then it dawned on us. In order to scale beyond the region and empower supporters from outside our network, we could train other people to do this! For obvious reasons, we started with college students.
The Two Keys to Engaging Youth
Including college students is not a novel idea. But what is somewhat unique is our successful approach, which focuses on in-depth training that empowers our college fellows to be the next generation of clean energy leaders. You see, young people don’t just want to do busy work: millennials are looking for opportunities to play leadership roles, and they thrive when they work in teams.
Five years ago we launched the Solar Ambassador Fellowship program. We recruited students from around the country via five universities, with one fellow from each. We held webinars every two weeks from September to May and taught them about how to reach out to nonprofits in their area, how to describe the benefits of solar, and how to run a crowdfunding campaign. Unfortunately, it took us too long to train them, and none of them closed any deals. So the next year we made two fundamental changes to the program, which have proved to be invaluable: we created teams and trained in-person.
Embracing a Team Approach
In our second year, things took off when we recruited teams of 3-5 students from each school. Having teams instead of individual young leaders has tremendous benefits:
- They hold each other accountable;
- They can split up the workload;
- It gives them the social benefit of working on something impactful with their friends;
- It gives them confidence to figure things out as a team drawing on their collective wisdom and experience; and
- Graduating students can pass the baton to younger classmates and thus perpetuate the program year after year, retaining the knowledge of the group.
Gathering In Person
Getting our young leaders together in person also proved to be game changing, since it basically expanded their sense of team to include other counterparts around the country. They bonded with each other, creating a cohort that provides support over the course of the year, while developing rapport directly with our staff. Finally, they had time to reflect collectively on what they hoped to accomplish over the next nine months and put together a solid game plan.
And like I said, it worked! Since we made these shifts our fellows—equipped only with a $750 budget for each campaign—have completed ten crowdfunding campaigns, raising over $300,000 to solarize nonprofits in six states!
Three Reasons Why This Works
The main reason I believe this program is so effective is because we create a genuine relationship with young leaders by getting to know them personally. We create relationships in person through the kickoff gathering and then have face-to-face video conference calls every two weeks throughout the year. We’re on the phone and emailing with them regularly. This gives them the support they need to be confident and creative, and stay focused and informed.
Secondly, we empower young people who already care about an issue with the tools to create impact and serve in a leadership role. The students who apply for our fellowship are already passionate about clean energy and hungry for an opportunity to put their talents to good use. College students these days are mostly asked to observe, analyze, and theorize about the pressing issues of our time. We give them an opportunity to lead. We give millennials a vehicle to channel their talents, passion, creative energy, and concern about the world into tangible projects that create real community benefits.
Thirdly, college students often have good networks, both back home and on campus, so they’re inherently good at mobilizing support. In addition, universities are often interested in promoting the good work of their students. College newspapers, Alumni magazines, and university social media channels are fantastic avenues to spread the word about your work. But simply asking youth to create awareness for your cause generally falls flat; instead, by engaging them in promoting their projects, they’ll go to the mat for you.
While still in its early stages, our fellowship program continues to grow. This year alone we went from seven universities to eleven. We’re also now seeing a bit of an upward spiral as program alumni help new teams get up to speed and avoid pitfalls. And connecting this effort back to our mission, aside from the funds raised by our fellows, we hope the graduates will leverage their experience and leadership roles to become leaders in the field of clean energy and climate change solutions.
Creating change always comes back to people, and just like folks from different parts of the world behave differently, so do people from different generations. So if like many nonprofits in the US you’re looking to engage the next generation of donors and supporters, then remember to provide them with opportunities for leadership and ownership of the work, to engage them personally and in-person, and to be open to their ideas, networks, and passion, instead of simply plugging them into your existing plans. It may take a bit of time and effort—but trust me—it can be worth it!
Andreas Karelas is the founder and Executive Director of RE-volv, a nonprofit solar energy finance platform based in San Francisco. Andreas is a dedicated renewable energy advocate with over ten years of environmental and renewable energy nonprofit experience. Andreas holds Master’s degrees in International Affairs and in Natural Resources and Sustainable Development, and a Bachelor’s degree in Economics. He is an Audubon Toyota TogetherGreen Conservation Leadership Fellow and an OpenIDEO Climate Innovator Fellow. RE-volv is an inaugural member of the White House National Community Solar Partnership and is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.