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How Crowdsourcing Helps Your Nonprofit

Harness the Crowd to Increase Awareness, Cultivate New Volunteers, and Gather Information for Your Charity

By: Soha El Borno

August 23, 2012

This article is courtesy of Idealware, which provides candid information to help nonprofits choose effective software. For more articles and reviews, go to

Since the earliest days of the Internet, people have used crowdsourcing to solicit and organize others to participate in projects in small ways. In an early example of crowdsourcing, nonprofits would post questions to a Usenet discussion board seeking answers from the community — for instance, asking how to write a particular policy or for recommendations about recognizing and rewarding volunteers. That "open call" approach is what distinguishes crowdsourcing from outsourcing, in which you’d send a task to a specific person or organization for help.

Crowdsourcing can be done at an organizational or individual level, and nonprofits have used it for everything from marketing and fundraising to volunteerism and activism. It’s a great way to enlist help from a wider community knowledge base and to engage people in your work.

How can your charitable organization harness the power of the crowd to help achieve your mission? We asked nonprofit experts for crowdsourcing best practices and techniques that have worked for them.

The Whys and Hows of Crowdsourcing

Nonprofit organizations can use crowdsourcing for a number of purposes, including cultivating new volunteers and donors and spreading the word about their work to a larger audience.

At its simplest, crowdsourcing is a community engagement tool. This can provide you with ideas, feedback, and contributions you might not otherwise get. It can also demonstrate transparency and openness in decision making. Whoever is in charge of your nonprofit’s Facebook and Twitter management should keep an eye out for questions to regularly ask followers about activities and events and help keep them engaged.

But there are some cautions to keep in mind, the most important of which is to keep crowdsourcing simple and meaningful. For example, if your organization is drafting a social media policy, your volunteer manager might share a draft with an online community of volunteers and ask for their feedback. If your organization wanted to come up with new plans for an annual fundraising event, your fundraising manager might email all your organization’s supporters to ask for ideas.

We’ve identified five categories of crowdsourcing and found some real-world examples of nonprofits that have used them successfully.

Pooling Collective Knowledge

This type of crowdsourcing can be used to share and aggregate information to help solve problems. For example, Ushahidi is an open-source software platform that plots a set of particular incidents, submitted by people via text messages, onto an online map. Ushahidi, which means "testimony" in Swahili, was initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya. It has also been used for disaster relief in Pakistan and to map crime incidents in Atlanta.

In another example, a public radio station in New York City asked listeners to check the price of milk at their neighborhood store and enter it online. Several hundred submissions later, the station had created a detailed map of food prices showing inequities across the city.


By breaking large tasks into tiny ones, it’s possible to delegate repetitive jobs to the crowd. For instance, The Seed Company enlisted more than 1,000 residents of a remote village in Asia for help in translating the Bible into their native language, with each participant translating a small piece of text. The project was made possible using the crowdsourcing translation platform Lingotek. Through sites like Sparked or Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, organizations can ask people to perform a small task, such as tagging a picture, finding a phone number, or typing a piece of text in a specific format. For example, after Hurricane Katrina, thousands of volunteers manually entered 15,200 records to consolidate dozens of information sources about lost or missing people.

Crowd Creation

Tasks of this nature use crowds to help create original works of art. The Royal Opera used Twitter to crowdsource a new "people’s opera" that drew more than 900 contributions, resulting in a 20-minute production in London performed by professional composers. Similarly, the YouTube Symphony Orchestra crowdsourced musician auditions for a mashup performance over YouTube. The end result was a symphony orchestra of more than 90 players representing more than 30 countries.

Crowd Voting

Most people like to express their opinions by voting on or rating something or giving feedback. By tapping into that desire, you can increase awareness for your cause and draw in new audiences for your message. A great example of this is the Brooklyn Community Foundation, which launched a campaign encouraging locals to submit and vote on projects to improve their neighborhoods. More than 356 projects were nominated, and the number of votes totaled well over 300,000.

Art museums have also used crowdsourcing to let crowds curate and plan exhibitions. A good example is the Brooklyn Museum’s "Click! A Crowd-Curated Exhibition," which used an open call for people to submit photographs. Nearly 3,500 people participated, evaluating more than 350 images and selecting a number for a final exhibition of the photographs.

Crowd Funding

This category opens the collective pocketbook, encouraging crowds to fund projects that benefit others. Perhaps the most widely-known is Kiva, a micro-lending website. By allowing people to make micro-loans as small as $25 to entrepreneurs in developing countries, the site has benefitted more than 800,000 people in 63 countries.

Across the United States, communities are harnessing crowds to provide funds for nonprofits on special "giving days." In Minnesota, Give to the Max Day raised more than $13.4 million in November 2011, and GiveMN, an affiliated website, has raised more than $48 million.

Any of these categories can be used on its own or combined with other approaches to achieve your goals.

Tips for Successful Crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing and crowd funding projects are within reach of any organization, but there are a few things to keep in mind that will help ensure your success.

  • Plan ahead. Figure out what you’re trying to achieve and find the best way to do it. Make sure you choose the right crowd, too — setting up a crowdsourcing campaign is the easy part, but getting the word out to the right people is not. Create a fully developed outreach plan, and use a combination of social media and emails to current supporters. These people, in turn, will have access to networks of people with similar interests and help you pass your project along. If you’re using a crowd-funding site, like Kickstarter or Indiegogo, make sure you choose the one that most closely matches your goal — each has a different approach.
  • Keep it simple. Make it very clear what you want the crowd to do, and break down your goals into smaller tasks people can help with. Keep your message easy to communicate to help it get passed along. In order to help meet your goal, set reasonable expectations. Crowd-funding is an easy way to ask for donations, but it creates the illusion that hordes of people with large amounts of money are sitting at their computers looking for some place to give it away. Most successful crowd-funding initiatives rely on friends, family, and colleagues rather than total strangers. Traditional fundraising rules still apply: you must have credibility, a strong network, and a track record of success, and you have to be transparent about how the money will be used.
  • Engage the crowd and reward participation. Approach crowdsourcing as an opportunity to engage new potential supporters. Be as creative as possible in your outreach and plant your campaign in places that you hope will reach new audiences. Think about how to regularly engage with your current supporters and start doing it. Consider giving incentives to reward participation — what do people want in exchange for their help? Do they just want to be heard, have fun, or learn something new? In these cases, a simple acknowledgment might work, but otherwise, consider cash or other incentives.
  • Stay positive — both publicly and privately. Throughout the campaign, it’s important to remain personable with people who might contribute. A little personal interaction can increase the likelihood of a donation or action. And if an activity doesn’t obviously support your mission, forget it.

Wrapping Up

Crowdsourcing provides many opportunities for nonprofits to tap the power of crowds. If you have a task, question, or idea you want to explore, there are many ways to reach and involve people. Always look for opportunities to ask questions or seek feedback from your volunteers, donors, newsletter subscribers, clients, and community.

Crowdsourcing is a mindset. Want your community to be a part of your decision-making process? Don’t get mired in top-down thinking, and don’t be afraid to take risks or listen to criticism from your constituents or the public.

Running a crowdsourcing project is a lot of work. The best approach to accomplishing it is to take your time and just chip away at it. Read through all the necessary steps and complete one task at a time. What’s important is coming up with meaningful ways to engage, learning from other organizations that have successfully used crowdsourcing, and having faith in the process.

Thanks to the following nonprofit technology professionals who provided recommendations, advice, and other help:

Jeff Achen, GiveMN
Lizzie LaCroix, Hesperian Health Guides
Brad Hurvitz, Trek To Teach
Jayne Cravens, Coyote Communications

About the Author:

Soha El Borno is a freelance writer for both Idealware and Wild Apricot's nonprofit technology blog.