When I saw the unforgettable stories and photos that West End Residences (WER) made the heart of its annual campaign, I had to learn more. West End’s short-form stories and warm photos stand out so dramatically among the avalanche of asks I receive, and I wanted to share the secrets of their success with you.
Thanks to Melanie Meadows, West End’s Development Director, and Social Media Marketing Coordinator Denise Balcarcel (an independent contractor), who created this memorable campaign, for sharing their know-how!
Lean team generates impressive results.
Melanie and Denise lead the fundraising and communications activities that fuel West End Residences’ mission: to empower New York City’s most vulnerable and underserved populations. West End’s annual operating budget is a bit over $3 million.
Melanie is West End’s solo fundraiser. She’s responsible for raising $350,000 annually via grants and individual giving. She also handles grants research and writing (her heaviest load), individual fundraising campaigns, and special events. Denise works closely with Melanie to support fundraising and communications with social media, as does West End’s webmaster.
“We have the administrative offices with seven employees, plus each of the residences with social worker staff, case managers, and others. All in all, we have 65 full-time and five part-time staff members,” says Melanie.
Despite having a small team, the results of WER’s most recent annual campaign are impressive: they shattered their goal by over $5,000, bringing in a total of $45,802.
Creative innovation drives WER’s individual giving.
With limited resources, innovation was the critical component for WER to achieve its individual giving goal.
“We have some individual giving throughout the year, punctuated by special events organized by board members or people from the community who want to host events as fundraisers for us. We recently had a scavenger hunt hosted by loyal supporters. A woman called and said, ‘How can I help,’ and we came up with some ideas,” Melanie said.
They needed to do something different to bring (and keep) donors close. The solution? Sharing beneficiary stories and photos.
According to Melanie, “developing a portfolio of clear, succinct, moving stories is one of our main methods of reinvigorating our new donor base and bringing lapsed donors back on board.”
“We laid the groundwork over a series of months before the recent annual appeal (our launch). I gathered stories and shared with them with Denise so she could determine the best ways to use them. At the same time, we worked hard to expand our email list, reaching back to donors who had given in years past but had fallen off our radar,” Melanie said.
Story gathering and sharing for WER is tough, with legal and ethical privacy challenges looming large.
The West End Residences’ team takes this challenge seriously. “We work with several different groups of residents, each with their perspective on privacy. We try to find the residents who are willing either to be seen in a photo or featured in a story,” Melanie noted.
“Others, like our residents who are survivors of domestic violence, understandably don’t want their photos used,” Melanie said.
Regardless of the approach, no resident’s photo is used without his or her written permission. “We use stock photos to protect our residents’ privacy and anonymity unless we have specific consent from them. Some of our residents, particularly our LGBT youth and our young mothers, have endured a great deal of trauma. It’s imperative that they are comfortable sharing their images and with how they’re represented, if they’re represented publicly,” Denise said.
Melanie and Denise also constantly assess if there are ethical reasons (or concerns shared by their colleagues) NOT to use a particular story or photo. For example, Denise often edits stories and/or changes residents’ names to shield their identities or to relate more authentically to West End’s social media audience.
WER shares stories and photos across campaigns and channels, with a focus on social media
WER relies on a highly-targeted direct mail campaign complemented by an email series to reach donors. Leading up to the recent annual appeal, WER increased the frequency of its e-newsletter from quarterly to monthly, integrating one to two stories into each release. This edition features Tai’s journey to develop a career in film. This one covers Oumou’s path from homelessness to building her culinary career. This consistent use of beneficiary stories across channels and campaigns is striking, memorable, and motivates giving.
One secret to WER’s social media success is strategically using each channel to maximize results: “We took a hard look at how our supporters and prospects use each social channel, and prioritized from there for our Annual Appeal. We knew Facebook was important despite the challenge of their volatile analytics and ever-changing algorithm. However,
it’s incredibly difficult for small-to-mid-size nonprofits like ours to run successful campaigns and expand their visibility on Facebook, because the platform is rapidly becoming pay-to-play
“That’s why Twitter quickly evolved into our stronghold. It’s is an important channel for us and other organizations serving society’s most vulnerable. It’s a straightforward, yet effective, way to reach your audience with a variety of content in short bursts, and I’m thrilled with the personal level of interaction and reach that we’ve cultivated with our Twitter community,” Denise said.
Since evolution is baked into social media, Denise continues to experiment with current and new channels. For example, she expanded West End’s social presence from Twitter and Facebook in 2011 to include Google Plus, LinkedIn, and most recently, Instagram. According to Denise, “I saw potential on every platform we’ve migrated onto, and I’ve been very pleased with our ROI. In addition to Twitter, we receive a great deal of interaction on LinkedIn and Instagram, which is very exciting.”
Right now, Denise is most excited by the potential that Instagram has to offer WER: “Instagram is so visual and holds a lot of potential for us, especially since the platform released stories and expanded video options. I’m researching how to utilize resident stories in a video format while simultaneously protecting our residents’ anonymity,” she says.
Strong stories and memorable photos have engaged donors like no previous campaign.
“The work that we’ve done over the past several months on sharing residents’ stories has definitely generated first-time donors. I do believe that’s because of our focus on telling stories, especially via social media,” says Melanie.