Crowdfunding with Pro Athletes and Teams: Setting Expectations Is Essential for Success

Last year we received word that a superstar was going to tweet about one of our campaigns.  I mean a major A-lister! This was the first time someone with gigantic social following would post a link to our site.  The excitement mounted, and then…oh snap! The tweet went out to nearly 50 million people. 50,000 visitors hit up our site - even causing the site to go down for 10 minutes due to volume. We had high hopes this activity would convert to donations for the cause. The harsh reality: 50,000 visitors, only dozens of donations, for a total of $500.

Are you kidding me?! This was a rude awakening, but upon further reflection, it shouldn’t have surprised us.  There were several reasons for this poor conversion rate. In summary:

  • an underwhelming tweet. What could have worked: if the celebrity ambassador had made a donation, explained the cause and why it was important to him/her, and asked followers to make a donation 
  • a less than compelling photo and story. What could have worked: more info about why this cause matters and how your donation was going to help..
  • an important lesson in expectation setting: a celebrity’s “reach” is only one ingredient required for a successful crowdfunding campaign.

Pro Expectations

More than ever, professional athletes and teams have huge social power. Followings of tens of thousands to tens of millions is common.  Tweets and posts are heard around the world in seconds, easily sparking an avalanche of controversy, sympathy, and team pride. Moreover, sponsorship dollars have poured into social media, paying athletes upwards of six figures for tweets. But when an athlete/team tweets/posts, asking for donations for their beloved charities, all too often they are met with crickets. This is what we call social media distortion: the fact that expectations outreach reality is a rude awakening for most athletes and teams.

This post is for those who want to set realistic expectations and create successful campaigns. For those who want to understand why one fundraising campaign might raise $900 and another raise $900,000.  If this is you, read on...

The truth is we humans require a number impulses before we donate.  The psychology of giving requires more than just a large crowd, but several other factors that when combined can lead to success, but when misaligned usually lead to embarrassment.

Factors to Success

In his book “Crowdfunding for Social Good,” Devin Thorpe lays out 10 tests that any donation-based campaign can use to predict crowdfunding success. For most sports-based crowdfunding campaigns, four of those ten tests play a disproportionate role over the other six: Reach, Face/Story, Reward, and Urgency.

The superpower of the professional team or athlete is in its Reach.  A post that is shared and “boosted” (paying Facebook or Twitter to reach more follower) can reach hundreds of thousands of potential donors. This is absolutely amazing! It’s a huge leg-up. It truly is the ability to leap tall building in a single bound.  But it’s not enough by itself.

Professional athletes and teams are NOT the face of the campaign. This is a common mistake. It’s a mistake rooted in using charity events to improve public image. But it’s not appropriate if your goal is to raise funds and make an impact. Making the athlete the center point of campaign videos and photos will often backfire. Internet trolls will quickly comment on how rich the athlete is and how he/she should donate some of their millions. 

Instead, the “Face” of the campaign must be who the funds are benefiting. The more specifically and accurately the campaign can describe how those funds will be spent and who it will impact, the better the likelihood of success.

For example, general campaigns for Pediatric Cancer or After School Sports are both great causes, but aren’t compelling “Faces”.  Therefore, these types of campaign must leverage Reward and Urgency to larger degrees to be successful.

On the other hand, a campaign for (theoretically) “Baby Annaliese” who was just diagnosed with a rare brain tumor; raising funds to help the family pay for travel to-and-from Stanford Hospital (with the experts in this rare cancer) would likely raise needed funds very quickly without any sort of reward system.

Takeaway - There are millions of great causes. Standing out from the noise is a difficult, competitive business. 

Auctions, drawings, and straight “buy-it now” rewards can be extremely successful. This is another place where top athletes and teams have a huge advantage. However, this card is often overplayed. The source of this false bravado stems from the live celebrity auction. In these events, donors are meeting athletes in person and celebrating a bit too much, which often lead to some big auction prices. 

These same prices cannot be expected in an online setting. Online space is much more competitive. A simple signed jersey will go for MUCH less online than in person because the donor can simply search Google and find a few more just like it (often cheaper).

Thus, for a crowdfunding campaign, online rewards need to come in one of two flavors to be successful:

  • Exclusive – a one-of-a-kind item can do well online. Signed game-worn jersey will greatly outperform the regular jersey. Unique meet-and-greets that can’t be found anywhere else. The MORE one-of-a-kind, the better.  Take the NFL’s My Cause My Cleats campaign, where Dak Prescott’s game worn one-of-a-kind cleats went for over $7,500!
  • Deals – Fan still want a piece of their teams/players. If it’s not exclusive, then a good deal can work too. A price the beats ebay reseller will be seen with double merit – “I’m getting a deal and I’m helping out a cause!”

Takeaway – be careful not to overprice your rewards.  Online fans are savvy. They will quickly be insulted if they feel they are being played. But if they see something Exclusive or Well Priced, they will respect you and deepen their fanhood. 

The more immediately the funds are needed, the more likely you’ll receive your donations. When floods are ravishing in the headlines and the news is filled with interviews of  victims who have just lost their homes, the human in all of us is eager to something…a donation is often all one can do. 

This factor works against great cause. Medical research is one of the noblest things we can support, but it’s not tangible and the urgency isn’t apparent. In these cases, campaign authors need to work hard to create urgency. The storytelling of why this research must be funded and how people are suffering today is one tactic often required.

Takeaway – make sure to focus on the urgency of the funds. Tragedies and disasters have this built in. Other causes need to find ways to explain why the funds are needed today! It’s all about the storytelling to connect with your audience and motivate them to take action: donate, support a cause, spread the word to their social networks.


At the end of the day, athletes and teams will and should create campaigns for what they are passionate about. This guide isn’t trying to sway campaigns one way or another…it’s a training guide to understand that what makes one campaign ultra successful and another be full of frustration often comes down to how well a campaign covers the four factors to success. 

David Burton

CEO, FanAngel