6 Marketing Tips for School & Team Fundraising -- Silicon Valley Style


Last weekend I attended a high school music fundraiser and it was one of the BEST Fundraisers I’ve ever attended. The event had four fantastic bands from Los Angeles that each drove 3 hours to get here.  Between sets, student played solos/duets on a side stage.  The talent was phenomenal!  These bands were early versions of Green Day or The Cult, who play major LA clubs like The Voodoo Lounge and Whisky A Go-Go!  And here they were, volunteering their time to help our local High School Band!

There was only one problem -- hardly anyone showed up.  In fact, I didn’t even show up. Why?  Because I had no idea it was so legit.  I expected the same old local bands, playing the same old local music fest.

Luckily my wife texted me with, "Get down here now!" And when I did, the place was mostly empty. Maybe 125 people.  

Who knew?  Precisely – WHO KNEW?!

Fundraising is Marketing and Sales

So, friends, if you raise money for ANYTHING, you might as well just be done with it and admit it already – you are in sales and marketing.  I don’t care if you are a soccer mom helping run a snack bar, a coach planning a barbecue, or a band teacher promoting a concert. 

To raise money, you need to take some lesson from the Sales and Marketing world.  Don’t worry, you have to wear a cheesy suits and spew sleazy one liners. Modern day sales and marketing is about connecting with your community, giving more than taking, and being honest with everyone – that doesn’t sound too bad, does it?

That’s when a huge parallel dawned on me.  This same problem happens with Silicon Valley startups all the time.  Technology founders are often known to build amazing, groundbreaking products and then release them to a world that has no idea they exist. Just like a world class bands playing to a mostly empty room. 

But there’s hope! Startup success stories have direct correlation to booster fundraising success.  Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares, authors of Traction, give real world examples of how startups have successfully used 19 different sales and marketing channels to garner success.  Not all of those 19 channels apply to the world of the Athletic Director, booster, coach, or band teacher, but many of them do. 

In this post, I’m going to translate the 6 most appropriate channel for school/sports fundraising and brainstorm how our band fundraiser could have doubled its revenue with only minimal additional efforts.

One more thing, as discussed in Traction, only one or two of the below channels are likely to work for your event. And you don't always know which one. Try two or three channel with small tests, then if you see success, focus on that channel and maximum its effect. 

1. Offline/Local AdS/Flyers/posters

Our goal is to get as many people at our event as possible.  So, think deep about your potential market...and be where they are. Common school best practice is to plaster flyers at coffee shops, student unions, local business and these are all GREAT. But these spots also become drowned out by other posters and flyers. Competition for eyeballs is everywhere!

Think unconventional when possible. Hand out flyers where your audience congregates. Dress up as your school's mascot or a Rock Star while passing out fliers. See section Unconventional PR for more ideas.

Paying for ads in local newspapers, radio, or TV may work, but typically AREN'T appropriate for small fundraising events. Don't get trapped into thinking "Advertising" is "Marketing".  Only pay for ads if your event is really big (and will raise a lot of money) or you can get deep or free discounted ad space; and only if your target audience aligns perfectly.

What we could have done (Band Fundraiser) --

  1. Create poster/flyers that were as legit as the bands. Spin a story that one of these bands could be the next U2. Pay a graphic designers and print on high quality paper. Take the materials seriously so that others will too.  (see future posts on how to do this on a budget)
  2. Make sure the material are centered on the LA Bands. Focus on what the donor will get!  Post them very strategically. Coffee shops are okay. But music stores and local university dorms would have been much better. These posters are about creating excitement for the event! 
  3. Paper flyers should have been sent home to all parents/families. Make them professional looking. This was a great event, with awesome bands, make sure your flyers are up to the event.  
  4. See Unconventional PR section below for more.

2. Email Marketing and Posting socially

Building an email list of potential customers is one of the best things you can do long term.  Building social media followers is also great, but don't sacrifice one for the other.  Email list and social media are BOTH extremely important independently.  

The strength of the email list is your individual messages are much more likely to be read.  Alternatively, a social post is more likely to be shared. But unless your post has viral qualities, this share rate is going to be quite low. Thus, for sports and school fundraising, building a strong email list it typically superior.

Building this list is something you do slowly over time and continue to nurture year after year. Moreover, make sure when you use the list, you are adding values to the reader.  In the book, Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook, Gary Vaynerchuk likens modern day social marketing to boxing. The jabs are giving value to the consumer, the right hook is the ask for a donation or to buy. So, "give, give, give, ask". The number gives vs. the frequency you can ask will depend on your circumstance. In general, the more you give, the better success when you ask. 

What we could have done (Band Fundraiser) --

  1. Promote/tease in our weekly Principal's newsletter. Use hooks to create curiosity, "The Viper Room is coming to Los Osos", then include a YouTube links to the bands playing at the Viper room. Have a photo of Johnny Depp (who owns the Viper Room) as part of the tease.  
  2. Start generating a long term email list, including alumni and long term supporters. 
  3. Post on Facebook and Twitter. Focus on how awesome the event is going to be, including photos and videos.  With this event, we could have actually paid for targeted Facebook Ads which linked to an online ticket sales page...and done quite well.  

3. Business Development

Think partnerships.  What other organization has connections with the community you are trying to target. Think creatively.  It may not be obvious at first. Once you figure out these organization, ask if they would be interested in promoting your cause. Partnerships can be game changers because they can open up access to many potential customers in one shot. 

What we could have done (Band Fundraiser) --

  1. Reached out to the college fraternities and sororities.
  2. Reached out the Rotary, Kiwanis, Shriners...
  3. Reached out to any local music promotion, music/instrument shops
  4. Reached out Radio stations that play similar music. 

4. Community Building

Don't look at your fundraising event as a single "ask".  Think of it as a long relationship where you are offering something in exchange for donations. This can be concerts, 5K runs, and other events.  In sports, it also means game updates, photos, interviews, and social posts. The goal is to built a long term community around your cause/school/sport, connected through mailing lists and social media. It's much easier to get a donation when the donor feels "a part of your community."  

Content Marketing is the tactic many startups now employ. They blog great content that the market wants or needs (this also includes podcast, videocast, training pdfs). For teams/schools, this can be weekly newsletters, sports scores, photos (lots of these!), and general updates. Then, occasionally, you announce events or ask for money. But you must build the community around the content first and primarily.

What we could have done (Band Fundraiser) --

  1. Start a teacher, team, or coach's blog, which include videos, podcasts, etc. 
  2. Make a majority of social media posts go back to your blog and always have a way to subscribe for blog updates.
  3. Tease great fundraiser over time, building the suspense and interest. For the Band Fundraiser, we could have announced each band and include YouTube links to them at an LA nightclub.  

5. Publicity

Publicity is very much the an school marketing strategy. While the digital age has shaken up the system, publicity still may be a great avenue. If you have an event that is extremely unique and likely to be interesting to the media, then this might be the right strategy for you. However, getting publicity is really competitive. Getting outlets to cover your event may be difficult or impossible.

Publicity expert Ryan Holiday uses a method he calls, “Working up the Chain".  He starts by giving the story to the small, local blogs or social media influencers, then contacting the larger blogs and asking why they aren't covering the story. Holiday was a "media manipulator" spreading rumors for capital gains, but his techniques can be used by anyone. Often it's hard to get the large publications to take notice. His point is the smaller blogs will and it can worked up a ladder to some big circulation.  

What we could have done (Band Fundraiser) -- 

This strategy would have started by emailing or calling small local blogs. 

  1. Local small general news blogs
  2. Local Music Blogs
  3. College blogs, especially around the social scene
  4. Social media groups for students of local college and high school
  5. All school parents should share on Social Media.

Once you've done this, you reach out to the large newspapers, radio, TV...and show them all the lower level chatter.

6. Unconventional PR

This falls into the publicity stunt category. For schools/teams this can mean anything from the team mascot handing out flyers to shaving the principals head. The goal is to get attention (hopefully including the press) in a world full of noise.  So you have to do something outlandish, centered on people and personalities, to make it into the news. The event gets covered as an afterthought.

What we could have done (Band Fundraiser) --

  1. Ask the bands to post a shout out for the fundraiser.  In this case, the school's mascot is a Pirate, so ask the bands to do a shout in a pirate voice, brandish a sword, or something similar.
  2. The high school band could have marched through the local college campus, playing their instruments, and handing out flyers.
  3. The music teacher could have made a YouTube video singing the lyrics from visiting bands. Madonna's lead guitarist was at our event. Imagine our music teach (male) singing Like a Virgin!  


I hope this posts has inspired you to see new ways to promote your event or fundraiser.  If you have other ideas, please comment below! 

And many thanks to Cassette Culture, Fire, Monte Pittman, Augusta Zandra, and Leah Martin-Brown.  We promise to do better next year!

David Burton

CEO, FanAngel