What the bus bully video shows about raising money

publication date: Jun 25, 2012
author/source: Janet Gadeski
Can you imagine raising $650,000 in just one week for a previously unknown cause? That's what Toronto's Max Sidorov did when he came across an online video of middle-school students taunting their bus monitor Karen Klein, a New York state grandmother.

Sidorov posted the video and a brief appeal for $5,000 to send Klein on a holiday to the crowd-funding website Indiegogo on June 18. By the afternoon of June 25, nearly 30,000 people had responded. With 25 days to go in the campaign, the $649,962 raised so far (June 25) will fund not just Klein's vacation, but her retirement as well.Janet Gadeski photo

Why it worked

"The lessons have not changed," says Hillfield-Strathallan College advancement director Maryann Kerr. "Tell a simple story of need and see the very human response of kindness. What has changed is the medium for telling the story."

Paul Nazareth, philanthropic advisor with Scotia Private Client Group, agrees. "It wasn't about medium, or fancy websites, or long paper cases for support. People were moved by something they saw and identified with. He gave them a simple way to make a difference and thousands of people responded."

Video producer Peter Reynolds highlights the "raw and uncensored" video. "There's no narration explaining what's going on because it doesn't need an explanation. Many fundraising videos focus too much on telling you what's important, when the goal should be to find those moments that show you what's important."

Philanthropy or ...?

Is it really philanthropy when people, even thousands of people, make an impulsive gift to someone they've never heard of, based on the word of someone else they don't know? Or is something else going on?

"This is definitely philanthropy," Kerr asserts. "It is a response not just to apologize to the bus monitor for the outrageous behaviour of those students, but to show the world that there is greater good in the world than bad ... [People] want to prove that together we can change the world, because we can change the fate of one woman and her family."

No, argues Nazareth, a committed social media presence himself. "This was a big case study in the ongoing crowd-funding phenomenon and the hyper-effect when it meets social and traditional media."

He notes that philanthropy is a nebulous term, and Association of Fundraising Professionals chair Andrea McManus concurs in part. "I believe that while the definition of ‘philanthropy' stays the same, the practice of philanthropy is ever evolving and has become more personal and about what is important to you. So yes, I would say that this is philanthropy at work but in a new, and somewhat unknown, environment."

Accountability, impact concerns

A bigger concern for McManus is accountability in such an individualistic initiative. "This story could have a happy ending or it could be damaging for other charities if the money is not used wisely ... Even though there is no charity or organization involved, if the situation goes sideways it will inevitably reflect badly on charities and fundraising."

It's always easier to raise money for a simple problem with a simple, one-time solution, Nazareth concludes. Even though $650,000 would have a bigger global impact at a charity, people chose instead to change one life, he says. So he urges fundraisers to keep improving and keep an eye on new technologies.

Maryann Kerr is troubled by the idea that we might pause to evaluate the fundraiser. "For me, this question in itself represents part of the problem," she reflects. "Max did not attract those donations any more than any fundraiser is the reason why a gift is given. At the end of the day, people give to people, not to organizations ... It wasn't about Max. It isn't about us. Track records mean nothing."

Nonprofit marketing maven John vanDuzer sums it up best. We're horrified by the bullying that Karen Klein endures because we know that it's happening every day. And we want it to stop. "Money," he proclaims, "is my vote for change." Sidorov, himself a victim of childhood bullying, would likely agree.

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