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Drawing Fundraising Ideas from Pop Culture


By Sean Chisholm

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\On September 29th 2013, 10.3 million people tuned in to the Breaking Bad finale, a huge audience by any measure. Most nonprofits can only dream of reaching such a wide pool of potential donors, but Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless found a way to capitalize on this pop culture event. And they did it without buying one of the $400,000 commercial slots.

A mock funeral for the TV show’s main character, Walter White, drew about 200 fans to Sunset Memorial Park. With a police-escorted procession and a eulogy by the Breaking Bad set decorator, the event was meant to celebrate the series and bring closure for its fans. It served another purpose, however, by raising $17,000 for Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless.

Tapping into pop culture can be a fun way to reach a wider audience in your fundraising efforts. By associating your organization with a popular TV show, movie, or book, you can not only mobilize your supporters you might also be able to convert some of the existing fan base into new donors. Below are three ways we’ve seen nonprofits using pop culture to fundraise for their causes.

1. Organizations Already Linked to a Trend

Some organizations have direct ties to popular entertainment, using the source media not only for event ideas but for their actual missions and ideals. The Harry Potter Alliance draws on the fandom of the popular book series to mobilize and fundraise in support of equality, literacy, and human rights. The organization’s campaigns are often linked to the books and movies. The Deathly Hallows Campaign, for example, took place during the nine months between the releases of the final two Harry Potter films.

2. Business Partnerships that Capitalize on Pop Culture

Partnering with businesses can also be a great way to turn a pop culture trend into a fundraising tool. The growing popularity of zombies in books, television, and video games has spawned businesses and events like the Run For Your Lives adventure run series. With races in 20 states, Run For Your Lives has allowed more than 160,000 runners and zombie-enthusiasts to live out their nightmares in a 5K obstacle course featuring real, live zombies. Through a partnership with the Kennedy Krieger Institute, a portion of every race fee is donated to support children and adolescents with brain injuries and disorders

3. Creating Your Own Pop Culture Fundraiser

Another option for your organization is to host your own pop-culture-related event. When you organize your own event, you can draw on anything for inspiration. Back when reality TV was still new, many organizations put on Survivor-themed fundraisers. Just last year we had a Star Wars themed olympic style relay race run through Classy. The “Course of the Force” race raised money for California chapters of the Make-a-Wish Foundation and went all the way from Skywalker Ranch through San Francisco and down to San Diego. The finish was even timed to coincide with the start of Comic-Con International; talk about using pop culture for philanthropy!

The Downside of Pop Culture Fundraisers

While there are success stories of nonprofits using pop-culture trends to raise funds, it should be noted that these events involve a certain level of risk. If you decide to draw on pop-culture for your fundraiser, choose a theme that relates to your cause. Similar to finding the appropriate corporate sponsor, you should also consider any potential negative consequences that might arise from your pop culture theme. While the Breaking Bad funeral fundraiser, succeeded in raising money for Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless, it also drew some backlash from families of those actually laid to rest in the cemetery. One way to mitigate this concern is to partner with existing pop-culture related events and businesses, as the Kennedy Krieger Institute did with Run For Your Lives. Finally, you should consider the timing of your event. With the constant turnover of pop-culture trends, a fad may be over by the time you have organized your fundraiser.

If a pop-culture fundraiser sounds like a good fit for your organization, stay plugged into popular entertainment to gain inspiration. By simply scanning through your Facebook or Twitter feed, you can keep an eye on what topics and media are attracting attention. You can also stay updated on what TV shows, movies, and books your friends and families are excited about. A timely fundraiser that taps into a pop culture fan base may help you spread your cause to new networks of people.

For more inspiration, check out our other fundraising ideas.

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