F&P’s Fiona Atkinson joins The Funding Network’s latest crowdfunding event and discovers it’s all about pocket money and spreadsheets.

Some fundraising depends on a building sense of excitement and competition. Think gala auctions, telethons, and interactive crowdfunding events. Pre-pandemic, it would be hard to imagine this atmosphere beamed through computer screens into donors’ homes, but that is exactly what The Funding Network (TFN) have done.  

On 23 February the organisation hosted their 41st virtual (or hybrid) live crowdfunding event which coincided with their anniversary of nine years in operation, during which time they have facilitated $19 million in giving through 138 events for 431 nonprofit projects.  

Before COVID-19, TFN events were held in-person, with a glass of bubbles and a bite to eat for all. And while the format has changed, the group’s determination to raise funds for game-changing projects has not. In March 2020 they launched their first hybrid event, and their crowdfunding has been in either that format, or exclusively online, ever since. During that time, they have raised $6.1 million, proving that great things can happen in a digitally connected world, and that donors are as ready to give as ever.   

Let’s go back to their February event, watched from the comfort of my little home office, cup of tea in hand.   

Who’s pitching? 

Tonight’s theme focuses on projects supporting young people with intellectual disability (ID). There are 300,000 young people with ID in Australia, and many are frustrated by the lack of opportunities available to them when they leave school. Stepping back to take an even broader look at the issue, more than half of people (54%) in Australia with disabilities (including ID) are unemployed. That’s 2.2 million people. What this means is a lack of inclusion, increased social isolation, and a failure to celebrate diversity that would make the Australian workforce all the richer.  

Fortunately, there are several innovative and inspiring organisations facing the problem head on and three of them are pitching tonight.  

Rollercoaster Theatre is a nonprofit theatre company, established in 2006. Their ensemble of trained actors, who all have ID, was formed to counter the extreme lack of employment opportunities for people with mixed abilities in the arts. Among their many achievements, the company’s short film, Comican’t, premiered at (short film festival) Tropfest 2019, winning a coveted second prize for Best Film, with male leads Ryan New and Andrew Tressider jointly awarded Best Male Lead Actor. 

The NFP has created an onscreen masterclass series that aims to lead industry-wide change, challenge discrimination, break down barriers and bridge the gap. The masterclass will develop a script for a 12-part comedy series for television and will include a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of the show. The series will run over a three-month period, starting in June 2022, costing $600 per actor. Rollercoaster seeks $30,000 to work with 50 participants, or even better, $60,000 to work with 100.   

Australian Spatial Analytics (ASA) is a social enterprise that employs autistic young adults to perform data analysis for businesses and governments. They currently employ 52 staff with disabilities, the majority of whom are under 30 years old. Most of the team were previously long-term unemployed and, for almost half, this is their first job. In Australia, the unemployment rate for people under 30 on the spectrum is 55% – more than 12 times the national unemployment rate – so there is no question about the need for ASA’s model. And neither is there a lack of demand for their product – Australia needs 7 million data related jobs by 2030. ASA has grown from one staff member to 65 in 18 months. In the next 12 to 18 months, they hope to grow that workforce to 250 people, at least 200 of whom will have ID.  

With their expansion unfolding at a rate of knots, the ASA leadership team are mindful that, to provide their staff with the best chance of career success, they need to provide tailored coaching alongside the daily work. They seek $40,000 to cover the cost of a career coach for six months who will build on the confidence, collegial skills and technical abilities already gained by ASA’s employees, helping them plan for their future and realise their ambitions.  

All Things Equal (ATE) is a café with a difference. The Melbourne-based hospitality venue provides purposeful, award-wage employment, training, and work-readiness for people with and without a disability. They survived Victoria’s merry-go-round of lockdowns and now more than 50 committed, enthusiastic, and capable people with disability are on their waitlist ready for training and work. ATE simply cannot meet the demand, but they have a dream that will.  

That dream is to launch a cooking school that runs five days a week providing one-on-one tailored support, training techniques from occupational therapists, and transferrable work-readiness skills. The program was piloted during lockdown with much success. If $30,000 is raised tonight, it will help cover the costs of capital refurbishments to ATE’s kitchen. $60,000 will go even further to providing a world-class training program delivered by a highly skilled facilitator

From left to right: Sarah Sutherland (Artistic Director, Rollercoaster Theatre), Geoffrey Smith (CEO, Australian Spatial Analytics), and Bianca Stern (Operations Manager, All Things Equal).

What’s the format?  

Tonight’s crowdfunding is brought to us through the live video event platform, Crowdcast, with a chat function that will be used for live pledges in support of each project.  

We are welcomed by MC Jacinta Parsons, a writer and ABC radio presenter, whose bubbly personality makes my introverted brain thank the stars for those confident enough to carry these events with the ease and energy needed to secure all-important donations.  

Next, we are introduced to Julia Limb, chair of the Limb Family Foundation, who, with the support of Mutual Trust, are matching gifts at this event to a maximum of $20,000 per project. Their passion for this fundraiser comes, in-part, from first-hand experience of how few career opportunities there are for family members with ID.  

Each presenter has five minutes to tell their story before answering questions. Then comes the opportunity to pledge support via the chat box or by text, with donations fulfilled later via tax-deductible payments on the TFN website.  

Now here comes the fun part… 

And we’re off! 

This is where we meet Andrew Tressider – Best Male Lead Actor winner at Tropfest 2019 and Rollercoaster Theatre’s nominated advocate for tonight. Andrew explains that life has been hard as well as his own challenges, his younger sisters also have ID. He describes Rollercoaster, which he joined in 2009, as “my only happy place”. Andrew kicks off the pledges with $500 from his “Rollercoaster family”.  

The first pledge comes in at $250, which is soon matched, and exceeded, by $500 from the English Family Foundation and $1000 from Mutual Trust. The chat box is amusing – one donor puts in $250 and follows up with the message, “Mum’s told me to double it to $500”.   

Mutual Trust come in with another $1000! The Joanne Parkinson Foundation start with $250, then decide to chip in another $250, then another $500!  

Good natured challenges have sprung up amongst the virtual crowd. Philanthropist Michael Barr says he will match the first five people who have had coffee today who give $100 (I feel that he’s cast the net wide!) – the coffee pledgers respond thick and fast.  

It’s exciting to watch the online graph as pledges grow. One family donates $2000, and then a donor pushes the total over $30,000, leading us to pause at $30,600, leaving a potential $9,400 of matched giving on the table for Rollercoaster Theatre.  

Blake Morrison is the advocate for Australian Spatial Analytics, a data analyst on the autism spectrum and previous member of the ASA workforce. Unlike many of his younger workmates, Blake was in his thirties when he joined the ASA, leaving behind several jobs that faltered at the five-month mark.  Blake describes his time at ASA as “the best year of my life”, giving him the confidence to move onto his current role in the university sector. He starts the ball rolling with a donation of $300.  

Lots of $100 and $200 gifts trickle in, much to the delight of an ever-charismatic Jacinta. Then comes $1500 from Heather and Bill Webster, $500 from the English Family Foundation, and $1500 from the Joanne Parkinson Foundation, who swiftly put in another $500. 

Here comes another challenge from Michael Barr – this time he will match $500 that comes from any spreadsheet lovers. Jerome and Jenny, self-confessed ‘spreadsheet nerds’ jump in with their gift of the same amount.   

Mutual Trust pledge $1000 “in place of the canapés we would have had in person” and Debbie Smith gives $2000 because “diversity give us richer employment”. The 5Point Foundation also pledge $2000, as do the Bowness Foundation.  

Alex and Lara, aged 9 and 7 respectively, donate $100 of their pocket money and soon funds have tipped over the Limb family matching limit, finishing at an impressive $40,460.  

CEO of the Besen Family Foundation, Tabitha Lovett, describes All Things Equal as one of her favourite projects. She was so excited when she met ATE’s Bianca Stern that she asked if she could be their advocate at the TFN event. She gets pledging underway with $300.  

There’s $100, then $360, then $500. It’s easy to see crowdfunding in action as many small gifts quickly push up the on-screen tally – large gifts are wonderful and exciting, but every contribution, no matter the size, makes a difference.  

The English Family Foundation, Mutual Trust, Joanne Parkinson Foundation and Michael Barr all make substantial gifts, but it is pocket money that rules in this round. Clementine, aged 10, pledges $100. Then Frankie and Charlie donate $40. This is matched by Julie, then Emily, then cousins Cleo, Lily, Mia, Harvey, Jim, Sophie and Zachary!  

The round ends at $28,340, but wait… 

… there’s more!  

Yes, there’s a second round! More pocket money comes in the direction of Rollercoaster Theatre. Comican’t is Rory and Phoebe’s favourite film, so they pledge $100.  

More large gifts roll in from the major donors of the night, and then, $5000 from the Harris Family Foundation, taking us well past the matching limit to end on an incredible $45,650, enough for 76 actors to complete Rollercoaster’s onscreen masterclass series.  

The first text pledge of the night arrives for ASA and, at $3000, it brings much excitement.  

Michael Barr has another challenge! $500 to anyone who finds the NBN frustrating (he has struggled with his internet throughout the event). His challenge is matched instantly.  

The English Family Foundation and Joanne Parkinson Foundation follow and the final tally for the ASA hits $45,600. “That secures the six months of career coaching we wanted!” exclaims CEO Geoffrey Smith.  

Starting with $28,340, the next round of pledges for All Things Equal begin to roll in, including $200 from one of Tabitha Lovett’s family members who said Tabitha had “spoken too quickly” when giving her introduction as an advocate! The Harris Family Foundation come in with another $5000 gift to push the final total to $45,000.  

So that’s $136,250 raised in one hour and 56 minutes. Impressive fundraising by anyone’s standards. TFN will keep 10% to facilitate future events and the remaining income will be allocated to the three deserving projects.  

Beyond the monetary impact of the night, each of the three pitching organisations are given the opportunity to identify two pro bono asks. Rollercoaster Theatre request part-time office space in Melbourne’s CBD and help to update their website. ASA ask for grant writing support and impact measurement advice. And All Things Equal seek business strategy guidance and PR/marketing support.  

A quick update  

Since the event, pledgers have been fulfilling their donations on the TFN website. This has included a brand-new gift of $10,000 for ASA, bringing their tally to $55,600 and the overall total to $146,250.  

What TFN does well that you should do too  

TFN coaches participating nonprofits in the art of pitching. What this really means is telling your story and doing it well. In just five minutes, TFN pitchers articulate what their organisation does, how their project will work, what its impact will be and why it will make a difference if someone donates. This is testament to knowing your subject matter inside out and being able to share it in a clear and compelling way.   

They understand the power of advocates. In the case of TFN’s crowdfunding events, these advocates may be beneficiaries of the projects seeking funding, or the people already supporting them. Whoever the advocate, positive testimonials will always put your NFP in good stead.   

Crowdfunding events create excitement. Not every fundraising activity will be live or in front of an audience, but whatever you do – from direct mail, to digital leads, to giving days – make sure you create awareness and momentum through great storytelling, strong creative and well-planned communications. And if your fundraiser is live, pick a great MC like Jacinta, because they really do carry the crowd.   

TFN follow up. Within two days of the event, I received an email with an update on the new $10,000 gift, a summary of fundraising totals and a thank you messages from Rollercoaster, ASA and All Things Equal. Never miss an opportunity to tell donors how awesome they are!  

Pitching organisations consider pro bono as well as monetary support, and you should too. Skilled volunteers and generous businesses can provide, or save you, thousands of dollars in value.  

So, there you have it, three tremendous fundraising outcomes achieved in under two hours for three innovative organisations offering meaningful work and life skills. And an opportunity to not only get exciting new projects off the ground, but to inspire thinking about how more Australian workplaces can engage young people with intellectual disability.  

To watch the full event recording click here. 

To watch the highlight video click here. 

TFN’s next crowdfunding event – offered both in-person and online – is taking place on Tuesday 5 April in Sydney and will showcase the stories behind three innovative organisations: Enrise, Cherished Pets, and The Centre for Women’s Economic Safety 

If your nonprofit or social enterprise is interested in pitching at a future TFN event, you can learn more about eligibility criteria and how to apply here 

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