My first fundraising experience

My main doubts about joining the Homeward Bound program (read my post on why I joined it) concerned fundraising. Homeward Bound is a training program for women in STEMM aimed at equipping the participants with leadership and strategic skills with the goal to make science serve our planet. The program runs for a year (and beyond) and culminates in three weeks in Antarctica. The total program value per person is $30,860. Around half of it is sponsored. Each participant has to fundraise or pay herself $17,000 to cover the Antarctica trip.

Apart from having serous doubts that I would be able to fundraise such a huge amount of money, I was struggling with the idea. Going to Antarctica is so expensive. Is it really necessary? There are two explanations of why Antarctica is a perfect location. First, Homeward Bound is strongly focusing on climate change and Antarctica is definitely the place to witness climate change happening and having a huge impact on the environment. However, there are other places severely touched by climate change that are much easier to reach, like Great Barrier Reef or Svalbard. The second reason is that being on a boat together for several weeks and experiencing Antarctica creates strong bonds between participants, which is one of the main goals of the program. Still, other experiences might be equally bonding.

My main problem with the expenses is not that it’s difficult to fundraise such an amount of money for me personally, but the fact that this requirement creates a natural filter. People who cannot afford the risk of failing fundraising do not apply. For example, a close friend of mine, a Hawaiian STEM scientist and educator, would be, in my opinion, a perfect candidate for Homeward Bound. When I learned about the program, I immediately contacted her and suggested to apply together. She was initially excited, but couldn’t afford the financial risk. Was this filter intended by the program organizers? I don’t know yet, but I’m sure there will be an opportunity to discuss it.

Nevertheless, I decided to apply. Even though I did not agree with the Antarctica part, the program looked like what I needed at this point of my life. Let me refer again to my post in which I explain my motivation. I was very lucky to get accepted. Right after I read the exciting news, I took a deep breath and started thinking about fundraising. I was not present on social media (this post explains why), no contacts with companies or organizations, my employer wouldn’t pay that much. How was I going to make it?

I remembered how I learned about Homeward Bound. We received a postcard from Antarctica after my husband Theo supported fundraising of one of the last year participants. He donated without even knowing what the program was about. I thought about how Theo and I always rushed to help our friends and colleagues whenever they were doing fundraising or needed support otherwise. I thought about many places I lived and worked in, and many friends and colleagues I was lucky to have. Of course they would support me! And maybe even convince some of their friends to do so. This way, I would easily collect at least a third of the amount. And then I’d have to look for sponsors, go to companies and so on. That would be the difficult part. This is what I was thinking.

First, I made a 30 min video of the interviews with my friends discussing the topics I was planning to focus on in the program. It took me a looong time to do it, but I’m very happy how it came out and it was definitely worth my time. Everyone told me that the video was too long for fundraising. So I prepared a 2 min promo, which was also quite time-consuming and much less fun to work on. Then I set up my fundraising page. My closest friends helped me with initial donations. I was good to go!

Early morning, I sent an email to about 100 of my friends and colleagues. All of them knew me quite well and for a long time. My husband Theo, who has about 800 Twitter followers, twitted about my fundraising champaign. And then we waited. And waited. And waited. Nothing happened that day. Nothing happened the next day. Let me spare you the details of how anxious and excited I was at first and for how many days I’ve been crying afterwards. In total, besides initial donations, I received 4 donations and one email with comments and questions. Otherwise, silence. Not even good luck wishes.

I was truly heartbroken. I just couldn’t understand why it happened this way. What was wrong with me? My ideas about relationships, trust, and support collapsed. I was having difficulties communicating with people, looking them into the eyes. I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that I was not worth even a 5 Euro donation in their world. Why? What did I do wrong?

To get over this situation, I decided to ask some of the people I sent this email to why they didn’t donate. Interestingly, everyone listed different reasons. Here are some their answers:

  • In Europe, fundraising is not generally supported, because funding should come from organizations and institutions rather than individuals.
  • My email was not personal enough.
  • Helping me over Internet felt impersonal and uncomfortable.
  • Donating too little felt useless, donating more felt uncomfortable.
  • My perks were not good enough.
  • My goals were not clear enough, it was not clear what exactly would be the outcome of my participation in the program.
  • My email was too long and unclear.
  • Asking for money to have fun in Antarctica was improper. If I was dying from a disease, they would have donated.

All these explanations sounded reasonable. It was the first time in my life I was doing fundraising. It was the first time I was asking people for support on such a large scale. Naturally, I did many things wrong, and I can imagine that my mistakes could put down those who did not know me well. But that email was addressed to my friends and colleagues! How did it matter if it was not formulated well? If my explanations were unclear, why did nobody (except for one person) asked me for clarifications? I was still confused and heartbroken.

Then I talked to a friend who is actively using social networks and messengers. She told me that I just didn’t understand how modern media space and information flow work. That I shouldn’t take it personal. That online interactions are very different from the real life. That people are currently flooded with information and messages and if one really needs something that requires an effort, one should ask and remind many times. That nowadays people prefer to do such things as donating publicly so that their friends and followers could see they have donated. To summarize, she said that my problem was not my personality or relationships, but that I didn’t use social media networking.

Hearing all of it helped my recovery. But I have to keep in mind that most of the people I was asking for support probably did not use social media that much. And that there were things I could have done better. Shorter and more personal email? More relaxed and catchy video? Clearer goal description? Explicit reminder that any donation helps?

All of it happened in November. It’s January now and I didn’t touch fundraising since then. But it’s time to revisit it. The next step will be looking for sponsors. Let’s see how that goes. But I’m positive that no matter what the outcome will be, it won’t be as bad as it already was. Hopefully there are better experiences ahead 🙂

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