The Rainmakers: Tim Kovach of The Cleveland Refugee Bike Project

While the average budget for ioby projects is around $4,000, many are larger scale. If you have your sights set high, your budget—and fundraising skills—will have to rise to the challenge.

Crowdfunding large amounts of money on ioby is totally doable, but it takes some extra planning. In our Rainmakers series, we’re sharing stories and tips from Leaders who have successfully raised $10,000 or more for their ioby campaign. Learn how they did it, and how you can do it, too!

 

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The Cleveland Refugee Bike Project is working to improve mobility—both physical and social—for the city’s refugee community by providing them with bicycles to ride and the training and tools necessary to become safe and self-sufficient riders.

ioby Leader Tim Kovach let us in on how he raised over $13,000 last fall   to launch this ambitious project this spring.

 

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Q: Who was on your fundraising team?

I saw my job as bridging the gap between the bike and refugee services communities, so I chose my partners very deliberately. I bike a lot and do volunteer advocacy work with the Ohio City Bicycle Co-Op and Bike Cleveland, so I had personal relationships with them and approached them that way. My wife happens to work at Catholic Charities: they run the largest refugee resettlement program in Northern Ohio, and are a member of the The Refugee Services Collaborative of Greater Cleveland. So my connections in both worlds gave me access to both donor pools.

Cleveland has been trying to make itself as welcoming a community as possible for refugees and immigrants, so we had a lot of good connections and reception from that side. On the bike side, Cleveland has been going through some growing pains to become a bike-friendlier city—it’s happening in fits and starts—there’s lots of grassroots momentum there.

Through one tragic event, I saw there was a lot of fundraising potential in our bike community. A local bike luminary, Shelli Snyder, was critically injured while biking from Ohio to Seattle last year, and her peers raised tens of thousands of dollars for her recovery. That showed us there was a lot of support here for bike-related concerns.

I approached the directors of both bike organizations in January 2016 to pitch it to them, but the idea didn’t go anywhere until late summer or early fall, when we knew more about how it would be funded: through crowdfunding on ioby and through the Cleveland Climate Action Fund, which gave us $5,000.

 

Q: Were you already comfortable with asking for money?

No, I’m not really the fundraising type. I’m a very quiet, reserved person, so this was not comfortable to me, and it was all fairly new. I did solicit family and friends through social media, phone calls, and face to face. My sister-in-law is a refugee herself, so my brother was very generous. It wasn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done, but I got a good response—though my asks didn’t comprise the lion’s share of what we made.

Fortunately, I was able to partner with people who had more skills in this area. The Ohio City Bicycle Co-Op and Bike Cleveland are both very small—less than 10 people each. But the directors of both organizations put asks in their newsletters and made personal requests of their contacts. Catholic Charities is obviously bigger, and they put the word out on their social media. It’s definitely easier to work with a small local organization than a national one. The potential for donations is larger with the latter, but there are more layers of bureaucracy to communicate through.

I found that personal relationships were important to this campaign across the board. Cleveland is a small city; you run into the same people over and over. That can be a problem when it comes donor fatigue, but unexpectedly catching someone can also be a great way to have that conversation you wanted to have. This familiarity definitely came into play when it came to hosting a fundraiser. My wife and I live near a brew pub called Platform that we knew had hosted such events in the past. I approached the manager in person, he agreed to have us, and we raised a few hundred dollars in a few hours via cash donations and a percentage of beer sales.

 

Q: How did you plan your fundraising?

We developed the budget and program plan systematically. I costed out a few things, then asked my partners for feedback. The bike co-op is hosting a lot of the project’s trainings, so they knew how much that part would cost; the same went for Catholic Charities, who provided the translators. With these numbers, I initially drew up a budget for 50-plus participants as a pilot. That wound up growing to 100 participants as we raised more money.

The fundraising effort was a little more by the seat of our pants. I relied a lot on the organizations to contact their donor lists, I made my own list of who I should ask, and I cobbled together targeted social media efforts as I went along. On social, I made an effort to go for people I knew had a lot of connections. For instance, I noticed that a reporter for a local blog was putting together a list of local organizations who were accepting different kinds of donations. I asked her if she’d include us, and she did. There was a lot of happenstance like that.

 

Q: How did storytelling factor in?

It was challenging on one hand because there are privacy concerns with sharing info about refugees, for their safety. You don’t want to get into too much detail, so just we said there’s a need and there’s an interest: that it’s been difficult for refugees to get bikes, and there have been incidents where people have been injured.

But I did try to share my own story of how we got to where we were, why this issue was important, and more about this mobility gap we wanted to bridge. Interestingly, the campaign deadline was November 18 of last year, and we found that we kind of plateaued about two weeks before the presidential election on November 8. After the election, it was evident that people really wanted to do something, and we were there with some issues that were really at the heart of the election: immigration, refugees, climate change, transportation equity, human dignity… So that timing wound up really working to our advantage. Donations surged and got us to our original goal, then to our stretch goal.

Another aspect of storytelling that really helped was earned media recognition. There’s a local blog that does feel-good stories, and they wrote about us. While I thought they focused too much on me—that’s not my cup of tea!—it did help spread the word. We also appeared on the WCPN radio program The Sound of Ideas around the time we hit our goal. They wanted to do a show about refugee issues a week or so after the election, and reached out to us.

 

Q: What methods did you use to ask people?

I was pleasantly surprised by how effective creating a Twitter account for the project was: for raising money as well as for thanking and appreciating donors. But the larger donations we got—above $100—all came from direct asks to people, made either by me or our partner organizations. In those cases, personal emails were probably the most effective method.

 

Q: Did fundraising help with community buy-in?

Sure. In addition to donating, or in lieu of it, some people said they would like to volunteer, donate bike paraphernalia, or help us get the word out. Those were beneficial outcomes for sure.

As you would expect, given the political climate and the nature of the program, there were a few less than kind comments made and messages shared. But then we saw a lot of vocal supporters step up to “drown out the haters,” so to speak.

 

Q: Any other advice?

  • It’s important to set a realistic fundraising target and justify how you got to that number; people will want to know. ioby training taught me to break it down this way: If you give us $75, that will buy a bike; $25 will buy an hour of interpretation; etc. Giving concrete examples of where the money’s going encourages donors to feel ownership.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your family and friends; they’re the ones most likely to support you if they can.
  • Partner with good organizations that have experience in your topic area and good donor lists. Harness their skills and connect with their constituencies.
  • While ioby cautions not to rely too heavily on social media, I found it to work pretty well, though I understand that might not be the case for everyone.
  • Have a story to tell. People want to hear it. I had to figure out how to do that without divulging too much private information, but in any case, work to tell an engaging story of some kind. People will feel like they have a stake in what you’re doing if they know where you’re coming from and are sharing something personal with them.

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