Not Just for Dancing Teens: Some Charities See Potential in TikTok Fundraising
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Alivia Moore spent months lobbying her boss to let her post on TikTok. The youngest member on the communications team at One More Child, Moore says she saw the potential to reach a new audience on the social-media video app after downloading it last March.
But Moore's colleagues at the 117-year-old Florida-based global social-service charity weren't convinced TikTok had value as a professional communications and fundraising tool. "Everyone thought it was an app for teens to dance on," Moore says.
TikTok exploded in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when people sought entertainment online — often in the form of viral choreography. Users around the world installed the video-sharing app 315 million times from January 1 to March 31 last year — a record number of downloads of any app in a single quarter, according to Sensor Tower, a company that tracks mobile app data. By February 2021, more than 1.1 billion people were using the app each month, according to estimates by social-media ad agency Wallaroo Media.
- Young viewers may not have money to give now, but connecting with them on emerging platforms is one way to expand a charity's donor pipeline and tap into their passion for advocacy.
- Capitalize on existing memes, video formats, and audio trends to appear in more users' For You pages.
- Consider enlisting the help of influencers to champion your cause.
TikTok is popular with people in their teens and early 20s, but because it's not as time-tested as social-media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, and because the users are so young, some nonprofits hesitate to get on board. But building an audience on TikTok is a simple way for charities to reach a larger audience, even if many of those individuals can't provide financial support at the moment, says Nathalie Ormrod, senior media strategist at consultancy Blue State. Ormrod calls this strategy "future-proofing."
"With emerging platforms, they might have younger audiences, but in five, 10 years' time, those are going to be the people that are keeping these nonprofits afloat," she says.
Last April, TikTok launched a donation "sticker" similar to the one Instagram rolled out in 2019. TikTok uses the software company Tiltify to process donations made through its giving tool in real time. Unlike gifts made through Facebook and Instagram, which don't share donor information with charities, donors who give through TikTok can check a box to provide the charity with their contact information and give it permission to email them future appeals. Just eight charities were initially able to collect donations, and the company matched all gifts made on the platform during the tool's first month in operation.
The CDC Foundation, a nonprofit established by Congress to help fund the national public-health agency, was one of the eight organizations that piloted the tool. In May, TikTok organized a weeklong series of livestreams to direct donations to various causes, including the CDC Foundation's "health heroes." TikTok made introductions to influencers who promoted the events and appealed for donations. The foundation brought in $13,000 on the night of its livestream. The matching gift from TikTok bumped the night's tally up to $26,000.
The next day, the phones started to ring. "I had moms calling, saying, 'What is this charge on my credit card?'" says Elizabeth Patrick, director of advancement services at the CDC Foundation. After she explained, none of the moms objected to the charge.
Historically, the foundation's supporters were scientists, public health professionals, and others with advanced degrees. TikTok connected the organization with a brand new crop of Gen Z and millennial donors and helped the professionals share science-based information about Covid-19 with them.
Since rolling out the donation tool last spring, TikTok has expanded the program to around 80 vetted charities, with more coming on board each month. In general, nonprofits that have an established presence on the platform are more likely to be granted access to the tool, says Brett Peters, who leads TikTok's education and philanthropy partnerships.
Charities — including those that raise money with the app's donation icon — use the social-media platform for more than just fundraising. The Malala Fund, for example, posts videos about what inspires its founder, Nobel laureate and girls education activist Malala Yousafzai, and snappy updates on current events that affect girls' access to education around the world. And while the charity does appeal for donations on TikTok, its chief development officer, Lena Alfi, says the nonprofit primarily uses the app "to connect with young girls and engage them in our work."
TikTok users showed their giving potential last spring, but leaders of One More Child still had concerns about the app's security. TikTok grabbed headlines last summer when Trump administration officials raised questions about how much personal data ByteDance, the Chinese technology company that owns TikTok, was gleaning from American users. In August, President Trump sanctioned the app by executive order. Those sanctions were blocked in federal court. The Trump administration appealed, but the Biden administration has since put that effort on ice.
Today, U.S. companies are free to advertise on TikTok, and Americans can continue to download the app. While the Biden administration is investigating the security risks of Chinese apps like TikTok, a recent University of Toronto report found the video platform collects the same type of information as social-media platforms like Facebook and found "no overt data transmission to the Chinese government by TikTok."
Those findings may ease concerns among nonprofit professionals like Katy Martin, vice president of communications at One More Child. She finally relented and allowed Moore to create a TikTok profile for One More Child but still barred her from promoting the TikTok presence on the charity's Facebook and Instagram accounts. If Moore's first video inspired at least 20 people to donate to the charity's campaign to fund 1 million meals for children, Martin said, she'd consider keeping the charity on the platform.
"I knew that there was a capacity on TikTok for your first video to go viral," Moore says. TikTok users have greater influence over which videos are championed by the algorithm than users of other social-media platforms.
The app's primary feature is its For You page, an endless feed of videos tailored algorithmically to each user's interests. When viewers respond positively to a video — watching it in full or sharing it on their account — they encourage the algorithm to include the video in more users' feeds. Videos are first shown to a small audience that's previously expressed an interest in similar topics or video styles. If that audience receives it well, the process iterates, and the video lands in more and more feeds. When this happens enough, a video can go viral.
"That audience knows good people can unite and come together over something," says Ormrod, the consultant. "That's a huge opportunity for the nonprofit."
What's more, even viewers without money to spare can help play a role just by watching the full video or sharing it with others.
Personal connection is at the heart of TikTok, says Peters. That makes it an ideal platform for organizations to share their stories and demonstrate impact, he says. "You can find volunteers or evangelists of your work to talk about why that work is so important to them or how it's affected their lives."
Knowing that TikTok users favor unvarnished videos that build an authentic connection between the viewer and the video's creator, Moore set out to inspire users to donate to her charity's fundraising campaign.
Her video was scrappy. The beginning captures her pulling away after hitting record. "I left that in because I wanted someone to feel like, 'Oh, this person is just like me; this person I can relate to,'" Moore says.
She introduces herself and One More Child's mission. She shows herself masked up, setting up recording equipment, and walking by her colleagues' offices. A remix of the theme song for the sitcom The Office plays in the background.
"My boss told me I could download TikTok if I made it my goal to get at least 20 donations," she narrates, holding up a hand-written sign with the web address to donate to the charity. "Let's prove the TikTok community can come together for good."
Moore's big bet paid off: Two days after she posted it, the video went viral.
"Every time I refreshed my feed, it was like 99-plus notifications," she says. "Our whole staff was buzzing. Our finance department was struggling to keep up with the number of emails we were getting — $5, $1, $50. People were giving like crazy."
Donors who gave in response to the video contributed an estimated $10,000 to the charity, mostly over one weekend. Typically, the charity's fundraising campaigns rely on corporate donors rather than individuals. The individuals who do give are mostly locals. This time, TikTok users across the country chipped in.
Going viral on TikTok is like catching lightening in a bottle.
"There's no set way to make that happen," says Hannah Xue, digital associate at Malala Fund. But capitalizing on existing trends and audio is helpful.
During the year-end giving season, TikTok encouraged nonprofits to tag their video appeals with #givingszn. Those videos have been viewed more than 554 million times.
Xue used the hashtag for a Malala Fund video following a popular video format that riffs on the avatar selection in video games. The video includes the donation icon and shows the nonprofit's communications manager holding various props and wearing different outfits to match each of three reasons educating girls advances the public good. The video has been viewed 5 million times.
"It was successful because we were able to follow an established video format in a trending and popular way, and it was something that people on TikTok already recognized," Xue says.
Malala Fund has so far raised roughly $16,500 on TikTok, but the charity's activity on the app also helps it connect with the demographic it serves: school-age girls. The fun videos spread the word about Malala Fund's mission, says Alfi. Establishing that early connection "creates a longer relationship for us with that donor and their community," she says.
TikTok has also created a place for nonprofits to gather their supporters during a time when public-health concerns have limited in-person events. The Actors Fund, a social-service charity that supports people who work in the arts, was one of the first charities to have access to TikTok's donation icon. Its biggest windfall, however, came when TikTok users led a grassroots effort to create a musical version of Disney's animated film Ratatouille and perform it on TikTok.
Throughout the pandemic, TikTok users around the world had turned scenes from Ratatouille into songs, and the goofy videos were a hit. By the end of November, Disney Theatrical Group approved an idea to create a full-length musical version of its beloved children's movie on TikTok and sell tickets to benefit the Actors Fund.
The whole event came together in about a month, with 350,000 people spending $5 or more on tickets to the livestreamed musical on January 1. Sponsors kicked in contributions, too, and the Actors Fund raised roughly $2 million. What's more, the charity was able to expand its audience from the theatergoing older adults who are its typical supporters.
The Actors Fund has also benefited from mentions by influencers and Broadway actors, says Douglas Ramirez, director of special events at the charity. Not every viewer who hears about the charity on TikTok will donate in response to a video, he says, but that content is still connecting the charity to a brand new group of supporters. "They might have come over to the site separately looking for us, which has generated additional funds for the Actors Fund," Ramirez adds.
Other charities have piggybacked on of influencers' TikTok fan base to reach more donors. In February, the American Heart Association collaborated with J.T. Laybourne, who has 1.5 million followers on TikTok, to raise money during American Heart Month. Laybourne and a few friends appealed for donations during a livestreamed event, raising more than $394,000 from nearly 13,000 donors in the span of a weekend.
"Talk about opening the aperture," says Suzie Upton, chief operating officer at American Heart Association. "Many, many, many of those people we never would have reached, even through the current social channels we have."
By the end of the month, the charity had raised $725,000 on TikTok and connected with more than 24,000 new donors. A typical gift on TikTok was just shy of $30, and donors in 35 countries contributed to the campaign.
"We will never have a walk that will get people from 35 different countries," Upton says. "This is a way for us to connect with people that is different from or maybe even in addition showing up at events."