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The elements of a successful medical crowdfunding campaign

AP Photo/Matt Dunham
Just ask.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

For every heartwarming story of an ill person hitting the crowdfunding jackpot, there are thousands of people who fail to pretty much raise anything.

It’s perhaps the biggest misconception when it comes to medical crowdfunding: that setting up a campaign on a popular website is equivalent to getting it funded. But most campaigns don’t reach anything close to their goal, never mind hit it.

“The assumption that there’s a crowd of people out there waiting to give money because [their] victim story is really compelling is the biggest myth that everybody has,” Daryl Hatton, CEO of FundRazr, a crowdfunding platform that allows users to raise money for causes. On the contrary, he notes, most people will only be able to appeal to their immediate community, who are unlikely to be willing, or able, to provide the amount of money needed.

Some of the reasons a campaign might not get wide reach may be beyond the control of the person appealing for money. Their socioeconomic position, for instance, and the kind of network they can tap into can be limiting factors. As is whether the medical condition that needs treatment is one that will move people to donate—conditions that can be treated immediately are more likely to get funding than chronic care, for example.

But there are also ways to optimize a campaign, and give it the best shot at success. Fundamentally, they all boil down to one thing: storytelling.

“We used to sit around the fire and tell stories, and people would share resources to help solve the problems,” says Hatton, who has researched how storytelling influences giving. Our brains release chemicals to help us feel good about helping, he explains. “We are wired biologically to do this, because as an evolutionary survival mechanism, it worked.”

But not all stories are born equal—and not all will move people to help. As crowdfunding became more ubiquitous, several marketing consulting firms started offering their services to shape campaigns (in the case of funding for medical expenses, often the advice to individuals is offered pro bono as a way to support people in need). Here are some of the elements that have made successful campaigns soar.

Successful campaigns are not about victims

It is easy to present recipients of a medical crowdfunding campaign as victims—because they have experienced misfortune, or health accidents. But this approach could be counterproductive, Hatton says. While it’s necessary to educate people about the problem, successful campaigners often have an issue that is seen as surmountable.  They “talk about the solution,” he says. “It’s a marketing function: you’re telling what [the] money is buying.”

Shifting this perspective in the storytelling is important, and can be taken a step beyond the immediate goal. For instance, for someone in need of back surgery, might not just focus on regaining function in their back. A better narrative, Hatton says, is how the funds will “help me get the treatment I need to recover my life and then spend the time with my daughter, get back into the workforce, contribute [to society] again.”

Us, not me

Campaigns featuring families tend to be more effective in raising money says Roy Morejon, a crowdfunding expert with Enventys Partners, a PR firm, and the editor of the site “Art of the Kickstart.”  “It’s easier to trust that a whole family won’t misuse funds, or be complicit in a scam,” Morejon says. And, it’s easier to be convinced that a “family person” is deserving of help. “When you’re seeing it as a family, it’s like, ‘Oh, this person has people to care for’,” says Morejon, who offers pro-bono consultations to individuals or families starting medical crowdfunding campaigns.

If it’s an individual asking alone, Morejon says, supporters may wonder “why the person doesn’t have a family to support them, and wonder whether they had done something to deserve it.”

When family campaigns aren’t an option, friends might be enlisted to start the campaign. “One of the saddest things we see is somebody going, ‘I have no friends. I’ve got this condition, I need help’,” says Hatton. In the absence of visible support networks, people could make the assumption (often misguided) that the person has done something to deserve being alone. “It’s like you haven’t helped your community, so now you’re looking for the community to take care of you?”

But also: Me

One of the reasons it’s easier to have a family or group of friends run a campaign is that they make a key part of the crowdfunding process easier: telling the world how great and deserving of support the person is. However uncomfortable that might be, being able to prove the worth of the recipient in a way that is recognized and recognizable by their peers is a key element of a successful campaign, if a flawed one.

The more people can empathize with a campaign’s subject, the more likely they are to be moved to support them financially. That empathy prompts a person to think:“‘That could have been me. I hope people would help me. I’ll help her’” says Hatton. Unconsciously, “It’s a little bit ‘pay it forward’.”

Testimonials help the cause

One unfortunate side of the “good person” narrative is that people may be judgmental of the reasons a person is in the circumstances they are in. A smoker who gets lung cancer, for instance, may elicit less sympathy than a non-smoker with the same condition. This is where the community comes in handy again, by way of testimonials.

“It’s online reputation management,” says Morejon, “tried and tested marketing.” Getting advocates to provide testimonials can reassure people that the person they are supporting is a valuable member of society, and thereby worthy of protection.

Details are persuasive

A hallmark of a successful campaign is that it extends far beyond the person’s circle of friends. In the hopes of achieving this, campaigners might include in detail what led them to ask for help, providing useful context for strangers. These details might include how the person exhausted other sources of funding before turning to crowdfunding. This shows the person had a plan and was responsible, but that the obstacle was just financially too big to surmount.

They might also include details about what “normalcy” looked like, to help supporters feel closer to them.

Titles matter

“The title of the campaign itself is paramount,” says Morejon. The nature of social media is that people need to feel moved to click and engage more. “When people are sharing it on social media, typically that’s the first thing, the headline,” he says.

Successful headlines are short and achieve a balance: they’re not so dark and sad that people are upset seeing them on their social media pages, but they also don’t minimize the seriousness of the situation.

Videos beat photos beat words

Campaigns tend to do better when they feature multimedia content. Short videos, below a minute, are the most successful—be it by the subject of the campaign or by testimonials. Photos, too, are very effective, and help support the non-victim framing: it is easier to post a photo of someone looking happy than translate that happiness in words.

Having photos with some writing on them—mottos, quotes, even just encouragement—are also popular, Morejon says, because they campaign supporters can share them.

Asking is the best way to ask

Medical crowdfunding campaigns don’t just ask for money, they ask for referrals as well. Ideally, people aren’t just moved to donate, but to share the campaign with their respective networks.

A successful campaign is explicit in its request for referrals, as this is what drives the campaign’s reach, and ultimately its potential pool of donors.

Bright and early gets the funds

Morejon will often launch campaigns at the beginning of the week in order to maximize press coverage. This also gives the campaigner time over the preceding weekend to prepare for the launch by pumping up their circle of supporters, and getting them to donate as soon as the campaign goes up. This in turn gives the campaign momentum, and a better chance of being featured by the platforms, expanding its reach.

Updates are a proxy for accountability

Successful campaigners connect regularly with their supporters to let them know how things are going. The treatment, the campaign, the expense: they’re all documented in videos, photos, and words detailing, helping people feel invested and reinforcing accountability.

To extend the life of a campaign, patients might explain the ways funds are being used, and if the campaign was fully funded, add so-called “stretch-goals” detailing exactly what the extra money will buy—the more specific and tangible, the better.

This can be the part of the process that is especially painful for campaigners. Crowdfunding is an effective way to raise much-needed funds for some people. But it can also be exhausting to constantly be selling your story and proving you’re worth a donation.

“We force people to turn their need into a narrative in order to get access to the basic funding that they need,” Alexandra Samuel, a technology researcher and writer, says. “It’s very unhealthy for a person who is disabled or ill to have to be objectified in that way, and it’s unhealthy for us as a society that we expect people in need to perform for us like that.”