6 Tips to Crowdfund Your Way to a PLEN Seminar in D.C.

So, you just heard about this awesome opportunity for women in college that offers to help you start networking in D.C., gain professional skills, get hands-on experience in an area you’re interested in starting a career in, and maybe even make a few friends in the process.


But then you see the price tag.

Registration alone is at least one month’s rent. It’s in D.C. so there’s that whole getting-across- the-country thing. Then there’s finding a semi-affordable place to stay in D.C. (hilarious...), and after all that, you still have to figure out how to feed yourself for the week.

Between classes, your work schedule, and trying to maintain some semblance of a social life, you think “How will I ever save up enough cash to go to this thing?”

You could ask a parent… but you’ve been trying to be independent and make your own way, so you don’t really want to take that route.

You could apply for the PLEN scholarship or ask your university department for some help (this is definitely an option everyone should at least try)... but, there’s always the possibility that your application won’t get selected, or your department just doesn’t have the cash right now.

Now what?

A few months ago, this was us.

Three grad students wanting to gain some professional experience in D.C. so that we’d be better prepared to begin our careers at the interface of science and policy, but each a little…financially-challenged.

Jayde, Christine, and Mallory talk plan-of-attack for their crowdfunding campaign.

So, we decided to try our luck at crowdfunding. You know, Kickstarter, GoFundMe-type platforms, where you post a project and people can donate small amounts to your campaign until you reach your goal.

Let us first start by saying, the biggest hurdle to this whole process was to stop thinking “Who would want to pay me to do something that’s essentially just for me?”

As we would soon find out, the short answer is: lots of people!

Finding those people, and getting them to share their interest in your project with others, is the tricky part.  

Which is why we decided to create a list of some tips and lessons-learned from our own experience crowdfunding our way to attend the 2017 Global Policy Seminar. The PLEN seminar was such a unique experience, and we want to help more students with financial need attend in the future, especially those from universities who may not be in the PLEN network yet.


1) Know Your Why

Okay, so the obvious goal is: raise funds to go to this amazing week-long seminar in D.C.

But, it’s so much more than that! And to reach a broader audience of potential funders, you first need to define your goals in a way that can make your campaign more relatable.

Why should someone fund you to go to a PLEN seminar?

With the emphasis on your personal story, you should define what you would gain from going to a PLEN seminar. Are you planning on expanding your background to a new area (i.e. policy, leadership, advocacy, etc.), bolstering your personal development skills, or do you need to make contacts to jump start your career after college?

For us, and probably many of you, it was all of the above.

In our campaign, we highlighted our STEM backgrounds and our desire to bring technical perspectives to global policy, because we felt that this was a unique approach.

Along with this, give a few examples of the broader impact that will come from your successful campaign. On a local level, we promised to bring back what we learned from the seminar to other students at our school through news articles, seminar presentations, and blog posts (like this one).

Another huge impact of the PLEN seminars is that these are opportunities to get women involved in high level leadership roles in the government and beyond. Many potential funders will be able to recognize the value of having diverse perspectives in leadership positions, so don’t be afraid to emphasize that, too.

PLEN seminar speakers and influential women in leadership speak to PLEN participants at the Wilson Center.

People also want to know that their donations are being put to good use. So, it’s important to explicitly state what the campaign funds will be used for. Create a realistic budget for lodging, meals, transportation, and fees. Being transparent about your intentions for the campaign funds will give more credibility to your cause.


2) Know Your Crowd

This one is easy to take for granted…but so important not to.

Friends and family are the obvious first round of asks. They know you and your goals in life, so they won’t need too much convincing to get behind you and offer some support. Former teachers and mentors are usually pretty supportive too. They like seeing their students go on and do great things!

After that, it gets a little trickier.

You’ll want to spend some time and really think about the audience you want to try to reach. What kind of person would reach into their wallet and give you $5 right then? What are their values and how do those align with the purpose of your campaign?

PLEN participants speak with PLEN Board Member Lisa Rice at the Global Policy Seminar in 2017.

Start by creating a list of your own values and what kind person you are. What’s unique about you? What would people find fascinating or inspiring? What can people connect with?

Here are some of the things we came up with along the way that helped us target who we would reach out to for further support:

We are:

  • Women interested in leadership
  • Scientists interested in policy
  • Millennials in college

We have:

  • Connections to our home state/country
  • Interests in global policy and diplomacy
  • Enthusiasm, drive, and ambition

We value:

  • Diversity and equal opportunity
  • Evidence-based decision-making
  • A challenge

Potential audience:

  • CEOs, Managers, Project-leads
  • Policy makers, legislators, scientists
  • Other millennials
  • Illinoisans, Ugandans, Nebraskans
  • Policy makers or more generally, people who travel
  • Someone who likes giving/supporting others
  • Anyone else who values these things too


3) Prepare Your Media Content

Never underestimate the value of visual aids to appeal to the emotions of your audience.

Photos and other media are a chance for you to make your campaign more personal and are sometimes just easier to digest than dense paragraphs of words.

In some cases, visual aids can strongly influence the outcome of your campaign. For example, crowdfunding studies have shown that having a video can increase your success rate by 20%.

Our crowdfunding platform (see Tip #5) did not have video play capabilities so we focused more on photographs for visual aids. Because we were promoting ourselves rather than a product, we were the subjects of our campaign photos, and we had a fun day at the park taking pictures (some posed and others candid) for the fundraiser.

Along with visual media, you should also include links to your social media or personal websites (make sure they are professional first!). Especially if you’re limited in space for your campaign, this can give your audience a better “picture” of who you are and why they should support you.


4) Choose the Right Platform

There are so many specialized crowdfunding platforms available online that it can be hard to choose the right one for your purpose. Some are designed to fund projects, others products, or even just people. Jayde crowdfunded her honeymoon on honeyfund.com, and we’ve even heard about some students funding their dissertation research through a crowdfunding campaign!

Well known platforms such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo are aimed more toward start-up companies and community projects, whereas GoFundMe is an example of crowdfunding website that focuses more on personal goals.

Watch out for platforms that charge high fees for using their site, or only grant you the money you raise if the campaign goal is met.

For our PLEN campaign, we were fortunate to have access to our University’s own crowdfunding platform: “VolStarter”. This was a great option for us because there were no fees involved, we could keep everything we raised, AND it gave us access to solicit our school’s alumni network - a group of people who would resonate with our goal.

If your school doesn’t have its own crowdfunding platform, we recommend using a site like GoFundMe which focuses on personal goals, lets you keep all your funds, and charges a relatively low fee rate (5% as of this blog’s posting date).


5) Strategically Reach Out to Your Audience

Okay, so you’ve developed a story around your “why”, you’ve identified the crowd you want to target, and you’ve created plenty of content to share with everyone. Now all that’s left is the advertising! There are LOTS of different ways to advertise, but some are definitely more effective than others.

Renting out a billboard for example...probably not the best way to reach your audience.

Email and social media on the other hand, are great ways to easily and specifically target those who might be interested in donating to your cause.

Make a list of emails for friends, family, teachers, mentors, and even a couple prominent figures who might be interested in your project. Don’t be afraid to reach out to the president of your university or even the city mayor!

As for social media, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are where we focused most of our efforts. For Twitter and IG, we created a project-specific hashtag, #PLENvols, and crosstagged other hashtags that 1) had been trending recently and 2) overlapped with our story (i.e. #WomensHistoryMonth, #womeninSTEM, #womeningovernment, #scipol, #feminism).

Image that Ladd, Ajinjeru, and Aufrecht used on Instagram when crowdfunding, with “cross-hashtags” #ScienceMarch and #MarchforScience.

For Facebook, we posted photos and messages on our personal pages, but also to public pages and groups that aligned with our mission and had an audience that we thought would be interested in supporting us.

Two other key things: post often...

If someone visits your project page and you haven’t said anything about it within the last couple days, they might ask themselves “How important is this to them really?” Don’t worry about “bothering your friends list.” Something we all learned from PLEN: own your ambition and never apologize for striving for success.

...and keep it personal. People respond better to a personal message instead of a cold ask for cash. So make sure to tell them a bit more about yourself with each post; something memorable or surprising. Always remember to be safe, though. These are public platforms, so you want to be sure you don’t share anything too personal: identifying information like your home address or phone number, for example.


6) Engage With Your Audience

Finally, every time someone interacts with you campaign, make sure they know that you know.

Consider adding in a perk or a reward of some kind to motivate anyone who’s on the fence about donating to your campaign. It doesn’t have to be expensive, and it doesn’t have to be right away or for the entire duration of the campaign. We offered to “send a postcard from D.C. to our next 10 donors!” on the last two days of our campaign to try and reach our goal, and we ended up going over it by a couple hundred bucks. Include a photo from the seminar for that added personal touch.

Finally, make sure you don’t forget thank you notes! You can send a note snail-mail style, or there’s usually a way to set this up automatically online too, so that as soon as they send in their donation, they get an email with a message from you. Your message doesn’t need to sound automatic though. Make it personal and sincerely thank each and every donor early and often. Did someone retweet the link to your campaign? Send a thank you gif! Someone else sent an email to their department advertising your efforts? Reply all with some more info and a huge thanks to all your fellow [insert collegiate mascot here]!

All in all, it will be challenging, but worth the time and effort.

There will be lulls where you won’t have any donations coming in and you’ll think you’ve failed. (We had multiple people tell us after the campaign was over that they were waiting to see how many other people would give, so in the last couple days, we had a huge rush of donations.)

There will also be times when you think, this is a lot of effort for just a few thousand dollars. But there is so much more to be gained from the process than just the cash. At the end of it all, we gained marketable skills just from trying to raise money to get to a seminar to learn more marketable skills. You get practice communicating about what you care about. You make new connections with people who care about the stuff you care about. And you raised money on your own. I don’t know a hiring manager that wouldn’t pause for at least a second more on that line of a resume.

Bottom line: don’t get discouraged. Raise as much as you can, in any way that you can. When you’re asking for money from people, you can’t be afraid to... ask people for money. There’s no sugar-coating it, half-baking it, or making it sound like something else (you especially don’t want to do that, even if you could). Make a plan, get creative, make adjustments as you go, and crowdfund your way to that next PLEN seminar!


IMG_20170517_165035_408Mallory Ladd, Christine Ajinjeru, and Jayde Aufrecht are PhD Candidates at the University of Tennessee in the Energy Science and Engineering Program and are alumna of the 2017 Global Policy Seminar. Mallory researches how the chemistry of permafrost soils is changing in response to warming in the Arctic. She is a ardent supporter for enhancing diversity in STEM and plans to pursue a career in science diplomacy, helping nations use scientific collaborations to build constructive international partnerships. You can read more about her on her blog. Christine’s research involves developing new materials using 3D printing and additive manufacturing, and she is a strong advocate for the involvement of Sub-Saharan Africans in tackling development issues, be it in policymaking, social entrepreneurship, or technical proficiency. Jayde is researching the adaptation of plants to climate change impacts and is pursuing a career in international development focused on renewable energy implementation and climate change adaptation.

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