Note: The following is based on personal experience and not intended as any sort of financial or legal advice.
I was fortunate in that my financial situation at the time was such that I didn’t need to raise the entire amount to pay for her, but about a third. Not to get too deep into my own details but suffice it to say instead of tens of thousands of dollars it was only thousands. (If one can say “only” about thousands of dollars, which frankly in my current financial situation I cannot.)
I was also extremely fortunate in that I met and even exceeded my goal. Because of that, I’d like to share the lessons I learned about the process for others who need to do their own fundraising for psychiatric service dogs or any other medical expenses. Not just about how to have the most success, but also things I would have wanted to know before I began that not even GoFundMe can tell you.
Let’s get into it.
1) Define Your Fundraising Needs and Goals to Yourself
Before you can ask people for donations you first need to ask what you’re hoping to get out of the process. Yes, you would like your expenses to be covered but which expenses and why?
For example: What amount are you hoping to raise? Are you taking fees into account? (After all if you need $1000 and the fundraising platform you use takes 10% of that then at the end of a successful fundraiser you only have $900, which means you are $100 short of your goal.)
As you think about the amount, ask yourself what are you asking people to donate for? Not in the sense of the goodness of their hearts, though of course that’s hopefully going to be a motivator. But specifically what things need to be paid for? In my case I had an itemized bill as part of my contract with the service dog training company which listed all of the expenses from training to transportation to bags of dog food.
In my case it was also helpful that I had a specific amount with a specific deadline. I needed to pay the contracted costs listed in that bill by a certain date or else they would not deliver my dog to me. In your case it may not be that cut and dry, so sit and think about how much you can clarify your costs on your own. For instance while it might have been nice for me to ask for enough money to pay those up front costs and a first year’s worth of expenses of keeping a dog, the latter is more nebulous of an ask. How much food would she eat? What if she needed vet appointments other than regular checkups? What about expenses I couldn’t predict?
So in your case, what are the truly known expenses vs the unknown? What can you put solid numbers to in easy to understand categories? If you need to put in estimates, how accurate can you get those estimates to be? For example, in my case when I began the process with the training company they were able to give me a dog food cost estimate based on their experience of what dogs her size ate and their experience on how long they expected to need to train her. So in the itemized bill for the contract they were able to say something like $50 bag of dog food once per month for four months = $200. But if I had needed to ask for a cushion from my fundraising I could use that same amount to say if it took two months longer then we’d need to raise $100 more.
Write all of this up as a list for yourself in whatever format you prefer. You’re going to need this information for the next part.
2) Define Your Fundraising Needs and Goals to Your Donors
Now that you know what amount you need to raise and what specific items you’re raising it for, you can work on your pitch. GoFundMe has some great tips to help with this part of the process so be sure to check them out. But a key takeaway is to try to be as clear as you possibly can. Remember that with online fundraisers there’s always the chance that people are going to be reading your page who have never met you and don’t know your story. Write up all of the details a stranger would need to know to be moved to hit that donate button.
For example: Who are you? Why should someone care about your situation? What benefits will you get if this fundraiser is successful? Why do you need the money? What is the money going to be specifically used for?
A good thing to do is to keep your writeup as clear and organized as possible, so use headers to break down each section. You can even use the questions I just listed as the headers themselves (though maybe shorten that one about the benefits).
Again: answer like the person reading doesn’t know you. Be descriptive. Paint a picture. For example, instead of saying “I am fundraising for a service dog” you could try something like “I am a bisexual woman with chronic physical and mental illnesses. I used to be able to hold down a full time job but unfortunately in recent months my health has worsened to the point where I had to leave my job. My doctors have recommended a psychiatric service dog as a method of treatment which will improve my health and help me get back to work. As I am currently on Social Security Disability it is hard for me to cover the costs of getting a trained service dog by myself, which is where you come in. I am hoping to raise X amount of money to cover the following expenses listed below. Any donation will help no matter how small. Thank you!”
You can get more detailed than that but do you see how that one paragraph hit all the questions that needed to be answered? All that’s left is to add in the itemized expenses that you figured out in part 1 so there’s transparency about what you’re asking for.
Note: I’m not saying you need to give away every personal detail. Just as much information as you feel comfortable sharing so that people know that you’re a person and can sympathize with what you’re going through. For instance, you’ll note in the above example I didn’t list my illnesses, only my illness types (physical and mental). You might be more comfortable with giving your exact diagnosis and symptoms (ex “I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder which gives me repeated panic attacks”) or less (ex “I have chronic illnesses” and no more specific than that).
The main thing you want to be able to do is let people know what their donation will do specifically. So in the example above I didn’t just say it would pay for the service dog, I said it would “Improve my health and help me get back to work.” That’s just one example. Maybe in your case it’s that it would help reduce panic attacks. Maybe it would help interrupt obsessive behaviors.
Again: be as specific or as vague as you are comfortable with but paint a picture that is more than “If I had the money I could pay this bill.” Everybody has bills to pay. You want to help people gain an appreciation for how in your case the cost of a service dog is more than a bill to pay, it’s a change in your quality of life.
Once you have your writeup, now you can set up your fundraiser.
3) Is GoFundMe Is Right For You?
I can’t answer this question for you but it’s one I recommend thinking about. When I did my fundraiser GoFundMe was pretty much the only game in town. I wanted something that was as transparent as possible so that my donors could see my goal and how their money was being applied to it (as opposed to something like PayPal where people could send me money but they’d have to take my word on how much I’d gotten in total and still needed). But these days there are far more options.
I can’t speak to all the services out there since I don’t have personal experience with them. But for example if I was doing my fundraiser now instead of a few years ago I would probably use Ko-Fi instead since they offer the same ability to provide transparency about goals and the amount of money collected. They also have much lower fees than GoFundMe does so more of the money goes directly to you.
That being said, Ko-Fi’s reputation is more for supporting content creators (like myself, hi!) than medical fundraisers. So the GoFundMe name may help you get your story across better than Ko-Fi can, especially since it’s got built in systems to help signal boost your fundraiser. On the other hand if you’re hoping to do something to help with the fundraising, like offer a product of some kind in exchange for donations of a certain amount, Ko-Fi allows for that better than GoFundMe does.
And that’s just two sites! As I say I can’t make this decision for you. What I can do is recommend that you do your research and figure out what site best suits your needs. I would suggest the bare minimum is to find a site which allows for transparency about the goal and amount raised for it, and which allows you to easily post updates to thank and encourage people as your fundraiser goes on. I would also recommend using a site which gives you the money as it comes in rather than requiring you have a successful fundraiser or hit certain payment thresholds first. (Both GoFundMe and Ko-Fi meet all those criteria for what it’s worth.)
Other things to bear in mind when picking a site are how comfortable do you feel with sharing your personal details? All sites will require connecting a bank account for the money to be donated to, but you may feel more comfortable connecting something like a PayPal account compared to your checking account.
Likewise consider how much of your own personal details you want so share. Some sites demand that your fundraising page list your real name for transparency purposes, others are okay if you use a pseudonym. Which one you go with is up to you.
Once you have picked your fundraising host and set up your site with your pitch, the next thing to do is share your fundraiser.
4) Don’t Be Shy: Share Your Fundraiser Everywhere You Can
Asking for help is hard, trust me I know. But the nice thing about fundraisers, especially medical fundraisers like for service dogs, is that generally speaking people already know how they feel about them. People who are made aware of your fundraiser will tend to fall into three camps:
- People who want to help because they care
- People who toss a few bucks at fundraisers to make the requests go away
- People who hate fundraisers and immediately scroll or hit delete when they see requests for them
Notice how “People who will yell at you because how DARE you ask for assistance????” isn’t on the list. I mean there’s billions of people in the world, I’m sure there’s folks like that out there. But in general you’re very unlikely to come across them.
The thing you have to remember is that people tend to see a lot of requests for fundraisers. In addition to yours there’s charity organizations, people raising funds for their kids’ school or gymnastics team, “Do you want to round up your purchase to donate to...?” requests at store check outs, and on and on and on. As much as it may be terrifying for you to ask, remember that for a lot of people it’s not going to be you, specific person, being judged here but rather your request. So what you’re hoping to do is get people who fall into the first two categories to be aware of you and the people in the last category we don’t worry about.
For the first two categories you need to share your story everywhere you can as often as you can. Post it on all of your social media accounts. Share it in email with everyone in your address book - and I do mean everyone. Don’t assume you know that certain people won’t donate. People will surprise you (more on this in a sec). Put the information out there that you’re fundraising and let them be the ones to ignore it if they wish.
For your first push you’re going to want to include as much of your pitch as possible but not the whole thing. For starters most social media won’t let you get that long. Also you want to encourage people to go to your fundraising site so it’s okay to leave them a little hungry for more.
Go over your pitch and figure out a one sentence version, a one paragraph, and maybe a two paragraph as needed. Remember you’re going to need to include a call to action at the end so factor that in to how long it will be. Twitter’s obviously going to leave you with less room for details than email or a Facebook Post. For call to actions you want things like “Check out my fundraiser at this link!” or “Donate here!” Room permitting, it’s also good to remind people that even small donations and signal boosts can help. (ex “Even a dollar would be a HUGE help for me.” and “Please signal boost if you can!”)
Once you get the first round out, the next thing you want to do is remind people. For next rounds you want to be more discerning on where you send it. Email reminders can quickly turn into spam, so after you’ve hit everyone in your address book narrow that list down to people you know are more inclined to be interested (ex your aunt vs someone you vaguely remember from second grade but haven’t talked to since then). Also earmark emails for bigger updates like “We’re halfway to our goal!” or “Only two weeks left!” as opposed to sending emails out every other second.
Social media, on the other hand, pretty much requires you to be spammy so you don’t get lost in the algorithm. Likewise it doesn’t hurt to update your fundraising page with anything that might seem relevant, both to show that the page is active and to help keep the fundraising energy going.
So for your page and social media think of anything at all that seems relevant. “We’ve raised $30 already!” or “Since I first posted we’ve had five donations, thank you all so much!” What you’re doing is keeping the word out there and encouraging people to jump on board.
Also need it be said that fundraisers for service dogs have the most obvious thing to update with? Get pictures of your future pupper and put them out there! Take shameless advantage of that cute widdle face! (If you don’t have your dog yet, you can ask your trainer if they can please send you some photos now and then.)
From there all you need to do is keep at it until the end of your fundraiser. You’ve done the hard details, all that’s left is the emotional stuff.
5) Have Realistic Fundraising Expectations, Good and Bad
Here’s the honest truth from someone who’s been there: odds are very good you’re not going to go viral. I mean sure, it’d be great if something about your pitch tugged at the collective heartstrings at just the right time, or you get a retweet from a celebrity with generous fans. I’m not saying don’t go for it if you want to try. But be aware that the vast, vast majority of fundraisers do not go that far.
Most of the people who are going to donate to your fundraiser will be people who know you. That’s part of why you have to bite the bullet and send those notices out to everybody, including that person you haven’t talked to since second grade. People who know you are going to be more inclined to send money to your cause because they know you. Strangers are a harder sell.
The good news is that strangers will still help! This is where asking for signal boosts come in. Because while these strangers might not know you, they’ll know who is doing the signal boost. So you’ll see donations come in from your cousin’s co-worker, your brother’s old fraternity buddy, or what have you.
But random people stumbling across your fundraiser for the sake of throwing money at fundraisers? Probably not.
So focus your attention where you can and don’t worry so much about the rest.
While we’re on the topic, here’s another hard lesson: people’s generosity is going to surprise you, but not always for the best.
Let’s deal with the bad news first. You’re going to discover that there are people in your life who you thought were your closest friends and family who turn invisible the second you ask for help. They won’t donate even though you know they have money, or they won’t signal boost even though you see them on social media all the time. This may even be the same people who always swore to you they’d have your back if you needed them and then poof! You asked, and they were no where to be found.
Of course nobody is entitled to other people’s money or energy. I’m not saying that people are required to do something as a condition of a close relationship. What I mean, though, is that having a medical fundraiser is one of those things where fair weather friends (or family) will out themselves and that’s something you have to prepare for.
I can’t tell you how to feel about it or act on it. I can only recommend you brace yourself for it. In my case I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hurt when I saw certain people who didn’t help, but in the end I reminded myself you never know what people are dealing with in their own lives. Maybe they have their own money issues that they’re not talking about, maybe they’re more busy than you think and legitimately never saw your emails or posts. Who knows? Ultimately I decided to let it go and move on, but in hindsight I wish I’d gotten the heads up that not all fundraising surprises are good ones, so this is me passing that on to you.
The good news, however, is that many people are far more generous than you ever thought they’d be. In my case there were less than a handful of people who surprised me in a bad way and far, far more people who surprised me in a good way. People who donated who I would have never expected to, strangers who donated in amounts that were so much more than I ever would’ve expected for those who don’t know me. People who didn’t know my situation but appreciated someone who needed a dog, or who was dealing with mental illness, or any number of things.
Of course I can’t guarantee that your fundraiser is going to be a rousing success. All I can do is tell you be aware there will be surprises. Some bad, but mostly good.
And there we are! Figure out what you’re fundraising for, write up your pitch, choose your site, get the word out, keep expectations realistic, and that’s all she wrote!
I know these things aren’t easy to do, especially when we have illnesses making our own lives so much harder. Hopefully these tips help guide the way and increase the odds in your favor.
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