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3 Lessons “Reading Rainbow” Can Teach Social Entrepreneurs About Crowdfunding

If you’re like many kids, then you grew up loving “Reading Rainbow” on PBS. Hosted by veteran actor LeVar Burton, the Peabody and Emmy Award-winning children’s television show turned a generation of kids into legitimate book lovers. After its cancellation in 2006, Burton started to think of ways to introduce “Reading Rainbow” to a new generation of budding readers. In 2014, Burton the “Bring ‘Reading Rainbow’ Back for Every Child, Everywhere” campaign, which became the world’s most successful Kickstarter to date.

As a social entrepreneur, you can learn a lot from the way that Burton and the “Reading Rainbow” team have operated their crowdfunding venture. If you apply these three lessons from the “Reading Rainbow” Kickstarter, you just might find yourself singing, “Butterfly in the sky, my crowdfunding went twice as high.”

1. Tap a Fan Base

LeVar Burton became highly recognizable after playing the role of Kunta Kinte in the miniseries “Roots.” However, when he was tapped to play the character of Geordi LaForge in “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” Burton captured a large and dedicated fan base. Those fans flocked to Kickstarter and helped Burton to reach his $1 million goal in less than a day.

The takeaway: Think about how your social venture could either complement an existing not-for-profit or appeal to a fan base committed to your cause. If you’re starting a local public-private partnership, for example, ask your donors as well as the organizations that are helping you to promote your fundraiser on social media.

When you work directly with government employees, such as social workers who partner with community organizations, they probably can’t promote your cause on a government agency’s social media channel. But if you build good relationships with these workers, you might inspire them to share your fundraising information within their personal networks, which could result in multiple non-governmental community organizations promoting your campaign. To make sharing simple, prepare a press release, and ask likeminded organizations and people to share it with their supporters and clients.

2. Enlist Some Star Power

LeVar Burton comes with his own star power, but he also recruited other celebrities to promote his Kickstarter. Fellow Trek alumnus Wil Wheaton, an active Tweeter with 2.72 million followers, broadcasted his support of the Kickstarter to energize his own fan base.

The takeaway: If you know a local, national, or international celebrity with a large social media presence, ask them to support your crowdfunding campaign. You can ask them to share the link, or, if you know the person well, ask them to take a photo next to your logo. If a celebrity donates to your campaign, send out a Twitter mention using their handle (@celebrityTwittername) so that their fan base can learn about the donation. Your celebrity might even reply to your tweet, which could dramatically increase your social venture’s exposure. Even if you don’t know a celebrity personally, try sending a social media message to one of your favorite celebrities asking them to share your campaign link. When celebrities are fans of your cause — or even if they’re just in a generous mood — they might give you the share.

3. Show Some Emotion

When the “Reading Rainbow” campaign passed $1 million in just 11 hours, Burton shared a video of his team watching the ticker cross the million-dollar mark. He tearfully thanked contributors and told them that their donations would enable his group to “really, really, really do a lot of good.” The video was picked up by “The Today Show” and spread like wildfire over Facebook and other social networks.

The takeaway: Your supporters deserve your thanks for giving to your crowdfunding campaign. Express your gratitude not only by thanking them when the campaign ends but also by providing them with regular updates on your social venture’s progress. If you use Kickstarter or another crowdfunding platform, you’ll be able to send out email updates to everyone who donated to you. Keeping your new fans in the loop and letting them see their money put to good use will help you build a long-term base of supporters.

You Can Go Anywhere

Before you kick off your crowdfunding campaign, make sure you’ve laid the groundwork by promoting it ahead of time. Finally, if a big crowdfunding take would mean getting a lot of goods to market quickly, make sure that you’re prepared to deliver.

About the author: Alyssa White covers the world of entrepreneurship, focusing on how big thinkers succeed at fundraising, crowdfunding, and VC.

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