How one Facebook fundraiser went viral and raised $20 million to reunite families

Don’t look away, look for ways to help

In June 2018 the Department of Homeland Security confirmed they separated 2,000 children from their families. More than 700 children were separated in the months prior. The government took these children — as young as four months old — with no plan and no intention of reuniting them. The world would learn the DHS was enacting a zero-tolerance policy to punish asylum seekers entering the U.S. from the Mexico border.

In response, a married couple in California, Charlotte and Dave Willner, created a Facebook fundraiser. They would go onto raise more than $20.7 million from 530,000+ people in under a month, for the refugee agency RAICES. It was unlike anything the non-profits or technology worlds had seen before.

The Willners would impact the lives of many of those detained, as well as the course of the political conversation. They showed the power of everyday people and led many of us to use our corporate skills for good.

What now?

In the first few days the world learned of the separations and their severity, minds raced. Facebook, Twitter and comments sections lit up. How could we help? Would it get worse?

No one gave much direction. But who could? Organizations were overloaded with responsibilities. Government representatives were slow to offer guidance. What could the average person do? People needed organization and a way to help.

All the access and technology in the world is useless in fighting for a cause if you don’t have any direction.

How do you stay focused on one flame when it feels like the whole place is burning down? It’s meant to be exhausting. It’s daunting. But when you’re in the position to be exhausted by the mere thought of injustice, and not forced to experience it firsthand, that’s a privilege that you must channel into action, into good.

Enter the Willners, who would create a movement with half a million people.

$10,000 every minute

Charlotte and Dave created a Facebook fundraiser called “Reunite an immigrant parent with their child”. They hoped to raise $1,500 to cover the bond fees for one parent but would raise more than $20 million (three times RAICES’ annual budget) in about a month. In fact, in a few days they hit $2M, and began seeing $10,000 spikes every minute at times. At one point $1 million was raised in eight hours.

The week the fundraiser launched, President Trump issued an executive order to stop mass separations (though he would replace it with family detention). This was due in part to a large public outcry from around the world.

The beginnings of a historical fundraiser

The Willners did what so many of us were wanting to do but didn’t know where to start. They stepped up. They exemplified how to research, organize and do, instead of sitting and social networking in shock and horror.

When you harness the power of technology for good, it can create a force that empowers everyday people to have an immediate impact.

I was on maternity leave from my job on the Pinterest PR team at the time. The Willners asked if I’d help get back to some of the media requests that had been trickling in. Of course, put me to work. Though, the “trickle” wouldn’t last long.

(1) The author and her baby on maternity leave and working on the fundraiser, (2) Press attention included coverage from NPR and (3) The New York Times

As the fundraiser grew at an epic rate, reporters from every major media outlet began contacting us. Within hours on that first day, the onslaught of media questions and conversations would be non-stop for three days.

In all, we emailed or spoke with 80+ reporters from around the world in a few days. This was a rate of communications I had not experienced even in the thickest of PR times in my 13+ years at tech companies.

The communications goal was to spread the word of the effort and legitimize its existence. Thousands of positive and actionable stories hit across outlets like NBC Nightly News, NPR, Today.com, New York Times, and Yahoo.

That’s a lot of attention — for any startup, or major company for that matter. It especially feels big when you’ve been on maternity leave for months and the most communicating you’ve done is with the app that tracks when your baby eats and poops.

The Willners on Kara Swisher’s Recode Decode podcast. Listen here. And hear a recent interview with the RAICES team here.

One team, one dream

There was a dedicated force of people developing FAQs (and even translating them), and assisting in group, press, and social communications. In no time at all, the operation could have been mistaken for any startup in Silicon Valley. When you harness the power of technology for good, it can create a force that empowers everyday people to have an immediate impact.

The comms details

The work of the media covering the crisis was incredible. By bringing the story into people’s homes and phones, they made it impossible (for many) to ignore.

We knew that spreading through national media coverage would legitimize the work. People donating began having questions — who exactly are these people? How do Facebook fundraisers even work? What is RAICES? We partnered with RAICES to be in lockstep.

Establish goals. Our responsibility was to keep the conversation going and increase awareness and action. We encouraged media to include links to the fundraising page and highlight RAICES’ expertise, versus profile or focus on Dave and Charlotte.

Know your audience, build a plan. We identified our audiences (those who had donated, and those who had yet to donate) and built plans to communicate, through press and the group. Any good PR is there to amplify the work, and not create an independent work stream.

Develop a unifying narrative. This effort centered in one universal truth — kids don’t belong in cages. This was also our north star for media conversations to keep things focused. This wasn’t about politics, it was about the kids and their families, and that core message guided our points.

Package a pitch with information that could scale to answer questions and share the latest, including reactions from the Willners.

Share data. While the growing fundraiser was becoming newsworthy, data helped to keep the story fresh. Dave was tracking donations as they came in and shared updated metrics with the group of donors, a channel that was becoming large and diverse.

Spike thanks to love from the Pantsuit Nation Facebook Group. On Father’s Day 2018, many people also donated in honor of the holiday.

Headlines were instantly out of date because the donation amount was rapidly changing. We communicated with many reporters multiple times throughout the day. The resulting updates created new news alerts across apps, inclusion throughout nightly news segments and greater prominence on online front pages.

Offer positivity, actionability. To accomplish our goals, we plugged into the existing news cycle of family separations. It fit perfectly, as good news was in short supply.

Triage. Because the Willner’s house was turning into a fundraising headquarters, they had little time for media. We prioritized and got the right messages out without slowing down. As the e-mails rolled in, we moved on the questions we could answer with the press pitch, and prioritized based on deadlines, and reach. Over time, the pitch package grew to include anecdotes about the group and reactive statements to breaking news.

$50 turns into $20 million

The average donation was $50. Each time someone donated, they became part of a community. People around the world were refreshing browsers to see the amount donated and number of people rise with each click. It was exhilarating and heartwarming.

When the president announced the executive order, we knew from RAICES that he was replacing one form of punishment with another. We assumed people would react with confusion, and worse, complacency. Would people assume everything was fine now, and wonder what would happen to the money, or stop donating?

Before the press conference, we wrote a statement to communicate with the community and through the media. I was bouncing a crying baby around the living room when I saw our statement across local and national news that night. We were at the top of the hour, integrated with biggest stories of the evening. The slight progress was a short-term win, particularly because it was the result of a massive public outcry, from the group, and all over the world.

It was a new way to measure PR success. Media attention resulted in spikes in donations, and more passionate people in the donation group ready and willing to help.

The heroes at RAICES

This experience gave so many of us a look into the non-profit world and the heroics of people like the RAICES team. To see how they work was a lesson in humility, as they are operating an organization that is changing the world. The people powering NPOs do it without fanfare, free lunch, or usually any attention at all.

During meeting with families, the RAICES team would churn out content for their social pages to answer questions. Across channels like Facebook Live, they shared how the money would be used. And, they continued to do press interviews around the world.

This story is not over

In all, more than half a million people donated more than $20.7 million. They donated from every state in America, from countries all over the world, and across political parties.

Unfortunately, this is not yet a historical moment in time we’re looking back on. One year after later, as of June 2019, more than 10,000 children remained detained.

With tens of millions of dollars, RAICES continues to change lives with the donations — paying bonds for release, hiring lawyers and opening more offices.

How you can help

Start your own fundraiser. Dave shared tips in an interview at Bowdoin with student Annie Rose, including: use a compelling photo that engages and enrages people, start with a direct call to action and use it in the title, and leverage the timeliness around people wanting to respond to an injustice:

  • “You need to do it on an issue that is making people mad, and give them an outlet to do something directly about it, now, because it gives people a sense of catharsis,” [Dave] Willner said.
  • And, be lucky. “These things (above) feel like they are somewhat replicable but, I don’t know, the universe is mysterious,” he added. “We hit the charity jackpot.”

Donate to an organization working with asylum seekers to provide legal. See if your company offers donation matching. Follow along with these organizations across social channels to stay updated on their work, needs, and opportunities to help.

  • Americans for Immigrant Justice: Americans for Immigrant Justice provides legal support and advocacy for those detained at Homestead, the largest detention center for immigrant children in the country.
  • RAICES: RAICES continues to put funds to good use to help separated families, detained families, unaccompanied minors, and others who are seeking asylum.
  • Together Rising: Together Rising supports the team of Holly Cooper, who, as an attorney in the FLORES settlement, is one of only a handful of lawyers in the world who have the right to access CBP facilities.
  • ACLU: The ACLU is at the forefront of holding the administration accountable for the atrocities at the border, most recently blocking President Trump from using unauthorized funds to build his border wall.

Call your representatives. There are some great tips on Yopp!

As we have seen, tech is powerful in educating and amplifying, but it must be matched with offline action. For every retweet, pick up the phone and call your representatives. For every sad-faced-Facebook-reaction, donate to a charity. For every comment you want to leave, make plans to attend a protest. Don’t look back on this time and wonder if you did enough.

In addition to the Willners, I applaud Ami Vora, Krista Kobeski, Sandra Liu Huang and Sarah White, who worked tirelessly on the fundraiser. Sandra even traveled to one of the detention centers and shared her experience. Thank you to Brandee Barker and Annie Ta for their PR partnership.

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