How Video Game Fundraisers Create Big Opportunity for Charities

September 9, 2020

One of the biggest success stories from the world of games has been charity fundraisers. While public perception of “gamers” doesn’t include philanthropy, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. More than $42 million has been pledged to charity over the last decade—all from gamers supporting their favorite causes.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with video games, to be honest,” Alyssa Sweetman, diversity and charity platform manager at Twitch says about the success of fundraisers. “I think that it has everything to do with instant feedback loop.”

Alyssa has helped lead some amazing activities in her role. When COVID first hit, she worked with brands like Verizon and P&G too put together an amazing 12-hour event that featured live music from Ellie Goulding and Diplo alongside competitions in Fortnite and UNO. All proceeds went to the United Nations Foundation’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. She also helped to raise over $300,000 for The Trevor Project.

We spoke with Alyssa about how to pick the right streamers for your fundraiser, why videogame charity events aren’t any different from walk-a-thons, and why you should let influencers just be themselves.

You can listen to the episode using the player embedded above, or you can read a full transcript below.

Episode Transcript

Jamin Warren: Well, Alyssa, thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate it.

Alyssa Sweetman: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Jamin Warren: Can you tell me a little bit about the role that community plays in your day-to-day, particularly when you’re advising, when you’re talking to NGOs, nonprofits? Tell me a little bit about the role that online communities play in terms of impacting your day-to-day experience.

Alyssa Sweetman: Pretty heavily. In fact, most nonprofits don’t really understand what Twitch is. They just saw some random article about DrLupo, or Games Done Quick, or DCX, or some other random event where it got picked up by the news and they saw a large amount raised for a nonprofit. They email and they say, “We want that for us,” without really understanding what it is they’re asking for.

Jamin Warren: Right.

Alyssa Sweetman: Really, community is at the core of everything I do, because I have to explain to the nonprofit, “Twitch isn’t the one handing out money. The community is activating around causes they’re passionate about.” So while I don’t interact with the community on a day-to-day, everything they do, and everything I work on them with translates into me helping nonprofits understand how they can activate within the community themselves, and in a very organic and authentic way.

Jamin Warren: That’s such a great point, thinking if I was someone who was coming to this space for the first time, not being able to make that distinction between Twitch as a media and distribution platform and where are the dollars are actually coming from.

Alyssa Sweetman: If you look at, old school, like PBS telethons, television is the medium by which you get to an audience, but unless PBS has people to call in, they can spend all day everyday trying to do fundraisers. But if they don’t have an audience of people who are willing to give money, then nothing will ultimately happen.

Jamin Warren: That’s a really interesting way … It seems like a unique communications challenge for you in terms of getting folks to understand the distinction between Twitch as a platform versus Twitch users as an audience.

Alyssa Sweetman: Yeah. It can be. Also nonprofits will be like, “Well, how do I find very specific people in the community that care about my cause?” Usually, the answer is you can’t. Some things people will tweet about or talk about, but talking about issues in the world, if that’s not your brand as an influencer or an entertainer, can be really draining on your audience and yourself. There’s an emotional labor to talk about it.

I always just tell nonprofits that if [influencers] have a public email available, write a very short [email]. I should not have to scroll at all to read the email. That’s the other thing too is that they send these massive long explanations as if they’re sending it to a PR firm at a company, hoping to get in a board room. The communication style is way different.

The very first step for nonprofits really wanting to activate in this space is to get on a fundraising platform made for influencers and live interaction. If you look at some platforms that have been around a really long time, and you go to the way back machine on the Internet, and you look at their fundraising page 10 or 15 years ago, and you look at their fundraising page today, they’re identical. There’s no change. There is no innovation. So the very first step is get on a fundraising platform that has change, innovation, and is moving with the Internet and the influencers on it.

Then the second step is to communicate that you got on that platform. Most nonprofits, their base is 45 and up. It’s not because people under the age of 45 don’t care, it’s that they only market to people who are 45 and up.

Jamin Warren: Right, right.

Alyssa Sweetman: It’s really old school marketing. There’s no change. It’s mailers, the cold calls. So the first thing I tell folks is, “Even if you don’t believe there’s a single person in your email list that knows what Twitch is, or knows what TikTok is or anything, doesn’t matter. Email your base. Add it to your newsletter. “You can now fundraise for us on Twitch and TikTok and Facebook gaming; here’s how,” with whatever platform it is.

Jamin Warren: You pointed to the fact that a lot nonprofits, what they see are these really big fundraisers, so the St. Jude’s or the things that DrLupo has done. I’m curious. How do big streamers, how do they get interested in particular causes? Because I suspect that there’s some element for nonprofits. They’re like, “Hey, I have a cause. I think this really popular streamer might be interested in my cause.” How do those streamers end up deciding which things they want to do, or deciding that they want to do a charity stream to raise money for a cause in the first place?

Alyssa Sweetman: I would say that, for larger streamers, it’s really about a cause that’s passionate. Maybe it’s a really unique pitch. In some cases, brands who are not nonprofits can pay larger influencers on behalf of charities to do a fundraising event. That doesn’t work if you’re looking to create a relationship where you’re going to get year-over-year fundraising or a really dedicated fundraising base.

In fact, most people, when they first start, they come to me and if they did do a little bit of research, what they do is they go to St. Jude’s leaderboards and they email me and say, “I would like to get in touch with these people.” It’s just a copy and paste of the leaderboards from St. Jude. I’m like, “Well, when you email them, they’re going to know that you did that, because you’re going to start off by saying, ‘I saw that you fundraised for St. Jude.'” It’s not creating a relationship.

That’s why I just say, “If you see an email, an open DM, reach out. Make it a short, sweet message, who you are, what nonprofit you are, where they can fundraise for you, and offer to chat with them more if they’d like.” If they don’t respond, that’s okay. Nobody likes to say no to nonprofits. Nobody’s going to be like, “No. Sick children? No way. I don’t care about that.”

So when folks are like, “I didn’t get a response,” it’s like, “Well, maybe they just finished a fundraiser, or maybe they’re not interested, but they’re not going to tell you no. They don’t want an email out there that says, “No, thanks. Don’t care.”

It’s a little bit of a balance. Not every nonprofit is going to have something super appealing. Some things can be really hard to wrap your mind around, like water insecurity. Most people in America have no idea what it’s like not to have access to water. Even in places where the water in their house is not great, they can buy bottled water. So it can be really hard to wrap their minds around it.

I think just having appropriate expectations, and focusing on building relationships with all sizes of influencers is really helpful because the average fundraiser is between $500 and $2,000. So your goal is to get 20 people to raise $500 for you now. The next time you do a fundraising push in this space, get 50 people to do $500.

The more people get on board, the easier. It’ll have a snowball effect. Influencers will be like, “Oh, my friends fundraise for that nonprofit. I want to fundraise for them, too.” I would say the good amount of fundraisers per year would probably be four, once a quarter.

Jamin Warren: Is there something unique about particularly game streaming platforms that make them well suited for charity drives?

Alyssa Sweetman: I don’t think it has anything to do with video games, to be honest. I think that it has everything to do with instant feedback loop. Chat is a place that you curate yourself. You moderate. You could be a super family friendly place. You build up essentially a community around yourself.

The community that surrounds you wants to see you succeed. If you see maybe an influencer tweets that their mic broke, and so they won’t be able to stream for a little bit until they save up, you might see someone respond and say, “Give me your Venmo,” because everybody who supports a creator wants to see them succeed. When you do a fundraising event, it’s not just the influencer or the streamer’s goal. It’s the community’s goal.

Jamin Warren: What are some of the similarities that this might have to traditional fundraising techniques? Because I can see the many ways in which it’s different, but what are some of the ways that might be similar for a nonprofit or connect to their existing efforts?

Alyssa Sweetman: It’s the same kind of thing as setting up to have a run/walk or a 5k, where a person may ask their friends and family, but instead of their friends and family, it’s the family that they chose or the friends that they chose, their community. So it’s still crowdfunding in that kind of sense, but the people that are donating are a little bit more disconnected than your friends and family.

I would say that it’s really similar, more than anything. It’s just looking at it through a different medium. Because it’s entertainment, it’s live on the Internet, it lasts forever, there’s this idea that it’s different. But in the same efforts that you put into a local chapter, building up relationships with folks so that you have a successful 5k, it’s the same thing.

Jamin Warren: What do you think it is about gaming audiences that make these fundraising initiatives unique? Because I feel like the charity side of fundraising and gaming really goes against what is still a lingering public perception around who gamers are and what they’re interested in. I think it’s one of these things where I wish more people knew how much money, how many millions of dollars game streamers have raised on behalf of their favorite charitable causes, because I think gamers and video game culture still definitely have a negative association.

Alyssa Sweetman: If you look at, generationally, starting with Gen X is where it really started. People will spend a little bit more money on something they casually like, knowing it will do something good somewhere else. With gaming, it’s a hobby that maybe it got you out of depression, or it got you through a rough time, or during times of COVID we can’t leave our house so it gives us something to do.

The idea that something fun and passionate means that we can also do something good is really amazing. I think folks look at gaming as this, “I have a really hard time understanding what a gamer is. When I think of a gamer, I think of someone who lives in their mom’s basement,” and the generic tropes.

Jamin Warren: Right.

Alyssa Sweetman: When I ask people, particularly in nonprofit rooms, if they’ve ever played Candy Crush or something else, and every hand goes up, when they’ve played Words With Friends, Candy Crush, or Clash of Clans, I’m like, “Cool. You’re all gamers. Congratulations.” The idea that you can do something you love and do something that’s good is pretty easy.

Jamin Warren: Yeah. That seems like a big … We face the same thing in terms of talking to clients, in terms of there’s a disconnect between the size of the industry, dollar signs, and then a deeper, more nuanced understanding of gamers are not just one person. They have a variety of interests and motivations for why they’re even involved in the space. It’s not monolithic.

What are some of the common misconceptions that you’ve seen around influencer marketing? How do you navigate those on behalf of the folks that you work with?

Alyssa Sweetman: I would say the biggest misconception is that you have to control what the influencer’s doing for it to be okay within your brand. One example is this one mental health nonprofit, when they first came into this space, asked me if they could require everyone who’s fundraising for them to sit through a two hour training beforehand. I said, “Do you make the people who do a run/walk do that before they could start talking about it on social media?”

They’re like, “Well, they’re going to be entertaining, and we don’t want to look like this is an endorsement.” I was like, “It’s not an endorsement if they’re fundraising for you. Give them some guidelines. If they meet them, great, then you can use it for marketing materials. If they don’t meet them, cool, you still had someone fundraise for you, and you didn’t have to endorse them.” There’s a little bit of a complexity that folks tend to have understanding that when someone fundraises for them, they feel like it looks like an endorsement, even though it’s not.

Jamin Warren: That is really, really unique. They are much more open to letting things happen organically in other fundraising methods. So it’s just better to think about it the same way you would your existing activities that you don’t have to put them on the website.

Are there any other pitfalls that you’ve seen in terms of the partnership side, between content creators, live streamers, and folks on the nonprofit side, things that you would say like, “This has gone south in the past,” or, “This is something that you should probably avoid”?

Alyssa Sweetman: For some reason, nonprofits really like the idea of creating their own Twitch page that has no following, and then asking streamers to stream on it. I’m like, “There’s no following base.” They’re like, “But they’ll bring theirs.”

I’m like, “You know less than 20% of their community will follow them to a new site, to a new page. They’ll be told 10 times that this person is going over to this other channel to do this event, but they will forget, because they have notifications on for the channel where they watch their creator.”

Also, there’s a little bit of authenticity that the streamer loses when they go to a site or different channel, because they are trying really hard to be professional. It is seen as part of their work portfolio when they do something on someone else’s channel, so they might not be as silly or as hyped up or whatever.

Jamin Warren: What do you think are some of the advantages for nonprofits and NGOs, compared to other commercial brands? What are some of the distinct advantages that they might have that won’t be available to a much larger Fortune 500 company that wants to do something on Twitch?

Alyssa Sweetman: Recently there has been a little bit of an idea that the only way to be successful with influencers and fundraising with nonprofits is if the nonprofit pays the influencer. But I would actually say that the advantage is that you shouldn’t be paying influencers if all you’re doing is asking them to fundraise. If there’s nothing additional that they’re doing, you’re just like, “I would love for you to fundraise for us. Here’s how you can do it,” and they do it, there’s no reason to pay them for that. They’re voluntarily fundraising. It’s the same as asking someone to join a run/walk.

Jamin Warren: Right, yeah. That’s such a great distinction.

Well, I want to thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate it. I learned a lot about some of the work that you do.

Alyssa Sweetman: Thanks so much for having me.