I'm Salim Virani. I used to design peer learning programs, and these days I'm having fun building stuff.

Using business model design to raise more for charity
Jul 30, 2014

I used to have heavy metal hair. Then I shaved my head for charity. I didn’t have any organised campaign to back me, so relied on some newly learned skills in business model innovation instead!

I ended up raising 6 times my target. I’ll explain how.

Now, Macmillan, the Cancer charity, is running a head-shaving campaign, Shave or Style, so I thought I’d share my lessons learned since I think we can unlock more donations.

The general fundraising model is to commit to some crazy, difficult act, whether that’s shaving your head, running 10k or climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, as a demonstration of your commitment, and asking your friends and colleagues to donate towards your cause.

The money comes from people because they know you’re serious about the cause, that it truly matters to you, but also because you endorse the charity. This is important to understand in unlocking donations: since you care so much, you are their expert. It follows that people trust your opinion that the charity itself, not just the cause, is worthy of donations. Their lack of knowledge in charities is often an obstacle to their want to to donate to worthy causes.

Improving on this fundraising model

But there were problems with this model that I wanted to fix, so I tried something different. (Macmillan’s campaign does a good job of quite a few of the original problems since then, so I’ll just cover the ones that still offer opportunities for improvement.)

##It’s not about about the money, and it’s not about your hairdo.
I wanted this to be about more than money. I wanted people to care about cancer, not a bald Sal. If I could frame the donation around my family’s encounter with Cancer, and why I thought the charity was worth supporting, I thought this would lead to more donations, raise better awareness about the charity, and align people to the cause in the long run, rather than just the fun event.

##There’s unnecessary friction
Setting a deadline also seemed to create an arbitrary revenue cap, leaving money on the table. I didn’t want to disuade some people from donating if the target was hit.

##The experiment
So my experiment was simple. I’d shaved my head first, to prove I was committed to the cause.

Instead of spending my time hustling up donations from people who didn’t beleive I’d do it, I put my time into a video of the event.

I put about 12 hours into editing. It would’ve taken longer than that in reaching out to people individually and raise £600. My bald head was advertising enough, in-person and in profile pictures. When people asked why, I explained and showed them the video.

My profile picture, post-shave.

The message here was:

Cancer affected me; it matters so deeply to me that I’ve already done something to help. I support this charity already. Please support them too.

which I found stronger than:

Cancer affected me; it matters so deeply to me that I’m going to do something, if you also support me. Please support me.

So, three seemingly small changes from the norm:

  1. The act is already done. You donate afterwards. This means that there’s equal motivation to donate, even after the target is hit.
  2. A nuanced difference in the message to make it more inline with the trust your donors have in you.
  3. A time investment in the video as an asset that raises donations, rather than directly asking friends.

In my case, my target would have been £100. Instead, I raised £600. I remember getting £50 from one guy I barely knew right away - we’ve become friends since.

The key to shaving my head before raising money was the video.

  • The video became a long-term asset. Around £200 of the donations were months after - just random friends and people I knew stumbling across the video. It still gets attention for the cause to this day, and probably donations, though I stopped tracking after a year.
  • It was also a better way to spend my time, because the sudden change in profile pic and video massively kicked off donations.
  • It built on the trust I already had, rather than depending on it. I’m acting, please help, not I’ll act once you commit.

##Experiment!
I don’t suggest these exact things will work for everyone, but they show small innovations can make a big difference. It’s worth experimenting with this. After all, you’re experimenting with your hairdo anyway.

Good luck! And please support MacMillan or Great Ormond Street Hospital. Cancer really, really sucks. And it’s beatable.

What am I up to these days?

I’m working on a communication tool for loose community groups and unconference-style interactions. It focuses on individual autonomy rather than top-down coordination.

I recently became a Kernel fellow, where I was exploring models for self-directing communities of care, the history of economic cultural norms, and the connection between mimicry, memes and our sense of belonging.

I did a few advisory gigs too - for Polygon, Limechain and Bankless on education and support programs.

In the past, I designed peer learning programs for Oxford, UCL, Techstars, Microsoft Ventures and The Royal Academy Of Engineering. I also played a role in creating the Lean Startup methodology, and the European startup ecosystem. You can read about this here.

Projects

  • Cuppa - decentralised collaboration protocol (WIP)
  • Nonfungo - completely on-chain NFT sale notification bot for Discord. (Look ma! No Opensea API!)
  • Powerplays - real-time token launches

Books

  • Peer Learning Is - a broad look at peer learning around the world, and how to design peer learning to outperform traditional education
  • Mentor Impact - researched the practices used by the startup mentors that really make a difference

Collected practices

  • Source Institute - skunkworks I founded with open peer learning formats and ops guides, and our internal guide on decentralised teams
  • DAOistry - practices and mindsets that work in blockchain communities
  • Decision Hacks - early-stage startup decisions distilled