How McGill University Raised Over $300k Through Crowdfunding

What do a football award, a fleet of boats, and an internship in Kenya have in common?

They can all be funded by Seeds of Change, McGill University’s crowdfunding platform. In May 2014, McGill took the leap into the emerging world of online, peer-to-peer fundraising with the launch of this platform. Raising over $300,000 in its first year, 68% from new donors, Seeds of Change exemplifies the immense reach and power of crowdfunding.

The Inspiration

It was a freezing winter day, but that didn’t stop a group of determined McGill students from congregating outside for a game of Twister. Why? They were trying to raise money for a trip to Guatemala—and the McGill Annual Giving team took note. The team saw passion, drive, and ingenuity in these students, who seemed to be motivated by pressing causes and issues rather than organizational loyalty.

Thus, Seeds of Change was born. The Annual Giving team strove to create an outlet for students to share what matters to them and for students, alumni, parents, friends, faculty, and staff to learn about and support these projects.

How It Works

With the guidance of the Annual Giving team, students and others affiliated with McGill can transform an idea into a fundraising campaign. A project application is approved if it meets the following criteria:

  1. Is officially recognized by a faculty or department
  2. Directly supports McGill’s primary purpose and activities
  3. Is student-run OR student-focused


Project ambassadors then work closely with the Annual Giving team to actively promote and fundraise on campus and online. Although typically students, project ambassadors can be alumni, parents, and friends who are invested in fundraising and promoting the project.

So what about awards, boats, and Kenya?

The Successes

In 2005, Michael Soles, star running back and 1989 McGill graduate, was diagnosed with ALS. A group of Mike’s former football teammates and friends sought to create an award in his honor. They created a project through Seeds of Change, and with the generosity of alumni and other members of McGill’s campus, raised almost $215,000—far surpassing their original $80,000 goal, while also recognizing a well-loved and talented classmate. 

The loyalty and dedication of the McGill athlete community reaches far beyond the football field. The self-funded McGill sailing team blew their $4,000 goal out of the water within 72 hours of launching their campaign to fund the purchase of their own fleet. With the entire team’s commitment, passion, and effort, they raised $17,000 and can now set sail to achieve their goal of being #1 in Canada… okay, no more puns, I promise.

Projects supported by Seeds of Change also reach far beyond the borders of McGill’s campus. Elimu Online Tutoring Program raised $4,500 to send a student to Kenya to set up and run the program, subsequently allowing McGill students in Montreal to tutor Kenyan students via Skype. This program has not only provided education to students who lack resources, but has also given both McGill and Kenyan students exposure to different ideas and cultures.


These are just three examples of the many successful Seeds of Change campaigns, each of which started with a desire to further the mission and objectives of the university. But coming up with an idea—and turning that idea into a project on the platform—is only the first step. Once a project is approved by the Annual Giving team, the key to success lies in promoting the project. How do Seeds of Change project ambassadors share their campaigns and reach interested donors?



The Fun, Funky Fundraising Fashions

I don’t know about you, but I love some good alliteration, and I love watching my friends embarrass themselves. It seems like McGill students agree—at least about the friends. One of the most successful fundraising strategies among Seeds of Change projects has been to hold fun events that celebrate campaign milestones.

Project ambassadors have won (and entertained) donors through their creative events, including “pie-ing” ambassadors in the face, dyeing their hair unconventional colors, and running up the mountain in high heels. (That last one is not so nice for the shins, but great for fundraising!)

Hilary Morden, Annual Giving Associate for Student Programs at McGill, explained:

“We opted not to have donor incentives for gift amounts, and instead wanted the ‘reward’ events to be more about celebrating the team’s journey.”

Morden went on to emphasize the benefits of fostering team unity:

“Crowdfunding also stimulates the culture of giving on campus, so philanthropic activity becomes an integrated part to [students’] University experience.”


Although Seeds of Change is an online platform and most donations occur online, project ambassadors leverage all resources and channels for fundraising. To raise awareness and make donating convenient and simple, ambassadors can pass around a “Change for Change” bucket in classrooms to collect small donations.

Other fundraising strategies are a bit more unique. Morden shared:

“One team even sold long pieces of duct tape so that donors could tape a project ambassador to a wall!”

These fundraising strategies seem tailored to members of McGill’s campus, particularly students. However, while students make up only 23% of donations to Seeds of Change projects, alumni constitute almost half of the donations. Since most are not on campus to enjoy the celebratory events or to help tape students to walls, ambassadors connect with friends, alumni, and the greater community online, especially by posting stories, videos of fundraising events, and general information on social media.

Morden highlighted the importance of storytelling as a means of engaging the broader McGill community:

“We [the Annual Giving team] work hard with the students to find the personal story that motivates these students to fundraise, because it is often these touching stories that can reach out and form a connection with potential donors.”

The Lasting Impact

So 68% of these donors are giving to McGill for the first time, but which donors are inclined to support McGill again? When a donor makes a gift to a Seeds of Change project, they are given the option of adding $5 to support a larger discretionary fund at the university. According to Morden:

“This allows us to identify donors who are potentially interested in giving not just to cause-based campaigns, but to a flexible fund as well.”

A common concern with crowdfunding programs is that donors will, in fact, engage only once, categorizing crowdfunding as more of a fad than a long-lasting philanthropic innovation. But Morden believes that crowdfunding gives organizations a valuable opportunity to build new donor relationships.

“Stewardship, impact reporting, constant contact with donors about how the money was spent… all these elements allow us to create online philanthropic communities and keep the engagement moving forward.”

It began with an observation about the current generation’s socially conscious mindset and desire to make an impact, and developed into an effective way of funding student initiatives, inspiring a habit of giving in students and alumni, and creating a culture of philanthropy on campus. Peer-to-peer fundraising and online communication cannot be ignored. In just one year, McGill proved how crowdfunding can not only bring to life important ideas and initiatives, but also add a valuable platform to an advancement team’s toolkit.

Wondering why you need to get on board with peer-to-peer fundraising? Check out this blog post.

Then, get inspired by our whitepaper, “Social Donor Management in Action: Brown University and the Power of Facebook”.

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