Donating IS a campaigning action

The success of a campaign by the British Humanist Association demonstrates that donating can be a highly successful campaigning action: a way for people to make a political statement by funding a campaign action.

Most organisation's I've worked with, fundraising and campaigning were separate with only minimal interaction to coordinate communicating timing or promote to each other's networks. But it doesn't have to be that way. In fact, it is a lose-lose scenario for all fundraisers, campaigners, supporters and beneficiaries when it isn't integrated. This means most organisations are operating in a lose-lose scenario all the time.

The Atheist Bus Campaign (with which I have no involvement) has been adopted by the The British Humanist Association. The campaign demonstrates how donating can be a bold and popular political statement. Theirhad a target of £5,500 in donations and achieved this by 10:06 on the day of launch. By 14:30 they had £18,000 (and further updates below). Donors comments makes very clear this is a political act by people who support the idea.

This is by no means the first campaign to use donating as a campaigning action, but is one of the first in the UK. Internationally, (US), (Australia) and (global) have all done it. But these are new organisations. It is existing organisations that haven't tended to integrate donating and campaigning.

My guess is most donors have never been active supporters of the Britsh Humanist Association but simply heard about it through the growing news coverage starting with the Guardian and then the BBC (among others I'm sure).

All they are asking is for funds to buy ads on the outside of London buses that say "There's probably no god, so stop worrying and enjoy your life". Support seems to be coming from across the UK, not just London, and many people are donating and asking for the campaign to be expanded across the UK.

Since the Atheist Bus campaign reached its fundraising goal by 10:06 am on the day of launch, it has broadened the goals to include advertisements on the inside of buses too. Let's see if they heed supporters' calls to expand the campaign across the UK too.

Given the rate this is growing, I'd be surprised if the site on which it is running didn't crash :-) (the BHA's site is very slow and I assume this is due to traffic attracted from this initiative).

Note that the action is actually very simple:

  • No fancy technology (the JustGiving service is used)
  • No fancy creative
  • No massive promotion
  • Just an idea that appeals to a lot of people who feel they are not being heard.

Of course, they could be doing even better if the tools they used implemented best practices and it is at times like this you want all the best practices to be in place to get the most of the moment.

Chain of Events

  1. Started with an article on the Guardian Comment Is Free site by comedy writer Ariane Sherine in June 08
  2. Was then made into a pledge on PledgeBank by Political Blogger Jon Worth as part of a strategy with Ariane
  3. Ariane and Jon got the British Humanist Association to adopt it and well known atheist and scientist Richard Dawkins endorsed it and provided and matching-funds.
  4. Atheist Bus article link ot BBC most emails listing for 21 Oct 2008
    BBC's 'Atheist Bus' article was the most emailed article on the BBC News website on 21 Oct 2008
    On 21 October, a new post by Ariane on Guardian's Comment is Free helped to launch the action and presumably to help launch the Atheist Campaign site.
  5. Articles in The Times and The Telegraph helped considerably as I suspect did the article on the BBC News website as it was the most popular emailed story of the day (and the 4th most popular read story and it briefly peaked at the #1 read story between 14:00 and 15:00)
  6. Bloggers also helped
  7. BBC Five Live interviewed Ariane Sherine (Atheist Bus Campaign co-founder) and received listener comments
  8. The Atheist Campaign also has a Facebook group with lively discussion
  9. A donation widget from JustGiving is featured on the site - but I suspect this didn't result in much traffic on the launch day as it needs wide distribution to do so.
  10. More coverage on BBC Five Live on the Richard Bacon show at 23:00.

Thanks to:

  • Heather for pointing out the PledgeBank initiative which helped unravel the chain of events
  • Jon for further insight and an insider perspective
  • Tim for pointing me to the BBC Five Live interview

The Lessons?

  1. Starting trying to integrate donations as a campaigning action
  2. Link donations the success of the campaigning action: it is up to supporters to make it happen
  3. Be prepared for success (I don't know if the British Humanist Society is) and for supporters to have a more ambitious vision that the organisation
  4. Tell your fundraisers: campaigning can be income generating


Average donation value: £15

Largest donation: £3,000

Smallest donation: £2

Donor country: most seem to be in the UK, but others from around the world are contributing. In fact on 23 Oct, two donations over £1,000 were received between 01:00 and 05:00 in the morning, suggesting contributions from outside the UK.

Atheist Bus Donation Growth
How the Atheist Bus donations have grown since launch on 21 Oct 2008.
Atheist Bus Donations per Hour
New donations per hour to the Atheist Bus Campaign since launch.

The JustGiving blog details how it unfolded in the first 18 hours after launch.

You can do a lot with public data :-)

by Duane Raymond published Oct 21, 2008,
Tim Morley
Tim Morley

£46,000 at 23:40
£47,000 at 00:09 [Wednesday 22 October 2008]
£48,000 at 00:59
£49,000... some time later. I need to sleep too. :o)

  • Oct 22, 2008 03:15 am
Heather C
Heather C

One more lesson we can take from this campaign is that it actually started a few months ago on PledgeBank ( There were loads of signers and loads of comments, but the pledge creator set the money and the number of signers targets far higher than necessary.

So the other lesson to learn here is to experiment a bit to see what works and what doesn't before going all the way with a campaign. Don't be afraid to try a few tools and a few approaches, find something that works, then divert all resources to the thing that works!

  • Oct 21, 2008 10:31 am

Fantastic Heather. Very good point. And it demonstrates that often a 'success' is not a random or inspired act but the result of a series of experiments and background work that pay off.

  • Oct 21, 2008 10:42 am

..and on reading the PledgeBank initiative, I can see while it didn't achieve its goal using that tool, there are some great ideas that could have been integrated into this latest initiative, including:
- Have a selection of ads for people to vote on
- Bloggers are helping to feed the success of this
- The British Humanist Society didn't initiate this, they adopted it (will handle administration). The National Secular Society was also referenced but they didn't adopt it and thus lost out
- The absence of a link with a charitable organisation of the PledgeBank initiative also seems to have concerned some people

Furthermore, concerns about the perceived high cost by some seem to have had no effect on the JustGiving donations level: people want to make a statement and the actual cost/value is just a detail.

  • Oct 21, 2008 10:54 am
Jon Worth
Jon Worth

Thanks for writing about the atheist bus campaign! I've been involved in all of this from the start on the tech side, and there are some useful things to learn.

(1) This all started from an idea in an article - it was not conceived as a campaign as such. Hence why the tech has been developing as we've been going along. Neither Ariane (the journalist who wrote the original article) or I would have done it all this way if we had even had the time to develop a strategy at the start (we didn't even know each other in June).

(2) This bridges the mainstream media and online media. Without coverage in The Times, The Guardian and The Telegraph this would be nowhere.

(3) Having an organisation backing you makes this so much easier... The Humanists have been excellent - helping us with admin, but giving us the flexibility to develop the campaign as we wished.

(4) Having Richard Dawkins backing it helped drive things further...

I'm happy to answer any questions about this, either here, or <a href="">send me an e-mail from my own site</a>.

  • Oct 21, 2008 11:30 am

What makes these types of donations campaigns successful is that there is a specific ask. Ads on buses. I think any organization could be successful in raising money to place an ad, but how do you raise funds for the operational costs to get an ad placed? Someone has to design it, send it to the printer, call the bus company etc.

Did this campaign use any of the money raised for operational costs instead toward placing an ad? Are the operational costs built into the cost of the ad?

  • Oct 27, 2008 09:37 am

Hi Denise.

I'm an 'outsider' like you in terms of this initiative - but I have spoken with Jon since it was launched.

You are absolutely right that being specific helps - as it does for all action types. And you are also right that any organisation could be successful in raising money to place an ad (or fund other activity). The key thing is most organisations DON'T even try and are thus missing a powerful tactic.

What I understand is that BHA has agreed to administer the funds. The design and other operational costs for this seem to be mostly borne by the two volunteer initiators (Ariane and Jon) and by others who have volunteered to help. BHA has required staff time primarily in terms of press officers to respond to the immense response to this and likely Managing Director/Board time to react to the success of this largely independent initiative.

I doubt if this campaign used / will use some of the money raised for operational costs as it doesn't seem to be built into the cost of the ad. Doing so might be useful, but you could argue that since most organisations absorb the cost of organising a campaign action anyway, doing so here wouldn't be much different.

My instinct is that operation costs shouldn't be included and that BHA in this case will get not only a significant publicity boost that is worth the minimal effort, but will be able to convert some of these action supporters into regular donors and thus cover the operational costs in the aftermath of this action.

  • Oct 27, 2008 09:54 am

Thanks Jon, always nice to get the insider perspective.

I've updated the post to include a chain-of-events as I've been able to figure out from online information and your post. I'm sure I'll update it further as things evolve as I'm sure they will :-) (including possible counter-reactions from religious groups / personalities)

FYI: I also emailed the eCampaigning Forum list ( of 300+ e-campaigning practitioners from around the world (many in the UK).

  • Oct 21, 2008 11:55 am
Jon Worth
Jon Worth

I've been rather swept along by all of this today, and I'm sure as things settle down some more profound lessons will be drawn from what we've managed to achieve in such a short time. There will also be a lot of hard work ahead to keep the people that have donated involved in campaigns in this area.

I do think the Humanists were prepared for a decent reaction today, but not for something quite this large! It's not often that you have a journalist (Ariane) and a blogger / web designer (me) turning up and finding a way to raise you £40K in less than 24 hours!

  • Oct 23, 2008 06:31 pm
Tim Morley
Tim Morley

Ariane was on BBC Radio 5 Live this lunchtime. You can hear her on the BBC iPlayer for the next few days:
The interview starts at 17m25s, and there are some listeners' reactions at 41m00s and at 53m20s.

  • Oct 21, 2008 04:33 pm

Thanks Tim. I've captured the relevent portions and will see if I can legally share it.

I wonder whst the UK equivalent of the US 'Fair Use' clause?

  • Oct 21, 2008 05:10 pm

It seems I can post it if 10% or less of the original programme. so it is linked under 'Chain of Events' point 7.

We'll what tomorrow brings.

  • Oct 21, 2008 06:30 pm