November 25, 2009
Sarah Bunting, Tomato Nation fundraising powerhouse
I want to tell you the story of Sarah Bunting, an inspiring woman I came across during my adventures in reporting. It’s a story about giving back, so it seems like an appropriate Thanksgiving post. Sarah is the socially conscious (yet funny) blogger who somehow managed to convince her followers to give a lot of money to donorschoose.org, a smart organization that allows public school teachers to post their classroom needs on its website. Potential donors can select the worthy project of their choice and donate to that. This year, Sarah inspired 1,128 of her followers to donate $354, 215, which directly helped close to 70,000 students.
Sarah’s the Brooklyn-based co-founder of the site Television Without Pity. When Bravo bought the site in 2007, she retained a good number of readers on a blog she launched, http://www.tomatonation.com/ , a kind of “humor, pop culture, catch-all blog,” as she describes it.
The blog and her 10,000 to 15,000 followers came in handy when Sarah learned about Donors Choose five years ago. “At the time, my brother’s girlfriend (now wife), was a public school teacher in a low-income neighborhood on Staten Island,” Sarah says. “She told me her school had run out of paper by October first, and she was giving pop quizzes on paper towels.”
Feeling frustrated with a political climate and administration she didn’t think valued education enough, Bunting was drawn to the educational focus of donorschoose.org and issued a call to her followers. “I said, ‘Why don’t we buy these kids a bunch of copies of George Orwell’s 1984? Wouldn’t that be funny? Or how about The Diary of Anne Frank ?’” Although Bunting was joking about the titles she wanted to buy in protest of the Bush Administration, she did make a contest out of the pledge drive in November and December of 2004. To her surprise, her readers donated a total of $23,000.
Curious, a rep from Donors Choose called her, wanting to know where this large donation came from. Bunting explained that although she contributes to a number of causes, most were not transparent about operating costs, and donors couldn’t see how their money was making a difference. She liked that at Donors Choose, teachers can post pictures of their completed projects and donors routinely get thank-you notes from the classes they help.
In the spring of 2006, Bunting told her readers that if they raised $30,000 she would shave her head. Twenty-two days later, her readers had raised the money, and the next day, Bunting shaved her head and posted the video on YouTube
Giving back, explains Bunting, was just part of how she and her brother Dave were brought up: her parents were active in non-profits and they used their children as free envelope stuffing labor.
Donor’s choice, in awe of Bunting’s ability to leverage her social media networking skills to bring in donations, asked her to be a consultant as they launched what they called their Social Media Challenge. Bunting advised Donors Choose on everything from dropping the minimum donation from $20 to no minimum (a lot of small donations can be just as powerful as a few large contributions) to more technical programming issues.
Two years ago, Bunting rented a tomato outfit and did a dance at Rockefeller Center. Last year, Bunting took the plunge and bought her own tomato suit and made good on her pledge by traveling in it to the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
In the five years she has been clowning for a good cause, Bunting has raised a total of close to half a million dollars for Donors Choose.
Every year Bunting creates a launch video for the drive. This year’s is called Bunting’s 11a spoof on “Ocean’s 11.” For meeting this year’s Donors Choose fundraising goal Sarah has promised she’ll go to Atlantic City and play blackjack in her tomato suit. When’s it gonna happen, Sarah? We’ll post the video here when it does.