Closing Down HelpAttack! : The True Story

A special guest post from friend of the Blog  and my co-founder at HelpAttack!, Ehren Foss.  From an original post written in 2012. HelpAttack! was a social benefit start-up founded in Austin, TX with the goal of linking fundraising to people’s everyday social media activity. I was one of the co-founders and served as our COO. I ran the business side of the operations with heavy influence on our operation model, strategy development and finance outcomes.

Why did HelpAttack! shut down?

We haven’t been able to figure out how to sustainably support our business and ourselves. It’s true that we earn some revenue from a percentage of the donations moving through our platform, and we have also experimented with paid webinars, consulting, custom donation app development, and other projects this year. We’ve done some amazing things with a very small amount of bootstrapped resources, but we can’t continue in this mode forever.

What now?

We are still listening. We will monitor the platform for bugs, and provide some email support to causes with questions. That said, HelpAttack! will no longer be our day to day focus. We will provide at least 30 days notice if the platform will be taken offline. Thank You to Jan Gunter, Narissa Johnson, Andrew Urban, Tyler Goodwin, Mariana Silak, Kaleen Reitcheck, Andrew Chou, Monica Williams, Kurt Bradley, Holly Ross, Amy Sample Ward, Debra Askanase, Barbara Talisman, Karsten Robbins, Dina Pradel, Chris Dumas,….

Building an online donation tool? Use FirstGivi’s API.

Need someone to save the world by building your organization? Hire Vanessa. (still true in 2014)

What’s the whole story?

The purpose of the rest of this post isn’t to tell the whole story of HelpAttack! We hope, however, to pass along the most valuable wisdom we have accrued. Sarah Vela came up with the idea that became HelpAttack! during Austin’s “Movember” fundraiser of 2009. Austin’s team had a lot of social media people on it, and Sarah’s feed became noisy with fundraising asks. Why can’t we just give each time we Tweet about other stuff?

Sarah knew David and David knew Ehren and we all got together to talk about the idea, at that point called “Change4Change.” In April of 2010 we paid some lawyers and became a Delaware C Corp. We developed an early version late that spring and early summer, and launched our “Beta” on August 23rd. The core of the idea – giving each time you send a Tweet, no matter what the Tweet is about – soon grew into a broader concept: Micro donations driven by all kinds of online activity: Facebook posts, blog posts, comments, photo and video uploads, petition signatures, and so on. Individual Supporters. At first, we focused on building an app that individuals could use to support a cause of their choice. Our goal was to become a place where people could express their good natures online, like a, Care2, or Jumo (remember that?) but focused on social media.

We created “coins” which were like Foursquare badges – rewards for making different kinds of pledges. A cursory look around the internet reveals a graveyard of companies who tried to build their own social networks and own user bases from scratch. At this point we were also seeing signs that while people want to be good and believe they are good, they usually need more of a push to actually do something good. Sharing a photo (think Instagram) doesn’t cost anything. Donating does, and the psychology of people while they are giving is very complex.


Our next major release, in early February of 2011, included a Facebook integration (for a second pledge type), and a dashboard for nonprofits to log in, access donor data, and monitor their fundraising efforts.

Shortly afterward, Best Friends Animal Society gave it a go. To date, they were the most successful nonprofits on our platform.

Restructuring happened In May of 2011, Sarah and David left the company but stayed on as valuable and active advisors. In August of that year, Vanessa Swesnik joined to kick butt at business development.

 Celebrity Ambassadors

Celebrities have large online audiences. The larger the celebrity, the more people after them to post a link or give a shoutout. On the other hand, many celebrities have strong ambassador relationships with nonprofits, and the PR / talent management industry is well versed in the concept. We learned a few things. One, IMDB Pro, LinkedIn, and a little creative Googling makes it easy to get the right phone number with about 15 minutes of work. Two, these people are professionals. Remember the Miley Cyrus campaign we blogged about? It can absolutely work.

Why we didn’t work out.

For most who try, it doesn’t, because:

  • The numbers don’t work out: Not enough people see or spread enough posts to generate enough clicks for the conversion rate to favor viral growth. You either need to start with a very large audience or sacrifice the fundraising potency of a message for viral potency. The solution to this problem is to nurture partners with larger communities and to craft a set of messaging that will spread AND get clicked on.
  • They only try once. Almost never will a single Facebook post bring in a significant amount of money (natural disasters perhaps the notable exception).
  • Social media and fundraising practices at most nonprofits are not integrated. Sometimes these teams don’t even talk.
  • Nonprofits as your target market make a difficult path to follow. Most already have dedicated resources towards fundraising or limited budgets to promote your idea. They don’t have time or budget to promote your particular platform over one that already works for them (direct mail, etc).

Perhaps we would have been successful if we executed our plans better, or perhaps we would have been successful with different plans, or the same plans in a different order. Who knows!

A few people said we were more of a feature than a business, and that may have been true. What do you think?

Good luck to all those working to crack this very tough nut!

– Ehren Foss, 11/21/12 @EhrenFoss




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