South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive is a conference, that takes place each Spring in Austin, TX, with over 20,000 web influencers, emerging tech, and creatives. Last month, the Japan earthquake and tsunami occurred on March 11th 2011, the first day of the conference. SXSWcares, co-branded as SXSW4Japan, was a campaign that rallied the SXSW community to raise awareness and harness support for disaster relief. In the end, it raised over $120,000 from 1500+ donors.

I caught up with Rob Wu, co-founder of CauseVox, the platform used to support this fundraising effort, to learn more about the process and campaign.

How did you co-created the campaign?

That morning, I saw the jaw-dropping photos and videos from the Japan tsunami disaster. The news agencies were reporting that hundreds of people have died and tens-of-thousands were missing.

Within 30 minutes, I registered a domain name, launched a fundraising site on CauseVox, and seeded it with key influencers on Twitter to help build momentum. Meanwhile, bloggers Leigh Duncan and Deb Ng were starting a grassroots effort to raise awareness and support for the Japan disaster too.

A few hours later, we quickly found each other through Jessica Lin and unified our efforts as SXSWcares. The original goal was to raise $10,000 within 5-days. SXSWcares began truly as a grassroots campaign with a handful of SXSW attendees.

What were successful techniques or elements of SXSWcares?

There were a lot of factors that made SXSWcares successful. Many of them were really driven by the community. Here are some of the biggest ones:

  • Community Branded – We used a co-branded (with the Red Cross) site to maintain credibility with our 1500+ donors. The site was hosted on, which used a URL and design that supported a strong sense of community around the campaign. We also used branded Twitter accounts (@sxswcares and @sxsw4japan) to promote the campaign.
  • Personal Fundraising – In order to extend our reach and to leverage personal networks, we encouraged people to create fundraising pages. Businesses gave away products for donations, attendees held competitive fundraisers, and hundreds of others used other creative means to make fundraising personal.
  • Influencers – We grabbed session leaders, keynote speakers, bloggers, and social media influencers to extend our message across to their audiences.
  • Media – The campaign featured compelling video footage of the disaster and testimonies from Japanese attendees. We also leverage media opportunities to drive traffic to the campaign site.
  • Partnerships – We partnered with as many groups and sponsors as we could. This included SXSW organizers, the Red Cross, Hurricane Party, the Hanson Brothers, and many more to promote the campaign. Hanson led a 12-hour telethon that featured over 40+ artists.

What you will change the next time?

Hindsight is always 20-20. There are two things we’d do a bit differently.

First, we would tell a more compelling personal story. We should have created more videos of personal testimonies of Japanese SXSW attendees to add more of a human aspect to the campaign.

Second, we would focus on taking the campaign to off-line events as much as possible to facilitate meaningful connections between the online and offline world. We would tie fundraising to real-world events, people, discussions, meetings to foster stronger bonds in the community.

What factors contributed to the success?

At inception, seeding the half-baked campaign with key influencers helped determine if the campaign had traction. Hustling around the conference to get session speakers, key note presenters, and others with audiences helped us reach a social media critical mass near the beginning. Personal fundraising helped carry the campaign after the initial interest in disaster giving started to wean. Lastly, partnering with groups such as Hanson helped us carry forward the campaign to broader communities — audiences that we would not have been able to reach on our own.


Were you at SXSW this year? Did you participate in SXSWCares from Austin or around the world? What did you learn, what would you have changed, how did you find the campaign?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the fundraising effort, whether you participated or not – questions, feedback, and ideas. I’ll be sure that Rob sees your comments as well!

Interview: SXSW4Japan Raises over $120,000 #sxswcares
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