Over recent months, several remarkable examples of viral fundraising campaigns have captured the imagination of the masses and created extraordinary results.

When a piece of online content “goes viral,” it is shared via word of mouth and social media, gaining views exponentially. Recently, a number of charity campaigns have clearly demonstrated the immense power of engaging impassioned people who can instantly share stories, and these campaigns have gripped the attention of many in the nonprofit community.

From vacation to foundation

Back in June, Karen Klein, a 68-year-old school bus monitor from upper New York State, was bullied to the point of tears by the seventh-grade children she oversaw. The incident was captured on video and posted to YouTube. A Canadian named Max Sidorov saw it and was so upset by it that he started a fundraising effort on Indiegogo.com, with the goal of raising $5,000 for Klein to take a vacation. The video and fundraiser went viral to the tune of $702,454. With this success, Klein started the Karen Klein Anti-Bullying Foundation; and to kick-off her awareness campaign, she is embarking on a “No Bully Tour” from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, this month.

How did Klein’s story catch fire and spread so quickly? The social media analytics around the story provide some interesting information. During the first nine days, her story lit-up Twitter with over 21,000 mentions. The “tweets” peaked during the first two days, then blogs, forums, and traditional media picked up the story, and shared it some 8,400 more times. Seven days later, Sidorov’s “holiday fund” was approaching a million dollars.

Good Samaritans

Claire Squires was a robust, healthy, 30 year old who entered the London Marathon, in part to raise money for a charity close to her family's heart: The Samaritans, an organization that provides support 24 hours a day to those experiencing feelings of emotional distress or despair. Tragically, she herself collapsed and died in the final mile of the marathon.

Shortly thereafter, a wave of unanticipated donations flooded her cause. She had raised nearly 500 pounds previous to the marathon in April via her justgiving.com page. In the time since her death, that total has ballooned to more than 940,000 pounds.

What makes a campaign viral?

Why do some stories go viral while others remain pinned under the radar? And are there ways that nonprofits can position themselves to take advantage of this new behavioral dynamic?

A recent article on TheFundraisingAuthority.com outlined four key steps to giving an online fundraising effort the best opportunity to go viral:

Make small asks. Five and ten dollar pleas are the ones that get the attention and spread among communities.

Enroll influencers. Engaging and motivating an active social media personality (a “sneezer” who can spread the “virus,” or viral content) with a large network can create a significant spark.

Make your messaging clear. A single, succinct, and simple message focused on the benefit that the fundraising efforts will have allows people to see what their money will do.

Aim for frictionless giving. A dedicated web page or mobile app that has a clear call-to-action and allows donors to give directly to the cause makes it easier for a donation to occur.

The examples above show that if a shocking, unexpected, and emotive situation is exposed to the public consciousness, and if there are efficient ways for people demonstrate their support, mass media sharing can raise large sums of money in a very short time.

I believe witnessing “the unexpected” is ultimately what captures imaginations and compels people to support and share a cause with others. Who expects an elderly lady to be berated and verbally abused so vehemently by a group of youngsters? And who expects a vivacious young woman to die during an activity she had previously completed successfully?

Seemingly, it is the x-factor that takes a campaign viral, and while trying to manufacture or manipulate this will likely never work, if nonprofits highlight the unexpected in their own fundraising campaigns and adopt the simple principles outlined above, they may just get a surprising result.