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How Marijuana Nearly Derailed University Fundraising Campaign

Fundraising Campaign

Who knew that a university’s fundraising campaign, designed to solicit funds from 420 donors over a 42-hour period in recognition of the university’s founding in 1942, could result in a blistering attack denouncing the campaign’s references to marijuana? Bizarre as it may seem, the following is a true story of one social media campaign that hit an unexpected bump in the road. At the request of the fundraiser’s organizers, all identifying names have been scrubbed from this article. 

A week ago, I heard about a university’s fundraising campaign which used social media — Facebook, Twitter,  the alumni group’s discussion board on LinkedIn, as well as personalized emails — to announce their “42-Hour Fundraising Challenge.”

The fundraisers urged immediate action by explaining that through a generous gift from a university trustee, any donation received over the next 42 hours would be bumped up by $50; a gift of $25 automatically would become $75, a $50 gift would become $100, and so on.

Their appeal asked for not just for money, but also help in spreading the word about the fundraising drive by forwarding the email and sharing the story on social media outlets.

Overall, it seemed they had done everything right. The things this campaign had going for it were the:

  • personalized, professionally-written email
  • trustee’s generosity and, through it, the ability to transform a small donation into a larger one
  • clever “1942/420-donor/42-hour” theme
  • short timeframe to add a sense of urgency and spur action
  • use of social media to spread the word quickly and without cost.

What happened next was where this story gets interesting.

Someone in the LinkedIn group posted the following scathing note:

“Seriously? Is this meant to be a joke? Given that there seems to be no explanation given for selecting 420 as a target over 42 hours AND given that the image used on the web page to indicate progress toward that goal is a thermometer with a top temp. of 420 degrees F, it hardly seems unreasonable to guess that there is a effort to associate this campaign with a pop-culture reference to marijuana. Mr. XXX’s generosity aside, this concept neither enhances the public image of the University nor inspires confidence that those who thought it might should be entrusted with funds donated or University XXX’s brand image.”

Bad grammar aside, my first inclination was that this grad was not only off base, but also off her rocker. However, googling “meaning of 420 marijuana” turned up some surprising information.

Hey Dude – Want to go 420?

My google search resulted in a slew of articles, including Huffington Post’s “4/20: How ‘Weed Day’ Got Its Name,” which explains the meaning of 420, as well as the origins of how it came to be a slang expression for pot and April 20th became a counter-culture national holiday.

According to the article’s author, Ryan Grim, “Depending on whom you ask or their state of inebriation, there are as many varieties of answers [for how the term 420 came about] as strains of medical bud in California. It’s the number of active chemicals in marijuana. It’s teatime in Holland. It has something to do with Hitler’s birthday. It’s those numbers in that Bob Dylan song multiplied.”

Grim’s article goes on to explain the actual origins… and at over 2,500 words, it’s just too long and just too funny to attempt to paraphrase here. (Regardless of your views on the drug, I think you’ll appreciate the writing prowess of Huffington Post’s Washington bureau chief.)

Back to the Fundraising Campaign… Lessons Learned

Aside from learning the meaning of and history behind the term “420,” this story reminds me of the possible pitfalls of publishing social media (or any marketing materials for that matter) without checking to see if the message could be misunderstood or misconstrued because of slang expressions or regional colloquialisms.

It also prompts me to recall that timeless advertising story involving the naming of the Chevy Nova automobile, which failed miserably in Spanish-speaking markets where “Nova” meant “no go.”

However, in this case, there were no brand names to run through any kind of word check; and in a million years, it would not have occurred to me to look up alternate meanings of 42, 1942, or 420, prior to running the campaign.

Was This Campaign Terrific or Tainted?

So, could and should this campaign have done anything different to avoid potential issues? If so, what?

I’m not sure I have the definitive answer, and hope that some of my readers will chime in with their viewpoints.

My opinion is that the grad’s complaint was baseless:

  • No image of the drug was shown, and not one word of text ever mentioned pot, weed, cannabis, or any other term for marijuana, other than the somewhat obscure “420” reference.
  • The campaign clearly explained why they chose the 1942/420/42 theme.
  • The LinkedIn story ran under the headline, “42-Hour Challenge” (not “420 Donor Challenge”).

So, to harp on the use of “420” — 1 number out of a string of 3 — makes no sense. The complaint is just as illogical as if they’d taken issue with the use of “1942” because it was a period marked by a world war.

In fact, if you want to pick on just one number, how about the number “42”? That number, according to the iconic sci-fi, pop-culture best seller, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” (which I admit I’ve never read), is the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.” And isn’t that apropos of what we learn in a university? Philosophy, science, art, math, languages, business, history… and how everything intersects and intertwines… and more basic than that, critical thinking to answer our own questions of life?

This begs the question:

Had I been in charge of the university’s fundraiser and known that 420 is slang for marijuana, would I still have proceeded with this campaign theme?

Yes, for all of the reasons listed above. To think that this campaign was overtly or even unintentionally linking the university with illegal drugs is, in my opinion, ridiculous. Furthermore, I believe the campaign’s organizers should be proud of their achievement, rather than hesitant to allow me to write about it.

And, to take it a step further, once the complaint was posted, the organizers continued to do all the right things. They monitored responses so they could respond promptly. They allowed the complaint to remain posted, and politely reiterated material from their original appeal — that the campaign’s theme had been based on the university’s founding year.

Perhaps the only very slight mis-step in the entire campaign, my opinion, is that they might have shown a thermometer pegged at 42-degrees Celsius rather than 420-degrees Fahrenheit. Having said that, I’d never have been aware of the  420-marijuana link in the first place, and doubt the fundraiser’s organizers were aware, either.

BTW, I’m happy to report that thanks to the generosity of hundreds of alums, the public, and one very-generous trustee, over $75,000 was raised in less than two days.

What’s Your Opinion?

Do you think this was a social media blunder, and had you been aware of the 420 weed connection, would you have run this campaign? What do you think of the alum’s comments and/or the organizer’s wish to remain anonymous in relation to this article? What would you recommend to avoid making digital marketing mis-steps? Do you have a social media story you’d like to share?

I would love to hear your take on any of these topics.

Related Resources

Author: Suzy Kedzierski is a marketing communications professional and freelance consultant, not affiliated with any of the people, agencies, websites or books mentioned in this article. 



5 comments on “How Marijuana Nearly Derailed University Fundraising Campaign

  1. One of my favorite quotes about planning is from General Dwight Eisenhower: ““In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” When you’re planning a battle, everything is largely theoretical because you don’t really know how your enemy (or for that matter, your own troops) will respond IRL. And this example goes to show that it doesn’t matter how professional and competent you are at setting things up, someone can create an ‘interesting’ diversion, to which you’ll have to react. I’m with Steve: it would have been a total fluke to have anticipated this response. (And I say that despite my surname.)

    BTW, you may be interested in knowing about our book Social Works: How #HigherEd Uses #SocialMedia to Raise Money, Build Awareness, Recruit Students and Get Results. You can find out more about it here:

    • Suzy Kedzierski
      June 4, 2013

      Hi Michael – thanks so much for the commenting. Quite an interesting diversion, indeed! Too bad the fundraiser’s organizers didn’t want their own names or that of the university to be mentioned — as they have much to be proud of and, as we all agree, no way to have anticipated this quirky response. Thanks for reading. I’ll check out your book shortly.

  2. Martin
    June 1, 2013

    Reblogged this on 4:20 Smokers Blog.

  3. An interesting tale. I agree – hard to believe that this would have been uncovered with any typical Pre-launch research. It’s just an unfortunate coincidence. It goes to show how important it is to have a crisis plan ready in case this happens to you.

    • Suzy Kedzierski
      May 29, 2013

      Good point, Steve! How to create a crisis communications plan would also make a great topic for a future article in either one of our blogs. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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