Team Trees – dig­i­tal fundrais­ing suc­cess in aid of the Arbor Day Foundation

Lyn­da Har­wood-Comp­ton cel­e­brates a viral cam­paign that has been mak­ing a big impact since 2019. Keep read­ing to learn how two men took on a chal­lenge to plant 20 mil­lion trees. They quick­ly engaged Gen Z donors and achieved fundrais­ing suc­cess for their cho­sen char­i­ty, the Arbor Day Foundation.

Written by
Lynda Harwood-Compton
March 27, 2024

Is it possible to raise US$20 million in just 56 days with the help of 800,000 supporters from 200 countries? 

Yes, yes, it is possible! Especially if you engage younger donors.

In November 2023, I was invited to speak at SOFII’s I Wish I’d Thought of That (IWITOT) event. Like many fundraisers might, I found it hard to choose one idea to celebrate in front of an audience of my peers.

But I’m passionate (some might say obsessed!) about engaging the next generation in fundraising and that’s why I decided to showcase a fantastic campaign – Team Trees and their partnership with Nebraska, USA based charity, the Arbor Day Foundation.

So, what is Team Trees (#teamtrees)?

If you haven’t heard of it, #teamtrees is a global collaborative fundraiser that was set up in October 2019. The faces of the campaign were two YouTubers, James Donaldson (aka Mr. Beast) and Mark Rober. According to the #teamtrees frequently asked questions (FAQs), ‘the internet challenged Mr. Beast to raise US$20 million to plant 20 million trees’. But it was also a way for Mr. Beast to celebrate his own milestone of reaching 20 million followers on YouTube.

Seems like a good idea and a nice way to support a charity, right?

However, before I go on, I should add a quick caveat. There’s been a lot of talk about Mr. Beast among fundraisers. But for today, whatever you think about Mr. Beast and his philanthropy – let’s put that to the side for a minute.

Today, I want to talk about what #teamtrees did for the Arbor Day Foundation.

The campaign itself started out quite simple. For every dollar raised, one tree would be planted. Mr. Beast and Mark Rober seemed okay with raising the funds and setting up Team Trees – but they needed someone to do the planting. Team Trees reached out to the Arbor Day Foundation because:

‘We quickly realised that to plant trees in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way, we would need to partner with the professionals. After speaking with multiple experts in the environmental space, the Arbor Day Foundation stood out as being the best choice.’

The Arbor Day Foundation agreed that for every dollar #teamtrees raised for them, their charity would plant a tree around the world. The locations for the trees would be in a range of US states and far-flung places like Nicaragua, Mali, Turkey and India.

Sure, it was a simple idea, but it certainly took off – with videos and memes related to the campaign popping up all over YouTube, on various social media sites and beyond.

Despite their lofty US$20 million goal, #teamtrees raised that amount for the Arbor Day Foundation in just 56 days, meaning they had to get to work planting 20 million trees! 

At the time of writing, the total funds raised has reached a whopping US$24,680,972. That cash translates into almost 25 million trees planted – as per the original idea by Mr. Beast.

But that’s not all. Those donations and the trees they planted have also ensured that 1.6 million tons of carbon and 116,000 pollutants have been removed from the earth’s atmosphere too.

Like I said above, I’m interested in any campaign that engages next generation (next-gen) donors. Specifically, I’m talking about Gen Z donors or anyone that was born from 1997-2012.

This campaign engages Gen Z beautifully.

I admire #teamtrees because it is a campaign that knows its strengths and knows how to work them. It understands the Gen Z audience and what they want. Crucially, it knows what Gen Z donors want to be when they are charity supporters.

In many ways, #teamtrees were already onto a winner with their choice of a tree-planting campaign. That’s because we know that Gen Z donors love to support organisations working in the areas of social issues, global health, education and climate change.

But how many of those Gen Z donors would have known anything about The Arbor Day Foundation, if it wasn’t for #teamtrees? Essentially, #teamtrees opened up their chosen charity to a whole new audience – and a whole new generation of supporters.

Here are five reasons why I believe this campaign worked so well.

1. Gen Z are digital natives, they are pretty much born with a smartphone in their hand. They live digitally and this campaign was ALL digital. But not only that, a lot of heroes for Gen Z are the YouTubers and the influencers. #teamtrees brought in hundreds of YouTubers to promote the campaign.

You can see above that they created a leaderboard to highlight the most recent donors who donated/planted trees and those who donated/planted the most trees in total.

I’m not going to beat around the bush. A lot of those top names are people that not everyone likes or agrees with, but some of them are heroes or influencers for a lot of Gen Z donors – which makes them important to this campaign.

2. #teamtrees is a global platform and Gen Z love the fact that, at the click of a button, they can connect with anyone across the world. That’s what they are used to.

Therefore, the global impact of this campaign appeals to them too. They love to see that, thanks to their generosity, trees are being planted on every continent around the world (apart from Antarctica).

3. Next, we’ve got authenticity. Gone are Kim Kardashian and her family, and in enters Mr. Beast. Gen Z don’t want are not Instagram and image filters. That’s not what they are about. Gen Z want to connect with real people.

Now Mr. Beast might have as much money as the Kardashians, but he looks like a normal, run of the mill guy – someone you might walk past in the street. So having these types of YouTubers as the face of the #teamtrees campaign has certainly contributed to its huge success.

4. The power of youth – when it comes to fundraising, Gen Z like to work together, as a cohort. This campaign appeals to this, even from the name Team Trees. It asks donors to join a movement and even if you donate one dollar to plant one tree or donate US$500 to plant 500 trees – the team is in it together. Everyone is equally valued, no matter what your contribution.

5. Impact. We all like to see quick results, of course, but Gen Z really do! I’m not sure how much quicker impact you can achieve than the amount raised in this campaign in just 56 days.

But also, hats off to the Arbor Day Foundation who were tasked with planting these 20 million trees. They had two years to do it, but they beat that target and finished the planting with three months to go.

Let’s wrap up with why I wish I’d thought of #teamtrees.

Firstly, the income was fantastic, it’s just an incredible amount of money raised. The campaign engaged a totally new audience for the Arbor Day Foundation and really got their charity name ‘on the map’.

They managed to pique the interest of Gen Z donors and generate huge amounts of exposure as well. Mr. Beast alone has 208 million YouTube followers, so even if only a fraction of them continue to donate to the Arbor Day Foundation, that’s an incredible increase in supporters for the charity.

Discovery Channel made a documentary about the campaign and ultimately donated US$100,000 as well.

But most of all, what I loved was the various campaign strengths. From the start the creators knew their strengths and knew how to work them well to engage the Gen Z donors.

Finally, as you can see below, the legacy of #teamtrees continues. They are using the exact same format for a new campaign, #teamseas. 

Why? Because it works!

© IMAGES: The #teamtrees & #teamseas websites and Lynda’s presentation

Editor’s note: To see Lynda explain why she loves this campaign, watch her seven-minute presentation from I Wish I’d Thought of That (IWITOT) 2023, below.

About the author: Lynda Harwood-Compton

Lynda Harwood-Compton

Lynda Harwood-Compton (she/her) is an award-winning, innovative and published fundraising leader with 18 years’ experience in the charity sector. She currently runs her own fundraising consultancy – Latch Fundraising – and has a track record of leading fundraising teams to consistently achieve and exceed their fundraising targets. 

Lynda also works with SOFII, looking after all of our valued SOFII One Hundred donors. Lynda is experienced in philanthropy, corporate partnerships and trusts fundraising as well as prospect research. She is a skilled trainer and coach, having worked for and with small and large charities such as Guide Dogs, New Horizon Youth Centre, St John Ambulance, Opportunity International and Animals Asia.

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