Congratulations! The world is falling apart (or at least feels like it’s falling apart), and you’ve decided to do something about it. That’s a commendable urge. Here’s where I tell you that you’ve also decided to do something very hard. Hosting a charity stream (on Twitch, YouTube, or on any other platform) is much more difficult than hosting a regular live stream, mostly because charity streams involve more moving parts — there’s the charity, the donation flow, guests, and, obviously, anything else you’re doing to make the experience special for your viewers.
And it will be! More than anything, charity streams are about sharing a moment with the people who tune in. You will be overwhelmed, and it will be glorious. The other beautiful thing about charity streams is that they’re infectious; gamers like to watch numbers go up, sure, but the contagious part is the feeling of collective action, of creating something together.
And anyone can do it! “It doesn’t have to be super in depth, it doesn’t have to have all the bells and whistles,” says Kienna Shaw, a Canadian tabletop roleplaying game creator and longtime charity stream producer. “Honestly, you could just set up a few chat commands, set up exactly how the donation logistics are going to go, and then stream just as you normally would.”
With all that said, here are some things to think about when you’re planning your own charity stream.
The first order of business should be obvious: this is when you choose a charity to support. This is the most important part of your charity stream because this is your personal endorsement of this particular cause or organization’s work. It’s important to be clear about where you’re directing people’s money and what you believe. As a streamer, you should be able to talk about that cogently on stream.
Then, you’re going to need to figure out what you want your stream to look like. If you’re new to the genre, I suggest watching a few from people you like who have run successful charity streams already to get an idea of what a finished stream looks like. Remember to set realistic goals. Don’t, say, make your goal $10,000 if you aren’t yourself ready to donate $10,000 to your cause — nobody who tunes in is ever required to donate.
The more people you involve, the more complicated these things tend to get, at least from a production standpoint. You should aim to make something as polished as it possibly can be while also understanding that what you’re doing is actually just producing live television. Which is to say: it’s hard, and things will probably go wrong when you’re live.
Once you’ve got the scope of your stream figured out, it’s time to actually start the work.
There are three ways to collect donations, and they all depend on the charity you’ve chosen to fundraise for. A lot of charities and nonprofit organizations aren’t set up yet to do peer-to-peer fundraising for a variety of reasons — some, for example, would rather rely on recurring donations, and others just aren’t aware that Twitch and other live-streaming sites can be a reliable source of income. Whatever the case, it’s important to figure all of this out beforehand because it’s going to affect the way you collect donations.
The easiest way to send donations from your viewers to a charity is via Tiltify, a charity portal that integrates directly with your Twitch channel. It’s basically plug ‘n’ play: you choose your charity, you fill out some details, and you’re basically ready to go.
You’ll have to fiddle with some settings in your streaming software to get the overlays to show up on stream, but it is by far the simplest way to raise money for an organization. You can create milestones and incentives directly from Tiltify’s dashboard, and customizing the service’s overlays isn’t difficult.
Tiltify does, however, take a 5 percent cut of whatever money you raise, and not every charity has an account with the site. Streamlabs has a similar feature, too, though it’s exclusive to Streamlabs’ software. And while Streamlabs doesn’t take a cut of the money you’re raising, it hasn’t signed up many charities yet.
The second way to donate your viewers’ money is less direct, although it works with every single charity and nonprofit organization: you can have your viewers donate directly to a charity and then verify their receipts.
It’s a little more work on your end — someone who’s not the streamer has to verify receipts and update goals, etc. — but 100 percent of every donation goes directly to the organizations you’re supporting. Viewers will post screenshots of their donations in a designated place (e.g., a Discord), and then someone else will make sure the donation looks legit and update the progress bar. (Yes, there is a potential for people to fake donations. If you find yourself faking donations to a charity, please take a long, hard look at your life.)
The third way to collect donations is to have people donate directly to you, after which you then disburse the funds to a charity yourself. Though it’s viable, it’s the riskiest option: you have to be both accountable to your viewers and accountable on your taxes — because, for the purposes of the Internal Revenue Service, that money you’re raising for charity is income. Don’t be a scammer.
There are, of course, other, hackier ways to run a charity stream. For example, you could set up a fundraising page on GiveLively (disclosure: my current partner works here) or maybe even look into running a GoFundMe or a GiveButter. The method doesn’t really matter — the stream does. For the first charity stream I did, I used GiveLively to set up a fundraising page for The Bail Project; it worked perfectly. We raised some money, donated some money, and had a good time doing it.
Every charity stream is different, but they have a lot in common. The charity part, obviously, but also the basic elements involved: the donation goals and the incentives to hit those goals. These are the “bells and whistles” that Shaw — the TTRPG and charity stream producer — mentioned, and can include classic stuff like donated merch giveaways or something more elaborate like custom graphics that play when certain amounts of money are donated.
If you’re planning for your stream to be slightly more elaborate, I think the most important features to consider are length, guests, and a donation thermometer.
When it comes to your fundraiser’s length, you’ll probably want your charity stream to feel like an event to make people feel like they’re tuning into something special. A great way to do that is to just stream for a longer time than you normally do. (Think: telethon. Bring that energy.)
Having guests on your stream is smart because they’ll keep your energy up, and they’ll introduce their audiences to the charity that you’re donating to; it also breaks the time you’re planning to stream into more manageable chunks. A six-hour marathon stream can be turned into three two-hour chunks with a number of different guests.
Getting guests into your stream is just a matter of configuring Discord (or Zoom, or, if you like living on the edge, Skype). It’s as easy as getting someone to call in. To that end, I’d recommend using software you’re familiar with that also plays well with whatever software you’re using to stream. Test extensively before you go live!
Donation thermometers are important because they show everyone who tunes in exactly how far away you are from your goal. The tech that will allow you to build a thermometer isn’t exactly off the shelf — unless you’re using something like Tiltify or Streamlabs. For my second charity stream, I enlisted two programmers and one designer to make a beautiful one.
The main thing to keep in mind is that the stream is not about you; it’s about the cause you’ve chosen to support. “Charity streaming should be an end, not about people patting on the back and telling you how good of a job you did,” Shaw says. (They also wrote an excellent guide to charity streaming, which you can find here.) Remember to shout out the charity you’re raising money for regularly and to stay on top of updating your goal as the stream progresses.
The other critical thing: don’t get discouraged. “Oftentimes you’ll kind of see the numbers as a newcomer streamer or charity streamer, and might feel a little discouraged because you have a concept of what goal you want to hit — which you might not,” Shaw says. “But I think a huge part of it is remembering that it doesn’t matter how much you raise, it matters that you did something.”
After you have the tech and design squared away and after you’ve picked a charity to support, the last thing to do is promote your stream. That means publicizing the guest list, dropping the link on your most prominent social media accounts, and more. I think the best way to attract people is to post about the stream starting about a week before you go live.
It was a process. I ran my first charity stream on June 1st, which was a beta test for the stream me and a slightly different group of people ran on June 7th. For that first beta stream, I tested donation models — I ended up setting up a fundraiser page on GiveLively — and assembled a team of guests to play the Spelunky-ish roguelike Vagante, who were kind enough to donate their time to the stream. I set a $300 goal, and we blew past it; by the end of the stream, which was a few hours long, we’d raised more than $3,400 for The Bail Project, an organization that’s dedicated to combating mass incarceration by bailing people out of jail.
I ran into a few problems, though, mostly related to the fact that I was both running the stream and hosting it. I learned I needed both more computing power — running a game and streaming video from the same PC isn’t kind to my machine — and more time to think through what I wanted a stream to look like. I didn’t, for example, have a donation thermometer because I couldn’t figure out a way to integrate the donation page I was using with the streaming software OBS. But it was a successful test, if only because it showed me how hard it is to run a charity stream and reinforced that the actually important part was getting people to care about the cause.
That’s how I decided to do it again. During the week between June 1st and June 7th, I got a team of producers together — friends who are great with technology and good at logistics — and we started to plan. The first thing I did was come up with a concept: I called it The 1312 Stream, and it was explicitly about raising money to abolish the carceral state. Afterward, me and my team figured out the scope. Initially, I wanted to have a bunch of guests play a ton of different video games, like Jackbox and Vagante; after some tech testing, me and my technical producer Rob figured out that video games (yes, as a category) were going to be difficult to stream. Jackbox was running poorly, and Rob also wanted a game he could host and spectate but not play himself because he was running everything else behind the scenes.
Meanwhile, I was coordinating with our creative producer, Olivia, to figure out the stream branding. Stream branding is important because you want it to stand out against the blur of social media, and also don’t you want your event to feel special? We ended up with muted purple on a pink background, which she expanded into a number of assets sized for various screens and platforms: Instagram, Twitter, and the like.
My main job, however, was wrangling guests, which I did after Rob and I figured out exactly what the plan for our stream was. We landed on a multi-part scheme with a co-host — the brilliant and hilarious Akilah Hughes — who’d help me keep things moving. The stream itself featured Hey Robot, a one-shot I wrote of the TTRPG Lasers & Feelings, and the return of Vagante with the same guests from that first beta stream.
more on tomorrow's charity stream: we have a TON of incredible guests. that's right. guests! first up: @AkilahObviously is gonna be hosting this with me, because she's the best pic.twitter.com/jTvG0Qkxge— bij (@bijanstephen) June 6, 2020
After all of that was mostly settled, Rob and I picked the organizations we wanted to support — Black & Pink, a nonprofit that advocates for prison abolition and supports LGBTQ and HIV positive inmates, and The National Bail Fund Network, which disburses money to more than 60 local bail funds. At the same time, Rob and Olivia coordinated with a couple of programmers to design and build a beautiful thermometer to track donations. Because Black & Pink and The National Bail Fund Network were not on Tiltify, we used an Airtable form where people could submit their receipts after donating and my team of mods could approve those screenshots live so they’d register on the thermometer at the same time.
Rob created a Google Sheet timing out every specific block and then, on the day of the stream, scheduled a series of final tech and lighting tests for our guests. We were using Zoom to create green rooms, which would then be taken live. After that, it was showtime. I set our initial goal for $400, and five and a half hours later, we ended up with $23,537.69. Fuck yeah.
I don’t really know how or why it worked; I only know that it did. The guests were wonderful and gracious, and my co-host was perfect. The viewers, however, made the stream. They kept our energy up and donated a frankly incredible amount of money. By the end, I felt like I was mostly just a conductor because, by then, it had its own momentum. It felt alive.
And you can do all this, too. Before we went live, in one of the many conversations we had leading up to the stream, Rob told me that we were using our “dumbass super power” — our collective ability to get people to pay attention to something for the right reasons, which put things into perspective for me. Charity streaming is all about deciding to use your powers for good.