donor acquisition and the human element

Mark Rovner recently commented on the state of online philanthropy, and what I found most interesting about his post was that he framed it as an issue of “donor acquisition.” This, to me, is the heart of the problem with how nonprofits are approaching — or not approaching — social media.

The gist of his comments was that:

  1. Direct mail doesn’t work, and
  2. Soliciting donations online is no replacement for it.

True story.

The real issue, of course, is that people aren’t donors — they’re people. People like to give of themselves — donors can only give of their money.

(This is my major problem with much of the CRM software out there — many programs insist on referring to individuals as “donors” or “accounts” and offer little flexibility to attach information about a person’s time spent volunteering, skill set offered in organizing, or any other pertinent, non-financial information. Fortunately, this is starting to change.)

This culture shift, from direct mail to e-newsletter donation solicitation, to social media and (finally) to real online community building, is just a matter of technology forcing nonprofits to stop treating people like piggy banks, to stop ignoring the fact that they are routinely and profoundly alienating 98% of their communities (also known as their mailing lists) just to get a lousy 2% return on direct mail campaigns.

I hate direct mail. Don’t you? Doesn’t everyone? So why do we keep sending it?

Mark rightly points out that it has always been this way. He mentions that his mother gave more to her favorite nonprofit because she was more deeply engaged — as a regular volunteer. People have always preferred to be personally engaged in philanthropy, to be treated like people who have assets of value — like time, skills, expertise, warmth, empathy — that go far beyond their ability to write a check.

The problem is, it takes time to engage people personally. It takes time to get to know a person, figure out what their unique skills and strengths are, and how they can be leveraged in the furthering of a mission statement.

This is not, by the way, anything new. It’s what any good salesperson knows — relationships are the only thing that really matter. It’s not your pitch, your print collateral, or your wardrobe (although these help). The majority of your time has to be spent in creating, building, and sustaining relationships.

Time is notably not something nonprofits tend to have a great deal of.

Before we had the internet, before we had social media, it was virtually impossible to approach potential donors in a more human, personal way. No time. No way.

But now we do have the internet. Now we do have social media. Now it is at least possible to reach lots of individuals as people and engage them in a human way, by showing your organization’s human face, using the tools of the new media.

  • You can write a blog, and share with your community the day-to-day joys and terrors of your organization’s work.
  • You can get involved in twitter, and meet people you never would have met otherwise, learn more about them, connect them to others and to your organization.
  • You can make short videos every now and then, sharing exciting news or just backstage chatter, and share them on YouTube, on your website, in your blog.
  • You can use all these tools to make it easier for people to support you in ways of their choosing, whether it’s volunteering, spreading the word, or spreading the wealth.

Seth Godin, reflecting on Mark’s post, says:

“The internet allows some organizations to embrace long-distance involvement. It lets charities flip the funnel, not through some simple hand waving, but by reorganizing around the idea of engagement online. It means opening yourself up to volunteers, encouraging them to network, to connect with each other, and yes, even to mutiny. It means giving every one of your professionals a blog and the freedom to use it. It means mixing it up with volunteers, so they have something truly at stake. This is understandably scary for many non-profits, but I’m not so sure you have a choice.” (My boldface.)

I think he’s right.

The problem is, people (“donors”) are already changing. They are already becoming more sophisticated about philanthropy, and the old ways just won’t reach them any more.

Nonprofits have to change, because their lifeblood, the people who support them both financially and with their time, are already changing.


One response to “donor acquisition and the human element

  1. Hey there,

    Very well said! I agree with you completely, and think that nothing short of an authentic conversation between non-profits and their supporters will work in the long-run. My sense of direct response is that it is a fairly cynical business…


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