Conference Roundup: The Today and Tomorrow of Fundraising
Every fundraiser’s task for the next few years is to navigate a path between traditional and emerging fundraising strategies.
So says Frank O’Brien, president of the Washington, D.C.-based consultancy OMP, who gave the keynote presentation, “The Six Dynamics Shaping the Future of Fundraising,” at the 2008 New York Nonprofit Conference last week.
“It’s heady stuff when you think about it,” O’Brien said. “We get to practice our craft in a remarkable period of transition. And our actions will help shape a whole new era of fundraising.
“But along with that opportunity comes the challenge of living these next few years with one eye on how fundraising works today and one eye on how it’s going to work tomorrow,” he said.
First, fundraisers must keep direct mail “vibrant” for as long as possible. If not, O’Brien argued, the sector’s old workhorse might stop supporting organizations before a viable alternative becomes available.
Fundraisers are going to have to ask themselves some tough questions if they want to keep direct mail bright and fresh, including whether or not it makes sense to write and design direct mail to look like personal correspondence. Considering that most people receiving direct-mail asks these days have no real experience with personal letters, he says, the answer isn’t as clear as it might seem.
Also, they need to decide if it’s smart to keep writing lengthy direct-mail letters, since e-mail and the Internet have redefined people’s sense of appropriate length, he said.
But the other side of the equation is embracing “new channels, new attitudes, new habits of mind, new patterns of behavior,” he said, adding that there are six dynamics shaping the future of fundraising.
1. Building lists isn’t just about finding donors — it’s about making yourself “findable.”
O’Brien explained that the Internet is shifting fundraising from a system that depends on organizations finding donors to one in which donors go looking for organizations to support.
“The Internet plays two overlapping, but distinct, roles here,” he said. “First, in situations where potential donors are highly motivated to act, they now can do so without prompting from the cause or organization they wish to support.
“But, second — and just as important — the Internet all but eliminates the gap between the impulse to donate and the opportunity to act on that impulse,” he said. “It used to be that, when an emergency hit, some of us would get an urgent direct-mail appeal 10 days later. Now, when a crisis happens, all of us have the opportunity to immediately go online and help.”
2. The charitable experience is shifting from a tight circle of donors to a looser circle of engagement.
“[Direct-mail fundraisers] build a tight circle of donors around our organizations with an expectation that … those donors will be quite valuable to us over time,” O’Brien said, adding that online fundraisers have the same goals but use an entirely different approach.
“We’re solving the equation in a very different way — paying less to acquire a name and expecting less value per name in return,” he explained.
3. People move fluidly back and forth across channels and up and down in their level of engagement.
Unfortunately, O’Brien said, supporters move much more fluidly than organizations do.
“As people move around inside that circle of engagement, we’ve got to get a lot better not only at tracing their movement, but at guiding it in directions that lead to stronger relationships,” he said.
4. There is a generational and technological shift from obligation to excitement.
O’Brien explained that fundraisers need to understand the different generations, how and why they give, and then adapt to their ways.
He called people 65 and older the “last generation of direct-mail die-hards,” explaining that many in this demographic aren’t online and those who are limit their use.
“There’s no multichannel strategy available for dealing with these folks,” O’Brien said. “But there is a big risk that as the center of gravity inside a direct-marketing program gravitates toward the online channel, the direct-mail conversation with DM die-hards will become less robust.”
Unlike their older counterparts, he said, baby boomers give because they believe in a cause, rather than out of a sense of obligation. And they can be reached both by mail and e-mail.
Finally, there are those “Internet-immersed folks” who are younger than the boomers — Gen X, Y and the Millennials.
“These folks are never going to evolve into the … philanthropic values of their parents,” O’Brien said. “Duty? Forget it. Relevance? To a degree. But the real watchword for these donors is excitement. They are used to having the world at their fingertips and to reacting in the moment to whatever is in front of them.
“And that defines their giving style,” he said.
The key, he advised, is to communicate with each of these groups in the ways they want to be communicated with, so as not to lose any of them.
5. What happens today in commercial direct marketing will happen tomorrow in nonprofit fundraising.
O’Brien said nonprofits should watch, learn and take a cue from commercial direct-marketing agencies.
“We’re in a fast-moving marketing climate where new trends and developments appear on a regular basis,” he said. “And looking outside of the narrow world of nonprofit fundraising to the broader direct-marketing community is really essential.”
6. There’s an urgent need to have an easily expressed, emotionally powerful identity.
“Every piece of communication we do on behalf of our organizations has two key functions,” O’Brien said. “First, it has to be engaging and compelling in its own right. Second, it has to reinforce and deepen the recipient’s understanding of the organization’s core narrative. Nothing about the emerging fundraising environment changes the importance of brand.”