Leadership Series: Is Change an Uphill Battle?
Editor’s note: This is the third in a quarterly series of stories we’re calling “The Leadership Series,” where leaders in the fundraising sector speak to big-picture issues fundraisers need to think about, over and above the day-to-day details of their jobs.
For several years while I was growing up in India, I traversed the Himalayan Mountains with only canvas shoes on my feet and the bare ground for a bed. On those peaks, I gained an appreciation for two maxims that apply just as well to marketing as to mountaineering: Know where you stand, and know how to find true north.
Where is true north for charities in the future? Giving has grown by just 4 percent per annum since 2001 — a tad more than inflation. So many nonprofits are maintaining a steady idle but finding no thrust.
That’s why the years ahead will be fascinating for those executives responsible for raising resources in the nonprofit arena. For many, the fascination will turn into frustration, and their organizations will suffer. For others, the formidable uphill climb will enable them to reap new rewards, and in turn their organizations will experience explosive growth.
The difference will lie in how senior marketing executives direct their organizations’ initiatives in response to three overriding trends in nonprofit fundraising: disintermediation, diversification and deepening.
Trend 1: Disintermediation
The most significant trend facing the nonprofit sector is disintermediation — the increasing likelihood that donors and volunteers will dispense with nonprofit “middlemen” and go directly to the beneficiaries or advocates for their heartfelt causes. For marketers hiking the uphill path, this represents a major shift in the weather pattern. Those failing to recognize its importance — or worse, ignoring it completely — do so only at their own peril, and they place their organizations at risk.
Moreover, one does not need to have Bill Gates’ wealth, Bono’s global celebrity or Al Gore’s political gravitas to launch a charity or set a new direction for society. With the Internet, Web 2.0 and other online entities, it takes little effort.
For example, in 2003, three young men from California went to Sudan and later stumbled on a brutal civil war in northern Uganda where children were being kidnapped to serve as soldiers. Four years, two films and numerous appearances on college campuses later, these young men through their charity — Invisible Children — have helped ignite a movement among teens and young adults to raise awareness and money to help Ugandan children. Nearly 68,000 of their supporters in 15 U.S. cities held events on one day in late April to draw public and media attention to the plight of children half a world away. Their primary mode of communication? The Internet.
Or consider John Wood, a former Microsoft marketing executive who, while trekking in Nepal in 1998, happened upon a rural school in the Himalayas with only a handful of books. Through one e-mail to family and friends, he collected 3,000 books and returned the following year, rented a yak, and delivered the books to the acclaim of the students and local villagers. Today, the nonprofit Room to Read is building, staffing and stocking libraries for 10 million children in six Asian nations and South Africa.
Shifting the paradigm
Entrepreneurs like these are turning 60-plus years of nonprofit management upside down with innovative and sustainable programs marked by personal passion, creative communications and the ease of online fund- and friendraising via blogs, social-networking sites and peer-to-peer advertising.
To many nonprofit marketers, this trend might seem daunting. But it should represent an inspiring challenge. My organization, World Vision, an international Christian humanitarian agency, is responding by recommitting to focusing on the other two other trends — diversification and deepening. Our Donor Engagement team has developed a new model, based on building bridges with key stakeholders, including individuals and families; institutions and corporations; and communities of faith.
Our hope is to change hearts on this side of the bridge as we seek to change lives on the other.
Trend 2: Diversification
Multiplying the opportunities that donors have for engaging with charities and beneficiaries, and broadening the channel mix charities use to recruit donors, are keys to combating disintermediation. Encouraging more donors to do more things with their charity partners is vital.
Nonprofits’ diversification of revenue and resource-gathering streams has become vital. For many years, World Vision relied too heavily on one source of revenue. The World Vision Child child-sponsorship program annually has raised hundreds of millions of dollars throughout the world because it closely followed the six reasons Christian researcher George Barna believes people give to charities:
- impact of the organization’s work;
- efficiency with which the organization uses donated funds;
- presence of a compelling cause;
- donor’s relationship with the organization;
- personal benefit the donor receives by giving; and
- urgency of the need.
World Vision’s marketing efforts have capitalized on all of these motivators and presented current and prospective child sponsors with a real, tangible child who personifies poverty in the developing world. One cannot grasp the enormity of 3 billion people who live on less than $2 a day, but one can understand the needs of a 7-year-old girl named Deysi in El Salvador or 5-year-old Joseph in Chad.
Break the mold
Authors Chip and Dan Heath, in their book, “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” (Random House, 2007), call this the “Mother Theresa Effect” — that is, donors respond better to individuals than to abstract causes.
Child sponsorship appeals to a large and vital group of World Vision’s donors. But diversification of opportunities has become a foundational strategy to engage donors who want to know more about the nations where we work and the projects we undertake to help the poor. Among the examples:
- Some are intrigued with our gift catalog, with items from a $75 goat to a $22,000 school construction project that allow people to make a donation in the name of a friend or relative.
- Others want to walk through “The World Vision Experience: AIDS,” a traveling exhibit depicting the lives of four children in Africa whose lives have been devastated by AIDS.
- Some will volunteer to assemble AIDS caregiver kits for those in sub-Saharan Africa serving people affected by AIDS.
- Others with a higher capacity to give have helped to fund community lending institutions from Honduras to Cambodia.
- Others partner through the Hope Initiative, an opportunity for Americans to care for widows and orphans ravaged by the AIDS epidemic in Africa.
- And nearly 85,000 new donors partnered with World Vision for the opportunity to help the 2005 tsunami victims in Asia.
World Vision has broadened its donor-recruitment channels from direct mail and television in the late ’90s to the Internet, event marketing, affinity partnerships, city campaigns, radio, retail and volunteer groups by 2007. Nearly two-thirds of our cash income comes from opportunities launched in the last five years. Today, we rely on non-traditional channels for more than 70 percent of our donor recruitment — a reversal of our 1999 numbers.
Trend 3: Deepening
Savvy nonprofit marketers will respond to the trends taking donors away from charities with an effort to personalize their organization to donors. Through CRM, charities can launch an intentional effort to grow a donor from one who simply writes a check to a supporter who gives of his or her time, talent, treasure and influence. The key here is to view the gift and the donor as a relationship rather than a transaction.
At World Vision, we have embarked on a strategic effort to excite donors to engage with the poor. For some, that means simply sending a “birthday bounce back” card to their sponsored child; for others, especially major donors, deepening translates into traveling overseas to meet our project staff and beneficiaries personally, or participating in conferences with experts to meet other current and potential donors. Our overriding donor-management theme of “supporter transformation” is founded on an uncompromising commitment to changing the hearts of our donors. Some of World Vision’s tenets under-girding our efforts to transform supporters include:
- communicating clearly;
- being accurate, complete, current and relevant in all communications;
- conveying realistic expectations of how a donation will be used;
- honoring supporters’ contact preferences and restrictions;
- ensuring all donor promises are fulfilled; and
- seeking opportunities to educate donors on issues of injustice.
Those donors who are assembling kits, starting banks and digging wells want hands-on engagement with “their” projects. They want to step into the shoes of the beneficiaries and bring them hope.
To make this point to our staff, we changed our name from “Marketing” to “Donor Engagement” and from “Development” to “Advancement.” We’re a bridge between the donor and the beneficiary.
Our job is straightforward: to excite donors to engage with the poor and, in the process, to change their hearts and their way of life.
Sound familiar? That is what Martin Luther King Jr. did with the civil rights movement. And John Muir with the environmental movement. They made their causes a rallying point for culture. And as a result, they changed the world.
Atul Tandon is senior vice president of donor engagement for World Vision.