The Death of 'X': Why 'Boring' Might Be Best for Nonprofits
As I write this, the online nonprofit world is aflutter about “Donate Now” (or “Dislike”) buttons on Facebook, parallax Web design and Meerkat versus Periscope.
In 2014, it was the Ice Bucket Challenge, Google Plus authorship to improve search engine listings and accepting Bitcoin. If you sort through the dustbin of history, you can find MySpace and passive text-to-donate campaigns in there somewhere.
Every day, it seems like there is a new, shiny thing to play with in the nonprofit space. Some of them will stand the test of time. Big data is incredibly useful in creating models for more effective solicitations. Social networks help people connect and share their passions. Content marketing was highly effective before it was Content Marketing and will continue to be effective long after it becomes lowercase again.
But rumors of the death of “X”—where “X” is direct mail, unrestricted giving, segmentation, corporate philanthropy or whatever else is tried, true and boring—are greatly exaggerated. In fact, highly effective nonprofits are doubling down on continual improvement on what they know works, has worked and will work, regardless of whether their stories make for great dinner party anecdotes. (Although I personally would love to hear your story about how personalizing your mail copy with someone’s initiation year increased giving by 8.4 percent.)
So how does one differentiate between gold and fool’s gold? I would posit there are only a few important things to consider when separating signal from noise, in descending order of importance:
- Does it help you love those who support you more and/or help your supporters love you more?
- Does it help you and/or your supporters express that love better?
- Does it help new people fall in love with you?
Notice the trend? All of these center on donor relationships.
Let’s apply this calculus to some important, or at least highly discussed, trends in the nonprofit space:
For fun, go to a nonprofit conference and do a shot every time you hear “Millennial” or quasi-synonyms like “digital natives.” Actually, scratch that: On behalf of livers everywhere, don’t. You may also hear it from your staff or board, including a recent suggestion overheard that we should have a Millennial-focused planned-giving appeal.
Part of this hype is true. Millennials will be an important audience for nonprofits. They will be the volunteers of tomorrow (maybe today, depending on your cause), donors of tomorrow and those who carry on the legacy that you’ve worked to create or sustain.
But they are not who is in love with us. Most of the people who give to nonprofits are older—much older if they give through means like mail or telephone. They love us because of the impact we help them make. And it is churlish not to love them back for all they have done and will do.
Every modernizing rebrand, every site redesign that looks great to the designer who can actually read the nine-point font, every online supporter chat, etc.—these ignore who these people are and why they give. And while we always will have to attract new supporters, the people who logically will join those who are 65-plus are 64 years old, not 24.
We should regard nonprofits that go to extremes to court a Millennial audience at the expense of their core donors like we regard the person who dyes his or her hair and goes to hit on people at a college bar: unfaithful to those who supported them, uncomfortable with who they are and ill-equipped to succeed even if success were desirable.
Given that quasi-curmudgeonly turn above, you probably think I’m going to poo-poo this. However, leaving aside the near impossibility of replicating something like the Ice Bucket Challenge, peer-to-peer fundraising done online is a logical and positive extension of word-of-mouth marketing. If you have supporters that love your cause, they will want to talk about it. They will make the unsurpassed and unsurpassable pitch in philanthropy: “I believe in ‘X.’ Because you are a person who is like (or aspires to be like) me, please support ‘X’ also.” The fact that this happens through electrons is incidental to the power of these human stories.
As the nonprofit, our job for peer-to-peer is threefold: Engender love to the point people want to share it, make it frictionless to share it and create a great experience for your new loves.
There is a grim seduction in metrics that show us how many people like us or follow us: Easy to measure, tweak and optimize for. However, there is no number of likes that add up to one love. Not a single person who likes a post cares whether it ends up getting 187 or 254 likes. They care about how it makes them feel and what they want to do as a result.
The other thing social media allows is for people to put up their hands and say “pick me.” They have gone on a first date with you and there was chemistry. Now is your chance to create a great experience for them that builds interest outside of the social network. Because as long as you are on the social network, you are playing by someone else’s rules—and those rules are subject to change. The “Donate Now” button could be gone tomorrow (or in the case of organic Facebook reach, yesterday). You need to make sure that the relationship—the one truly important thing—isn’t.
Nick Ellinger joined the Moore, where he works to increase the automation and customization of fundraising as chief brand officer, in January 2020. Before that, he was DonorVoice’s vice president of marketing strategy, working with organizations like Catholic Relief Services, Share our Strength | No Kid Hungry, and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation to look at their fundraising with a different lens. He developed his direct fundraising muscle running Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s direct marketing program for a decade. He’s also the author of "The New Nonprofit" to challenge fundraising norms.