The Rise of Technology and Fundraising Education
Over the past 20 years or so — and especially the last decade — there has been a rise in colleges and universities dedicating studies to the profession of fundraising. It’s led to a whole new generation of fundraisers learning some of the tricks of the trade before graduating, thus entering the field with some practical knowledge of how things work.
One school is New York University’s George H. Heyman Jr. Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising, which offers a master’s and noncredit certificate programs, and other noncredit courses. Here, Marcia Stepanek, an adjunct professor at the Heyman Center, speaks with FundRaising Success about the rise of technology and how the Heyman Center and schools like it are educating the fundraising sector.
FundRaising Success: How did you get involved with teaching at NYU?
Marcia Stepanek: I’m the center’s new media advisor, and I’m on the master’s faculty. I have developed a master’s course in social-media strategy and another in cause video, and I also teach in the noncredit program social media and cause video.
I taught the center’s first course in social media way back in 2010, and two years ago I created in our master’s curriculum a very popular course that includes a 14-week strategy session where one of the students takes on a nonprofit and develops a social-media strategy for the organization to help it with new tools to achieve some of its goals. And then I’ve created a cause video lab for the center, which is a series of one-day labs that both apply classroom lessons and storytelling and story-gathering with editing boot camps, if you will, which teach students how to shoot, edit and distribute their very short videos using smartphones.
It’s been really fun. I work at the nexus of storytelling, multimedia journalism, fundraising and entrepreneurialism.
You’re seeing these tools basically take what had been the advocation of many high-net-worth individuals — the 1 percent — and put the ability to jump in and participate in cause building and nonprofit advocacy into the hands of the 99 percent. We see both very wealthy people and not-so-wealthy people but very passionate people across the board getting involved to make the world a better place. It’s really an exciting time for a lot of these tools and how to use them to better convey the work that needs to be done out there.
FS: How important are educational programs to the fundraising sector?
MS: It’s really critical, especially so now. After 9/11, what we saw was a big blip in the rise of people leaving their jobs, or staying with their jobs but starting organizations to advocate for civic engagement, job creation, women and growth empowerment. It was kind of a psychological turning point for the country but also the sector.
We’re also seeing a lot of these new organizations after two or three years at a crossroads where they really need to now learn classic fundraising techniques and strategies, and to get really deep and broad about how some of these strategies and some of the new media strategies can be used to sustain some of the new organizations that have been created over time. Now more than ever all of this wonderful activity needs the benefit of structure and best practices education so many of these great causes can survive over the long term.
FS: How do you balance all the new technologies with traditional fundraising channels?
MS: We still comprehensively teach all the different ways of raising money, all the different audiences of raising money. My aspect of it is to teach how these new tools can be used to raise money and also to raise awareness and build engagement with new audiences, and create strategies where development teams, communications teams, boards of directors, foundations are all incorporating new tools to do better what they’re already doing. So often one can hear from the outside that this is an either/or thing. It’s not. The old stuff still works pretty well. The new stuff can help the old stuff do even better.
We’re talking about multiple new audiences out there. A very aware and focused generation that learned from early age that doing well and good is part of the DNA — not an add-on to their résumé — is emerging. So there is this incredible energy coming in the nonprofit sector both in terms of new types of donors but also in terms of new fundraisers. The conversations are very dynamic. The bottom line here is that right now in our history, whether it’s philanthropy or business or the arts, there are four or five different generations in the workplace and about four or five different main places where people communicate.
Social media is a new language, a new platform for communications. The one thing all institutions need to keep in mind and need to strive for is how to go to where conversations are happening, not keep expecting people to come to them. That’s true of all organizations. Social media moves a lot of power outside of the organization into the hands of a lot of people who want to do well and good too. So we’re seeing the role of the nonprofit sector changing as well — where they’re not just the standard middlemen who are collecting money and then distributing it, but mostly looking at new pools of supporters and seeing their job now as helping these new pools to collectively work for a cause and find a way to create measurable impact. Everyone’s upping their game now as more people enter the sector and more tools now can be used to affect change.
FS: What are some of the new fundraising technology fundamentals you teach?
MS: “A lot of stuff” is the short answer. One thing I focus on is incorporating the visual — visual literacy — particularly video. Video so much is the medium of the moment, and increasingly visual storytelling using images more than words is taking over digital content. We see that in the statistic that tells us what percentage of bandwidth on the Internet is video — it’s now something like 57 percent. It’s really amazing. Now more than half of everything carried on the Internet is video. Who’s watching? Everyone everywhere and all the time. The scale of video is really incredible — 72 hours or more of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute, and the raw quantity there is just staggering.
Nonprofits face these changes in the way we communicate. For nonprofits especially it’s an opportunity because people are watching more online. It’s a real chance for nonprofits to be there visually. It’s also a challenge because there’s just so much video content. How do we possibly break through all that clutter?
One way to do that is through effective stories. Storytelling is how we break through all that noise. For the nonprofit sector, these are stories that have the supporters as the heroes. Really the most effective way to communicate when we think of fundraising is visually. If you attach a video to a tweet or Facebook page entry, it gets two and a half times more sharing. Think of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube — they’re massive nets to catch people and direct to them to your website. We see an opportunity here for nonprofits to tell their stories to new audiences in ways they never dreamed they’d have before.
That’s one thing we do with video labs … help students capture the big “so what?” of their organization. What is their mission? It’s no longer three paragraphs some lawyer carefully crafted. It’s really now how to capture that in a slogan and how can we capture that visually so it’s not the nonprofit saying how fabulous we are, but it’s more focusing on the people we can help and showing how we’re moving the needle with donor dollars. And it’s also looking at all those donors and volunteers and sharing, lifting the curtain on the way nonprofits work and how they are helping in everyday ways. There’s nothing more powerful than that.
Unlike journalism, a lot of fundraising folks are not trained in storytelling. But if you’re a good storyteller, you don’t really need to be. What you need to be trained on is some of the technical stuff and also to think of narrative arcs and of all the ways we can tell stories. Which are the right approaches for the right moments? Over time, start seeing things that your nonprofit is doing that ought to be captured and used as content.
There’s also a wonderful opportunity in engaging supporters and having them share their own videos. So many nonprofit supporters — surely in the 20- to 30-year-old demographic but more and more in the baby boomer generation — are making smartphone videos. People can, with just a little encouragement, jump into the pool. You can ask some of your supporters to share what they’re making. We see it with the National Wildlife Federation, for example. You see people using smartphones to film sightings of rare birds, to capture and distribute that as a digital bird-watching community.
It costs them nothing; it’s just a way of thinking about supporter engagement in new ways that can also be powerful. People love to see their work being shared on the site of organizations that they care a lot about. It’s still communications, still fundraising, still engagement, but these tools expand the opportunities that nonprofit strategists have to not only coordinate these functions internally but to use them to amplify and accelerate the advocacy work they’re already doing. There are lots of opportunities out there. It’s very exciting.