Time for Fundraisers to 'Shift & Reset'
The fundraising sector has evolved into a multibillion-dollar industry over the past century, creating more awareness around the world's plights and pouring in the cash to help nonprofit organizations combat them. Even in today's tough economic times, donors continue to give generously and organizations continue to work tirelessly toward their missions.
But are we really any closer now to solving the world's biggest crises? Brian Reich, senior vice president and global editor of digital communications firm Edelman Digital, doesn't think so, and he's frustrated by that. Reich believes that nonprofits are passionate, effective change-makers that are trying their best but that they need to shift their thinking and strategies.
In his book, "Shift & Reset: Strategies for Addressing Serious Issues in a Connected Society," Reich lays out his take on what nonprofits and fundraisers must do to help reverse the course of the world's ills.
Here, Reich discusses his book and the ideals that are sure to raise the eyebrows of fundraisers with FundRaising Success.
FundRaising Success: Why did you write "Shift & Reset"?
Brian Reich: It was two things. One is I think a lot of the stuff that we are working on today and needing to focus on around how to address serious issues and how to figure out digital strategy in the context of more than just straightforward marketing is not being approached in the right way. There's a lot of tactical-level stuff being discussed. There are a lot of "here are the 10 things you need to do" or "if you get on Twitter everything will be solved" type of discussions. I think there needed to be both a realignment in how people think about these challenges and a sort of setup to what are ultimately very good and important strategic and tactical suggestions that if not taken in the right context can prove to be very challenging.
Part of the reason I wrote it was to get people thinking about these challenges in a certain way so that when they did go forward with the more strategic and tactical efforts that other very smart people have suggested, they'll actually realize the promise.
The second part is I'm frustrated, I'm angry. I've been doing politics and public affairs and digital strategy around all these things for 15 years now, and we're not moving the needle. I think the obsession with social media and the obsession with the surface-level pieces of the conversation about what's possible in the digital age is getting us further away from having a real impact.
I'm angry because the world is burning, and I'd like to see us actually end hunger or find a real cure for AIDS or whatever it is that we need to do. Whatever I can do to contribute to that, I wanted to do. Writing a book seemed like a natural opportunity.
FS: Why do you think the needle hasn't moved? What's holding people back?
BR: Some of it is that change is hard. There are a lot of reasons to think that building a big list or raising a lot of money or generating a ton of awareness around a serious issue is going to be of value. And it's not to diminish at all that in many cases awareness or fundraising are helpful, but I think that as long as the focus is on what I would call the activity metrics, then we're not ever going to be able to truly determine whether or not we're reversing the trajectory of some of these problems.
People like to do things that they know and they feel safe and comfortable doing, so asking people to change is going to make them uncomfortable.
The other big challenge is that nobody really knows what all these constant, rapid, disruptive changes really mean, and I think there's some misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the impact that technology and the Internet and the changes in media are having. There's some misunderstanding about just how significant those changes are, not just in the context of marketing or fundraising or some sort of single division within the organization, but really, truly in human behavior and to the way society functions — and, as a result, what we need to do in response.
We're in that gray period where stuff's changing and we don't know what to do or how to make sense of it. We risk sending ourselves down a bad path or squandering really great opportunities that do exist now.
I felt I needed to write the book to say let's recognize what's happening here, and let's shift our thinking just a little bit because if what we're doing isn't working now, then what we're doing on the other side has to be better — or at least has to be different. I'd rather make different mistakes tomorrow if we're still going to make mistakes.
FS: What are some of the keys to necessitating that change in this evolving landscape?
BR: There's a bunch. We need to change how we think about awareness and engagement and education and mobilization. We need to think about the structure of the organizations and the roles that individual people have. We need to think about how we measure success. We need to think about the value of the activities that we currently spend a lot of time on, including things like fundraising, when compared with the other opportunities that are available.
Besides just starting to think differently and ask some tough questions, we need to stop doing some things because we have limited bandwidth, we have limited energy, we have limited patience, we have limited resources. If we're expending a lot of energy and resources on things that aren't delivering results, we should stop doing those so that we have an opportunity, so that we free up some space if you will, to do the other things.
One is we need to stop asking for money, and we need to start asking for help, expertise. We need to stop forming new organizations and start to look at how individual expertise or different expertise across groups can be truly coordinated and collaborated. We need to stop overusing social media, and by that I mean we really need to focus on what it means to be social and engage human beings and figure what they want and how to support them and how to mobilize them through a variety of different means. And we need to stop focusing on case studies, which is to say we need to stop looking at what some other organization did and then essentially photocopying the plan and trying to do it for another group. Each situation is different. The learnings and experiences from those past situations are valuable, but they need to be applied very differently than they are today.
FS: What can fundraisers take away from this book to help their organizations achieve their missions?
BR: Part of it is that dollars are not solutions. Dollars raised and applied in the right ways can help you identify or pursue solutions, absolutely. But the more money raised and the larger an organization grows does not necessarily equate to the more effective and the more focused that organization is.
What fundraisers understand probably better than anyone is how to develop those relationships that get somebody to make a commitment. I'd like to see that energy and that appreciation applied to solving problems.
One of the examples I use in the book is Google. Google's massively successful, one of the largest, wealthiest companies in the world. Naturally everyone sees them as an opportunity to get money. But Google is also one of the smartest companies in the world and thinks about problems and challenges very, very differently. So if you're a nonprofit organization and you are trying to address an issue — take hunger — I'd rather have you going and asking Google to help you think differently to apply an engineering perspective to look at the ways that people's information consumption habits should inform how you solve that problem differently and motivate behavior that's going to advance what you're trying to do.
It's not to say stop asking for things. It's not to say that money isn't necessary. But it's the old adage in fundraising, "You ask for advice, you get money; you ask for money, you get advice." Start asking for other forms of help. Start asking for more advice. Because not only am I confident that if you ask the right people for the right things they'll provide it and that will be helpful for you, but they'll become just as invested in your project and the fundraising issues will not be as significant.
FS: Seeing how this book is a completely different look as to what fundraisers have done traditionally, how is the book being received so far? What kind of feedback have you gotten?
BR: Very positive. I think I say a lot of things in the book that people agree with but don't necessarily feel comfortable saying. So I get a lot of, "Thank you for saying it."
At the same time, I get a lot of people who are angry at me for not giving them an easy answer. I hosted a webinar going through some of the elements in the book and I'm talking about stopping things, and the moderator online is getting all of these all-caps comments saying, "Why won't he give us specifics?" So she asked me the question and I said I can't give you specifics because each situation is different, and that's exactly the point.
If you want the answer that if you get on Twitter everything will get better, then not only do I think that's in most cases, if not all cases, the wrong answer, you can go to someone else for that because I'm trying to look at both the short-term and long-term needs that organizations have and the challenges that we're facing and the opportunity that's been created by this wonderful, connected, digital society that we live in.
The easy answers unfortunately are not the ones that are always going to solve the complex problems. There are some easy answers and some things that can be solved by, for example, being on Twitter. But the easy answers, if they're not going to solve the complex problems, it's no more helpful for me to offer them than anything else. So I get a lot people who still want specific answers to problems that I'm not even sure they can define.
I'm OK with that, and the reason I'm OK with that is because my role here, I think, is to get them thinking differently. If they're willing just in the slightest to say, "What do you mean there's no easy answer?" then hopefully when someone comes to them and says I've got a solution to our fundraising challenge and it's to be on Twitter, they're going to say, "Why?" They're going to at the very least ask the questions, and that, I have great confidence, is the first domino in the chain that will result in some real, measurable, meaningful shifts in how we operate and how we act.
Obviously the people who are more open to actual change, the more they go through the book and the more they hear from me and talk to me, we can get into more detail because there's a lot, all the way down to firing your staff or completely shaking up your org structure. Those are significant changes. That's not something to just nonchalantly be like, eh, fire your staff. But in some cases, the people you have are not qualified to meet the challenges that you have to meet today. That's not a criticism of those people; that's the reality of a changing world. We need to start recognizing that what we've been doing isn't working anymore, and if we start thinking differently a lot of other pieces are going to fall into place.
FS: What organizations are doing a good job in rethinking things, and what sort of things are they doing?
BR: Honestly I don't think any organization across the board is doing everything well. There are lots of organizations that understand parts of the challenge and own parts of the challenge and are working toward others.
American Heart Association began an extraordinary project a couple years ago where instead of just raising awareness of heart disease, which is very, very high right now, they started to really commit to what behavior change looks like. So how do you actually get somebody who's now aware of the fact that being active and eating healthier is going to have a measurable effect on you likely beating heart disease or not being afflicted with heart disease to start making those lifestyle changes — what does that really require? That's an extraordinarily expensive, time-consuming project that will take a while before they see success in terms of the overall mission, but they're committed.
I criticize Feeding America in the book because their hunger action month is all about celebrity awareness-raising and dollars raised, but at the same time, Feeding America deeply understands that their marketing needs to be related to the mission. For the most part, they communicate very clearly about how their job is to feed America, not solve the hunger crisis. That's very different than [an organization] like Susan G. Komen, who I get frustrated with because they are an incredibly effective, probably the world's most effective brand marketer hands down, no question, but the promise that they keep delivering is that they're going to cure cancer. I think if they changed that message and said that our job is to inspire and our job is to raise money, then it would actually open the doors for other organizations who are much more focused on things that relate to the cure to do their work. Instead, Komen and other organizations — they're not the only one — set themselves up in competition with other groups that are trying to promote different aspects of breast cancer. Pink loses its value. It becomes ubiquitous and nobody takes the tough actions.
There are organizations that are doing parts of this stuff very well. They all have faults; we all have faults. But I think that the organizations like American Heart Association and Feeding America, who are openly and publicly trying to solve challenges and align with people differently, they're the ones that we should be looking at. Just because you raise a lot of money and get recognized by people as having a great brand does not mean that you're actually fulfilling your mission or contributing in a way to the complex problem that needs to be met. My argument in the book is that if that's the position you're in then maybe you shouldn't be doing that work anymore.
FS: Anything you'd like to add?
BR: The two big points are we need to recognize that because the world has changed and is constantly changing that what we're doing isn't working anymore, and that the measures of success that we see today, including money raised, are short-lived potentially. We need to be focused on the short term, but we also need to keep the long term in mind at the same time. It's not enough to go quarter to quarter. It's not enough to go campaign to campaign and raise money and say, "Look, we succeeded," or when money trails off as it recently has, just blaming the economy. The reality is when you look at the stats, people are giving a lot of money. People are still donating in huge amounts, but they're donating to different things now. The people who are sitting there saying it's just a slow economy — how do we up our marketing or improve our awareness so that more people will see what we're doing and open their wallet — the truth is when people look at them, they're making other choices as to where to invest their money. So what we're doing isn't working anymore is one of the big points that nonprofits need to understand.
The other thing is … being in a connected society and having all of this information and access and this intelligence and passion and experience globally now all available to us in ways that wasn't the case a year ago, five years ago, certainly 10 years ago — that opens up all new possibilities. Nobody's quite figured it out, so it's all upside, it's all good experimentation. I'm totally optimistic that these organizations got into business for the right reasons, that these fundraisers are genuinely interested in solving these problems. I think they've just gotten off track, so I'm optimistic that if we can embrace this idea that what we're doing isn't working anymore, on the other side we'll figure it out.
I know it's hard and it makes me seem critical and cranky sometimes, but what it really is is a deep faith in the passion and intelligence of the people who've been doing this work — that put on a different track they're going to succeed in ways that they could never imagine because of the possibilities and opportunities that are available to us. FS