Innovation in Fundraising: Why, How, What, When? (Part 1)
This is part one in a four-part series on innovation in fundraising.
In a recent, intentionally provocative opinion piece on the Plymouth University Critical Fundraising blog, Joe Jenkins shared the notion that the social benefit sector has “a big problem—the entrenched homogeneity of charity communications. To the rest of the world we mostly look, act and appear to be the same.” Joe noted that while he applauds the voluntary sector’s “fabulous generosity and collaborative spirit,” he is troubled that “every success quickly spreads across our sector—and suffocates its host.”
I respectfully take issue with these statements. (I encourage you to read Joe’s full article; it clearly got me thinking, yet my opinion may not concur with yours.)
First, where is the evidence of such suffocation? Is borrowing good ideas really a "destined to fail" strategy? I’d ask the same about thoughtful adaptation of "best practices."
Let me explain.
Imagine that my organization hosts a “Sing-it-Yourself Messiah,” then your organization hosts one, and then every music organization in the country is hosting one. The market will become pretty saturated after a while. That simply means that specific idea has run its course. It’s a natural evolution that occurs when things are very particular. A bit like fashion trends.
It doesn’t mean that people will stop wearing clothes. Or attending events. Or even making philanthropic gifts. So be careful.
Now imagine that my organization hosts a dinner gala, then yours hosts one, and then every nonprofit in the community hosts one. In that case, all these comparable events doesn’t mean it’s more than the market will bear. There is room for a lot of similarity without it necessarily becoming a “big problem.” One of the things I learned in advertising, years ago, is that we insiders get tired of our messaging and strategies long before the public does.
It’s unnecessary to change things up as often as you feel compelled to do so.
In fact, consistency is what makes people feel they can trust you. They know what they’re going to get, and when they’re going to get it. Notice how upset people get when Starbucks changes its reward program? When Coca-Cola goes to a new, improved formula? When just about any website goes to a new (supposedly more user-friendly) platform, just as you’ve become used to navigating the old one?
Familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt.
In fact, research shows it can be downright comforting.
On a more practical level, most nonprofits simply do not have the bandwidth to change up strategies every day simply because it’s good to be “innovative.” That’s a value judgment. It may be true for some; completely the opposite for others.
If you’re a charity with a hip, cool, cutting-edge brand, it may be true. People expect you to change things up. To give them games to play and quizzes to take. To ask them to take selfies and send them to you via Instagram. To chat with them one-to-one on Snapchat. To be funny from time to time. It’s all tremendous stuff to do—and if it’s right for your brand, and if you can manage it, swell.
The bottom line—when it comes to innovation or anything else you do—is what value are you offering?
The value of being constantly innovative may be less important if you’re a long-established, bread-and-butter charity. People expect you to focus on your core mission, spend their dollars wisely, and let them know about the outcomes of their philanthropy.
The straightforward, repetitive approach may be reassuring in many cases.
In his article, Joe seems to be offering three less-than-ideal options to charities:
- Copy the new stuff that seems exciting, even though pretty soon everyone will be doing it and it won’t seem new or exciting any more.
- Emulate best practices—the tried-and-true stuff that everyone agrees works, even though everything will look pretty similar and you won’t stand out.
- Use old tools others have abandoned, like the telephone, and make them new again.
I would say don’t worry too much if some of today’s fundraising strategies aren’t new. Don’t fret if some of what you’re doing is similar to what your competitors are doing, or even to what you did last year or five years ago.
I would say, so what? Who cares?
The point of a fundraiser is not to look different.
The point is to raise money to make desired outcomes possible. And then to build relationships with your supporters—offering ongoing, consistent value to them, so these people have a reason to stick around.
If your innovation strategy doesn’t offer value, all that attention you captured from being fresh and new and exciting will be lost as quickly as it was acquired.
Joe admitted his previous response to look-alike strategies was much like mine remains today: “As long as the response rates/return on investment hold up, then it’s fine.”
But he’s changed his mind because ... ?
All I can figure out is that what he called the “mass replication effect” is something he fears is enervating donors. Again, where is the evidence? I don’t see it.
What I see is donors who are enervated because nonprofits fail to communicate with them effectively. And this has little to do with how often you change up your messages or communication channels or event strategies.
Donors want to know they can count on you to deliver results.
In my experience, people respond to charitable appeals, thank-you correspondence and marketing communications not because of how they look or how similar/different they are vis a vis someone else’s materials, but because of (1) the psychological drivers of commitment and principles of persuasion they incorporate (reviewed in part three), (2) the key elements of a compelling offer they include (reviewed in part four), and (3) how much it makes them feel good.
It is in communicating more effectively, and understanding what makes donor communication effective, where charities must become more cognizant.
Don’t just copy someone else’s work like a monkey. Because then you won’t know why it’s working if it does work. And you won’t know how to tweak it for your particular cause, and your target constituencies, to make it work even better.
Copy with intelligence.
Getting just good to middling results versus getting outstanding results is not necessarily a factor of how repetitive or look-alike your practices may be. Rather, it’s a factor of how mindless your copycat practices are engaged in—with no understanding of the underlying principles that make these practices effective.
Thoughtless cutting and pasting is not necessarily effective.
The blind following the blind is not a smart long-term strategy—even when the blind luck into something that works (I’m thinking about the Ice Bucket Challenge and other phenomena—anyone remember the Pet Rock?).
But creative cutting and pasting can work out just swell! First understand (1) why what your cutting/pasting worked for whoever you’re borrowing it from, and (2) what about that strategy will likely work for you.
So, what does it take to get nonprofits to open up their eyes?
This is at the heart of the recently released “Fundraising Bright Spots” report issued by the Walter and Evelyn Haas Jr. Fund. It explores how a select group of social change organizations are achieving breakthrough results in individual giving. It’s worth a review if you’ve not read it, because it gets to the ‘innovation’ I believe Joe is really talking about. (Also see “Beyond Fundraising: What Does it Mean to Build a Culture of Philanthropy?”)
If you want to advance your mission, you must create a learning organization.
This can mean many things. What it doesn’t mean is change for the sake of change.
Change must signify something. It must be directed towards something. To become lasting and useful, it must generally bubble up and be the product of an organizational culture (many today call this a “culture of philanthropy”) that nurtures change rather than forces it:
- An organization that embraces questioning.
- An organization where no one fears speaking their mind or taking chances.
- An organization where risk is rewarded and failures are forgiven.
- An organization where I can say to you: “That strategy seemed to work well. How can I help you make it work even better next time? How can we tailor that strategy to make it more relevant to our supporters?”
- An organization where you won’t respond defensively, and knock me down a peg.
- An organization where you won’t attack me when the strategy I attempted failed.*
*Note: In a recent article on the 101fundraising blog, also inspired by the Joe Jenkins opinion piece, Derek Humphries made the point that learning organizations must take into account cultural diversity. If you work internationally, and things are different there (Joe noted that in Japan failure is not an option, so it’s hardly acceptable to learn from it), then you most adapt accordingly. That doesn’t mean, however, that you eschew learning.
You lead. You love. You listen. You learn. You lead.
In part two of this four-part article, we’ll further explore the purpose of innovation, and begin to address how to do it. What types of changes may be on the horizon for your nonprofit—assuming you want to work smart, be the best you can be, and survive and thrive in the current environment?
If you like craft fairs, baseball games, art openings, vocal and guitar, and political conversation, you’ll like to hang out with Claire Axelrad. Claire, J.D., CFRE, will inspire you through her philosophy of philanthropy, not fundraising. After a 30-year development career that earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award, Claire left the trenches to begin her coaching/teaching practice, Clairification. Claire is also a featured expert and chief fundraising coach for Bloomerang, She’ll be your guide, so you can be your donor’s guide on their philanthropic journey. A member of the California State Bar and graduate of Princeton University, Claire currently resides in San Francisco.