Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Year 2017 - What a letdown

Gayle Roberts is hosting the Giving Carnival this month and has suggested I contribute an entry on the "future of fundraising."

For those of you coming from the Giving Carnival that don't know me, I started three years ago as a place for individuals and organizations to post project-specific appeals and provide donors with hassle-free, tax-efficient way to contribute and "evangelists" the means by which to promote the fundraising appeal online within their social networks.

The last time I contemplated the future, it was in 4th grade and I was convinced that by 2001, we would all personal robot assistants and flying cars. Humbled by my lack of prescience, I haven't sought to prognosticate since.

Let's see... In the year 2017, Bob Geldof will turn 65 and it will be two years after the Millennium Development Goals' first major milestone. I predict that Bob Geldof will launch the "Blue" campaign, rallying senior citizens to donate their "blue hair special" discounts to a newly formed organization called the Octagenarian Promise. But seriously folks...

I'm worried. Here's why:

1) Messaging & Delivery: First to delivery. In the early 1970s, it was inconceivable that a television ad could deliver a message in less than 1 minute. By the early 80s, that had dropped to about 45, by the mid to late 80s it was 30, and now it's conceivable to deliver a full message in 5 to 10 seconds. I'm the son of an English professor, I was a voracious reader until my late teens but now my eyes can't even stay focused on an entire newspaper or magazine article. This is not because of undiagnosed ADD but rather because of a "compression of messaging."

Now, when I advise consumer brands, I advise on how to embrace this compression of messaging because if the message of "buying this product makes you a happier/sexier/healthier person," that's all that's needed. But every fundraising campaign is also an awareness campaign, trying to actually inform and educate people.
I think education can still exist within hyper-compressed messaging but of all the
non-profits and other change-making groups I interact with, this issue is not a priority and for the most part, not on the radar at all. This is NOT just a problem for reaching today's generation 30 and under.

Absent making this a priority, I'm very concerned that many organizations will fail to earn their share of "conversational bandwidth" for both their organization and issue.

On messaging, take a look at this website for Camp Okutta and first click on the Shooting Range and then the Grenade Pit. What's incredibly sad is that when I saw the Shooting Range piece, I accepted it as reality that there was probably a kids camp like this somewhere in the US (sorry, but I envisioned this as "Blackwater for Kids.")

With "embedded reporting", pornography becoming mainstream, the content of the top-selling video-games, the rising popularity of characters like Nancy Grace and for that matter, Anderson Cooper, it's harder to shock us, to enrage us, to engage us. We now expect bad news, horrific imagery. We consume this unemotionally, disengaged. This means that our stories from the field are becoming "consumer news" in ways that don't provoke reaction in the same ways as before.

The problem is that if we in the non-profit sector "sink" to the levels of mass-media engagement, we're most certainly doomed but if we don't find a way by which to create our "content" in ways that people seek to engage, we're also in trouble.

2) Online fundraising risks becoming a victim of it's own success.

The more that online fundraising tools are embraced, the more likely that online fundraising (in most of its current form) will become less meaningful. In other words, the more emails we get from our social network, the more likely we are to see any appeal as "spam." When I started GiveMeaning three years ago, I made it clear that I didn't want to create a donor portal recognizing, that "most people don't wake up and think 'geez where do I want to give today?'" And I still believe that to be true. We're almost entirely fundraiser-centric, meaning that very few people come to our site looking to give away their money.

That said, I think one of the predictions I will boldly make is that we're going to see that online fundraising tools will plateau and perhaps even start a decline and that we'll start to see a rise in "donor-centric" sites.

This chart maps the popularity of five websites. Hugg, DonorsChoose, NetworkForGood, Kiva and The x axis displays the "traffic rank" (1 being highest) and the y axis is a 6-month plot of time. This graph shows that (which has no online fundraising or donation functionality) leading the pack, followed by, then (a user-generated environmental news site), and then NetworkForGood (notice the "lumpiness" of website traffic") followed by a couple of big spikes for DonorsChoose during year-end and holiday season but falling-off after that.

For me, the future lies somewhere between Kiva and Care2. Kiva has managed to create micro-content that engages the small donor in repeat visits to the site and invests them in a specific outcome. Care2 is a site that provides news stories, discussion and other community tools to engage people around the issues they are most passionate about.

I see a migration from "reactionary" to "exploratory" in the online fundraising world where peer-to-peer funding will go from "asking" to "collaboration"

That's the direction I'm committed to taking GiveMeaning...

Lastly,the other point is that no organization should have to maintain a ten different profiles, accounts etc. The fundraising sites that are going to be still operating in 2017 are the ones that are publishing feeds from a central organization source. There will also be new "middleware" opportunities for vendors to manage donor communication but what is now called "Donor Relationship Management (DRM)" is going to be very different because it's going to be more about tracking all of these small micro-campaigns, both in terms of performance and media syndication.

So that's my vision. The only thing I'm pretty sure of is the Blue Campaign.

I think I might try a separate post on the actual fundraising industry but these are my thoughts on the future of online fundraising.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Changing the world - one milk carton at a time

So about a week or so ago Jessie comes home from having drinks with a friend and informed me that we're never shopping at the convenience store below our apartment ever again.

These kind of pronouncements more often come from my mouth, so I was curious as to know what kind of injustice she had witnessed that would take the convenience out of the convenience store.

Apparently, Jessie asked the owner why they don't carry organic milk, he got defensive and said something like "if you don't like it, shop somewhere else" and so she promised never to shop there again. His argument was that "no one wants organic milk." Inspired (I suspect) from the liquid courage she had just imbibed, she brought other customers into her conversation, and proceeded to ask three people standing in line whether they would buy organic milk, if they stocked it. Either out of genuine interest or social anxiety, they all said that they would buy the organic milk if it was available.

She left promising never to return until they carried organic milk. Of all the stances to take, I'm not sure why Jess seized on this (again, perhaps it was the drinks) but a couple of days later, as we walked by our convenience store, one of the owners came running after Jessie and said "ok, we have organic milk now. shop with us again!"

So now of course, we're drinking a lot of milk in the household.

This story is a bit cheesy (cheesy, get it?) but it does contain two fundamental truths about changing the world:

1) Start small. Real small.
2) When they do what you want, buy a whole lot of milk. (i.e. reward the changed behavior by increased loyalty).

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The lunchbag letdown.

Just before going on vacation, I wrote this entry, wanting to talk about the issues facing "New Canadians" (a term I like more and more). I had intended to post while on vacation but wisely left the laptop at home. I'm now picking-up where I left off.

Let me start with a disclaimer: I am not an expert on anything I write about. I am writing to try and create a discussion around the issues facing New Canadians and a rationale as to why more of us ought to try to do something. I am hoping that people much smarter than I am will contribute comments and feedback that will set right my mistaken assumptions and inform us all. Disclaimer made.

In this post, I want to compare a donor dollar spent on Darfur emergency relief and a dollar spent on providing free after-school tutoring to Sudanese kids who have landed here in Vancouver as refugees. I hate these types of comparisons because - in an ideal world - we ought to fund both, but it's unlikely that the same donor will fund both programs.

The "on the ground" effort is urgent, extreme and well-reported in the media. The "here at home" situation is certainly not urgent nor extreme (in the same context) and thus not well-reported. Of course, if a family of Sudanese refugees have found their way to Canada, they are certainly much luckier/wealthier than their friends and family back home, right? Right. Well kinda.

I can't fault any refugee if they lose perspective eventually. (I know I would lose it quite quickly) Meaning that eventually, I stop comparing my current situation today, here in Canada, with my past situation back in Sudan. Eventually, I have to look at the fact that I am here now and I must survive and ultimately try to move up the economic ladder here in Canada.

So back to what to fund. The crisis is on and somehow this one refugee has landed in Toronto along with his two children. The children are placed in school in the grades corresponding with their age. Problem is that their education is at a much lower level than their ages. They've been in and out of school. Stop start for the past several years before coming to Canada. The school gives a bit of extra help, an hour a week but there's one tutor to 10 kids, all of whom are at various learning levels and english competency.

The two kids are falling behind in school and yet despite this, they are already more educated than their father. He can't help them. So eventually, they stop trying. They spend less time at school, hanging-out with other kids who have slipped through the cracks. Meanwhile, the father whose English is passable but by no means strong, finds himself unable to get work other than as a less than minimum wage laborer.

An entire post deserves to be written on the exploitation of New Canadians on farms, in nannying and other industries but let's keep talking about the father and his kids.

The kids drop out-of school and then walk down one of two paths: A life not unlike their father, working below the poverty line, their labor exploited or they find easier money selling drugs, find support and a sense of family in a gang, and then end-up incarcerated or dead.

Obviously the story I portray is one of extremes but the story I'm telling above is a composite of many people I've met here in Canada whose personal stories are far more sensational than this composite.

Now maybe your attitude is that they (the New Canadians) should be "lucky to be here" and "to each his own" and if they're unable to make it up the economic ladder, that's their problem. And at least on the last point, I might be willing to accommodate that view, if only it were a fair fight. But my Sudanese friend is "bringing a knife to a gunfight."

So then, if it's not a fair fight, and we're not investing in adequate resources to ensure that those that we purposefully annoint as one of us, as a Canadian, if they are not given the resources, then in a way, we are actually contributing to a new form of slavery.

Bear with me.

We know the basic requirements to move up the ladder. It starts with education and skills development. If these resources (which are inalienable rights of any Canadian) are not afforded to New Canadians, specifically recognizing that they can't just be "slotted" into society with a citizenship card and a rousing singing of O'Canada and God Save The Queen, that they need some form of "starter kit" that specifically addresses how to place them onto a level playing field, then we are in many cases signing-off on their enslavement.

Now if that isn't a compelling enough argument for us to do MORE, let me make a pure dollars and sense argument. I've seen some of the most generous giving for international development come from New Canadians who have managed to move-up the economic ladder, and who have contributed disproportionate amounts of their wealth (as a percentage of their income compared to "averages" of annual giving) back into the communities where they grew-up and in the surrounding communities. I've seen a lot of this giving done quietly and even without tax-relief and I'm proud to say that at GiveMeaning, we provide an infrastructure by which many of these grass-roots projects are being facilitated.

So here's a couple of solutions:

The biggest issue is not a lack of resources, but a lack of access to these resources. Back to my analogy of the starter-kit, if there was someone during the citizenship process who worked as a "case officer" for a New Canadian, who took the time to understand the specific needs of that family, and then accessed a central database of all service providers offering relevant and applicable services, this would make a MAJOR difference.

As I say often, there are 80,000 charities in Canada and more than 100,000 non-profit societies. In addition, there are countless grass-roots volunteer groups offering a myriad services but most of these organizations have zero budget for outreach or awareness.

Heck, someone should create a community portal aimed at New Canadians arriving from the same countries. Share resources, anonymously articulate problem employers, coordinate meet-ups, etc. Do it as a non-profit endeavor. I'm sure there would be lots of government grants and community grants available for such a site, and potentially even some corporate sponsorship.

So there's a start. Second, we need stricter laws protecting "migrant workers" and a review of temporary worker visas and the employers who bring in workers under this visa, and a better process by which workers can articulate grievances without fear of retribution.

So there it is. Not without hyperbole but not without merit.

I'm curious to hear your thoughts.

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Finally back in the saddle

I'm back. Despite having been back from an incredibly refreshing vacation for about two weeks, I have found it incredibly difficult to get back in work mode, having so thoroughly relaxed on my vacation. Every vacation I've ever been on has been a "working vacation" complete with Blackberry, MacBook and the OCD-inspired habit of checking of email every two minutes.

This time was different and I must say, I really needed the break.

So I'm back and I have more than a few stories to tell. I'll try and catch-up over the next few days but first, three small little tidbits that I'm pretty proud of:

While vacationing on Saltspring Island, we found out that my wife, Jessie Farrell, has been nominated for two Canadian Country Music Awards!!! To be nominated for Female Artist of The Year and "Rising Star Award" is really exciting and we found out by listening to JR FM while pulling our car into a Goat Cheese factory!

The next week, I found out that I've been named one of Marketing Magazine's "top 30 under 30," which I'm very proud of. It's good timing because I'm thinking about re-tooling my blog or possibly maintaining two separate blogs. One on philanthropy and cause marketing, the other on more technology, marketing and other rants. I want to invest more time and energy in blogging and am going to pursue this in earnest in September.

Lastly, GiveMeaning was mentioned in today's print edition of the Wall St. Journal (page D4).

So that's my exciting news.

Now, on to where I left off.

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