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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Tom, thanks for your thoughtful prognostication. Even with all the new tools available, fundraising will always be about developing value-based relationships. One way I look at our work is transforming strangers into friends, friends in to donors, and donors into advocates for the greater good. As you’ve point out, a key challenges is how do we cut through the increasing clutter and connect at a human level in order to facilitate this shift. It is an important question to ask.
Gayle, thanks for encouraging me to be part of the discussion.
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