Mark Rovner has an insightful post about the current state of fundraising and non-profits.
The short version: most big charities are based on direct mail fundraising, and as you’re read here before, direct mail is dying. What to do?
I’ll start with the bad news: I despair for most of the top 50 non-profits in the US. These are the big guys, and they’re stuck. Unlike the Fortune 100, not known for being cutting edge in themselves, the top charities rarely change… if you’re big, you’re used to being big and you expect to stay big. That means that generation after generation of staff has been hired to keep doing what’s working. Big risks and crazy schemes are certainly frowned upon.
The good news is this: the Internet is not a replacement for direct mail fundraising. It is, in fact, something much bigger than that for just about every non-profit.
As soon as commerce started online, many non-profits discovered lots of income from their websites. This was mistakenly chalked up to brilliant conversion and smart marketing. In fact, it was just technologically advanced donors using a more convenient method to send in money they would have sent in anyway.
The big win is in changing the very nature of what it means to support a charity. The idea of "I gave at the office" and of giving money in the last week in December speaks to obligation. Many people donate to satisfy a guilty feeling, or to please a friend. This doesn’t scale. Not one bit. It’s super easy to ignore a direct mail solicitation when all you have to do is hit delete and no one notices.
The big win is in turning donors into patrons and activists and participants. The biggest donors are the ones who not only give, but do the work. The ones who make the soup or feed the hungry or hang the art. My mom was a volunteer for years at the Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, and there’s no doubt at all that we gave more money to the museum than we would have if they’d sent us a flyer once a month.
The internet allows some organizations to embrace long-distance involvement. It lets charities flip the funnel, not through some simple hand waving, but by reorganizing around the idea of engagement online. It means opening yourself up to volunteers, encouraging them to network, to connect with each other, and yes, even to mutiny. It means giving every one of your professionals a blog and the freedom to use it. It means mixing it up with volunteers, so they have something truly at stake. This is understandably scary for many non-profits, but I’m not so sure you have a choice.
Do you have to abandon the old ways today? Of course not. But responsible stewardship requires that you find and empower the mavericks and give them the flexibility to build something new, not to try to force the internet to act like direct mail with free stamps.