As the 20th century drew to a close, we had come to think of fundraising as a mature, well developed discipline. But then came the emerging technologies of the 21st century. These game changers have already given us communication and transactional media that could barely be imagined by most fundraisers three decades ago in the 1980s. They present engagement opportunities and channels of giving that were only dimly visible on the horizon of fundraising in the early 1990s.

Traditional Areas of Expertise

As we move more deeply into the second decade of the 21st century, we can see clearly that fundraising has changed in ways many would not have expected. Looking back, it can be argued that the 1990s were the last decade in which a successful fundraising operation could be based almost exclusively on varying levels of knowledge and expertise in such traditional fields of endeavor as:

  • Accounting
  • Marketing
  • Direct mail
  • Communications
  • Public Relations
  • Law
  • Advertising
  • Selling
  • Event management
  • Organizational management

I’m sure the list is missing one or more areas of expertise that effective fundraising has relied upon, but the point is that since the turn of the century new fields based on new and emerging technologies have forced their way onto the list. The impact of these arrivals has been to substantially enlarge the areas of expertise needed by professionals who dedicate themselves to assuring the financial security of nonprofit organizations.

There is no doubt that we previously have seen important additions to the expertise needed. Telethons and phone campaigns, for example, when they entered the scene in the mid 20th century made use of then recent or new technological developments in telephony, radio, and television, but they merely gave fundraisers some new tools.

  • They didn’t disrupt the way nonprofits communicate with constituents, the public, and donors.
  • They didn’t make it possible for organizations to respond to funding challenges in a matter of days and hours.

And yes, the advent of credit card networks a half century ago made it possible to receive money over the telephone and automatically collect pledges. But credit cards didn’t open up whole new multiple channels of instant giving the way that smart phones, iPads, and other Web-connected devices have.

The technologies and tools that directly impacted fundraising in the latter half of the 20th century were an evolutionary parallel to the concurrent development of fundraising as a discipline and profession. But today’s developments are a different story.

21st-Century Technologies are Game Changers

These new technologies and the opportunities they are creating have become an integral part of fundraising strategy, and they require whole new sets of strategic considerations and tactical skills that nonprofit fundraising, if it is to be successful, must now rely upon.

We are in the era of websites, email, social media, and whatever lies around the next digital corner, and we approach that corner, and the next corner, and the one after that at breakneck speed. The size and  rapidity of the impact of technology on how nonprofit organizations raise money is dizzying.

One of my former employers, Heifer International, began using its website in earnest as both an active tool for direct fundraising and as a collection channel for other fundraising communication media in the early 2000s. By the time I arrived to manage its online operations in 2005, more than $8 million a year was coming in through the website. When I left two and a half years later, the website was pushing $30 million in annual donations. If going from zero to nearly $30 million in little more than a half decade isn’t a dizzying rate of change, I don’t know what is.

Times of Rapid Change Require Clear Heads

Fundraisers need more than ever to keep their heads when the pace of change undergoes rapid acceleration as a result of emerging technologies–the workings of which they are likely to have little practical knowledge.

In times like these, it is crucially important to remember that fundraising remains at its core a proposition of recognizing and nurturing relationship. Depth of relationship is what allows a nonprofit to have an expectation of generous response when it asks those who care about it to provide support. In this brave new digital world, fundraisers still need to:

  • Reach out to those who provide small gifts and support annual fund drives.
  • Develop strong mutually rewarding relationships with individuals capable of making larger gifts.
  • Find grant-making organizations and agencies whose areas of interest, policies, and practices align with the mission and scope of their nonprofit organization and then develop relationships with the decision influencers and makers of those grant makers.

The ways in which we do these things have and will continue to change dramatically. Some longstanding options will fall by the wayside. For example, it is only a matter of time before physical newsletters, and annual reports are totally replaced by their digital successors. But no matter which media and technologies carry on into the decades ahead, we can be sure that many new ones will be added. There is no better indicator of this than the first decade of this 21st century.

It’s Still About Relationships Not Bits and Bytes

Does that mean fundraising has become the captive of the technology that aids it–become the province of the information technology professional? No! Fundraising is still about what an organization does and how well its good works fit with the desires, interests, and sensibilities of people and organizations able and willing to make gifts and award grants. In the end, successful fundraising will continue to rely on well formed and constantly nurtured relationships. Just as we would not charge the accounting department with the task of raising money, we would not turn over responsibility for managing campaigns to the IT department.

What is changing are the ways in which relationships are formed and nurtured. The advent of websites, social media, and email have made it easier than ever before for those who are interested in the work of a nonprofit organization to find and initiate relationship. And nonprofits have never had as many channels of sharing to use in reaching out and nurturing those relationships. All of this at a per-capita cost of media and contact so low that it has:

  • Nearly eliminate expense as a barrier to best practices.
  • Erased any and all excuses for failing to develop an efficient communication program.
  • Put improved relationship nurturing in the hands of any organization willing to reach out and grasp the tools offered by emerging technologies.

New Ways to Recognize & Nurture Relationship

A nonprofit organization that hasn’t developed an interactive website and an email communication program that meets the interests of potential donors is at risk of falling a decade behind the curve. If an organization’s website is a one-way channel of communication through which the organization talks and people are expected to be grateful for the opportunity to listen, that organization is not using its website to nurture relationship.

In fact, it can be argued that such “brochureware”  websites actually damage relationship by not providing the opportunities for interaction that indicate organizations value those who visit their websites. Today’s developing donors—the ones who will provide the bulk of tomorrow’s gifts—want and expect to participate in the life of the organizations they care about most, especially on the local level. And that is absolutely GREAT! What an opportunity to nurture relationship!

When it comes to email—especially the email that people in nonprofits too often refer to as “bulk email”—the challenges and opportunities are even greater.  We should never think of any form of email as “bulk”. All email is received individually by the person to whom it is directed. It makes no difference whether one or one million pieces were sent, each is received as a single missive entering a specific inbox.

Realizing that each email goes to a specific individual is the first step to eliminating a mentality in ourselves that sees our email efforts as mass or bulk mailings. Such description is left over from the days when we had only physical mail to deliver information directly to large audiences. Why we would want to adopt the word and mentality “bulk”—a post-office description of something that the public came to call “junk mail”—for use in a delivery medium that allows us to custom tailor messages to an individual’s specific interests is beyond comprehension.

We now have the ability to collect and analyze data based on the viewing and participatory behavior exhibited by visitors to an organization’s website, its Facebook and other social media presences, its Twitter stream, and how those recipients read and respond to the organization’s emails. From that analysis a strategy can be synthesized for tailoring future emails to more closely align with a recipient’s consciously expressed and behaviorally revealed interests in an organization and its mission.

We can tailor a “bulk” email so that each recipient receives content arranged and ordered in a way to appeal to him/her along with special content that is included only in the version of an email message sent to him/her. We can target single individuals like never before at a cost within the reach of even small nonprofits.

However, unless an organization’s email list is extremely small—dozens to a couple of hundred—in all likelihood we will be tailoring to groupings of individuals. How many groupings and how large they are will depend on both the strategy for nurturing relationship and the granularity of content available. And here is where an investment is required if an organization is to be successful.

Content & Actions Still More Important Than Medium

Just because the technology is there doesn’t mean attempting to use it is the right thing to do. The question that should be asked before every effort to communicate with potential donors is, “Will this strengthen relationship?” If an effort runs the risk of damaging relationship, a nonprofit organization should run in the other direction. A communication that is seen as an intrusion rather than a welcome contact by its recipient will diminish trust, weaken that recipient’s willingness to extend permission to contact him/her, and ultimately damage relationship.

An organization had better have something to say to any individual it contacts, and it had better believe that the individual will find what it has to say interesting and worthwhile. And that’s where the investment comes in. Technology has lowered exponentially the cost of communicating and offering opportunities for interaction, but that makes the quality of the communication put forward or of the offered interaction more important than ever. Organizations need to invest to assure:

  • Quality of content.
  • Freshness of content.
  • Meaningful interaction.
  • Continued follow up to content presented.
  • Quick, appropriate, and relationship-nurturing response to content accepted and read by an individual.
  • Quick, appropriate, and relationship-nurturing response to interaction in which an individual engages.

Dos & Don’ts

Organizations need to be committed to doing all of the above, and they need to commit to doing it over the long haul. If an expectation of meaningful, high-value content and interaction is created, then that expectation must be fulfilled. In short, don’t bite off more than you can chew. Making a promise you do not keep damages relationship—sometimes irreparably.

  • Do begin an email communication program, but don’t do it unless you are willing to invest the resources needed to make it worthwhile for recipients.
  • Do have a website that promises valuable information and has new pages and content added regularly—weekly or daily—but don’t do it unless you are prepared to invest resources to create content that is fresh, interesting, and valuable.
  • Do start a blog that you want people to read and participate in regularly, but don’t do it unless you are committed to posting new quality content at least twice a week.
  • Do ask people to take part in your organization’s thinking and endeavors, but don’t do it unless you are prepared to respond within a day to what is offered.
  • Do play an active role in social media that reach potential donors, but don’t do it unless you are capable of providing valuable information, responding rapidly, and keeping up with the needed flow of information and the participatory presence required.

This list of dos and don’ts could be taken to a greater level of granularity, but the core of each entry would be the same. Don’t start something without first understanding the level of commitment needed to carry it out successfully and without the will and resources to follow through.

All nonprofit organizations are going to have to add digital communication and fundraising expertise to their knowledge disciplines. The wait-and-see attitude taken by many who have feared the unknown inherent in these new technologies has passed its sell-by date. Action is required, but the most important action is not to grab the newest and hottest tricks and techniques. Rather it is to enter into the digital world with all the commitment of will and resources needed to assure success. While that can seem like a daunting proposition when faced with all the possibilities of the digital world, it cannot be allowed to become one. The two things that must not be allowed to happen are:

  • Fearing failure so much that an organization and the people who run its fundraising operation do nothing.
  • Attempting to adopt too much too soon and spreading too thinly the resources able to be committed to digital communication and fundraising.

Start with Basics & Make Sure to Nurture Relationship

So what’s an organization and those charged with developing and executing fundraising plans to do? Start small. Start with the basics, and stick to them. Digital communication and fundraising at its most basic requires two things:

  • A well functioning website with continuous regular infusions of fresh, interesting content and the opportunity for visitors to share their thoughts.
  • An email communication program that delivers a fresh, seductive, and rich monthly newsletter and that is capable of sending additional messages within days or hours of recognizing a specific need to communicate.

The goal of email communication generally is to get a reader to click a link and move to a webpage. That means that for every teaser story in a newsletter or call to action in an alert, deeper content must be developed and placed on a webpage. An email program and a website support and develop one another. An organization must commit to both simultaneously. Email delivers traffic to the website and the website provides the in-depth content promised in an email.

Nonprofit organizations need to dive into this brave new digital world, and I do mean dive. Dipping a toe into the digital waters to test the temperature is not the way to go. A halfhearted attempt will not produce positive results. However, such an attempt’s lack of commitment and displayed unwillingness to invest resources will most assuredly damage the very relationships that a fundraising operation desires to nurture. Dive in yes, but that dive doesn’t have to be from the high board. Instead start with a smaller plunge and deeply commit to perfecting it.

And remember to ask yourself the question: “Will this strengthen relationship?” each time you are ready to try something new in an attempt to improve on what already exists. If the answer isn’t yes, don’t do it.