Want to Fundraise Like Charity:Water? Develop Engaged Advocates, not Donors

I’ve always been struck by the different ways old and new organizations approach online communications, fundraising and organizing. The two groups could learn a lot by studying each other.

Charity:Water poster - 4,5000 children will die today from water-related diseases
Charity:Water poster with a focused and powerful idea.

Newer groups aren’t beholden to a certain way of doing things, entrenched hierarchies and well-established silos. They’re likely led and staffed by bootstrapping generalists that are truly passionate about an idea or mission and not much deterred by failures. Their enthusiasm rubs off on those around them and can stir up a hornet’s nest of much-needed action.

Organizations that have been around a while (and let’s say 15-20 years or more) have staying power. They have figured out how to get things done and sustain the business of running an organization. Relationship-building takes time and they have stuck to it – likely carving out strong relationships with the powerful in communities and government.

Most that work in and around nonprofit organizations these days would probably say that adapting to digital networks and online fundraising has been a challenge for older groups. A well-established way of doing things is challenged by the speed and apparent loss of control over message and action wrought by online networks.

Learning from Younger Groups

There is room in the nonprofit tent for both old and new organizations. But technical change is happening fast and the fabric of communities, environment, institutions is fraying before our eyes. Groups need to be at the top of their game.

James Read recently wrote a post called Lessons from Young Charities over on SOFII, the Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration (hat-tip to Jeff Brooks for the post that alerted me to Read’s work).

James Read works in fundraising and has been taking a close look at how newer organizations like Charity:Water, Love146 and Invisible Children (among others) are faring well in both fundraising and results.

Read highlights and explains some common themes he sees in these organizations:

  • Principle 1: focus on a powerful idea
  • Principle 2: recruit passionate advocates, not merely donors
  • Principle 3: be a storyteller
  • Principle 4: invest in the brand experience
  • Principle 5: prove your impact

It is a great list and pretty on target (though it doesn’t much address the internal workings of staff, leadership and boards of directors that makes possible an organizational culture that can nurture these principles).

The thing is, these are not new ideas. They’re woven into many organizations, at least in part. Most any group will tell you that they’re focused, passionate, engage their audience and can tell great stories about their work and impact. The reality, however, is that it isn’t happening.

Turn the Audience into Advocates, not Donors

Engagement is perhaps the thread that ties together these principles. Each of these organizations recognizes the power of networks to turn an idea or cause into a movement. It’s not about how to take advantage of social networks, putting the right sharing icon on your emails or how many times a day you should post to Facebook. These are tactical points along the way. The mundane stuff, really. Underlying that is creating and enabling individuals to become advocates themselves; helping people join others to fight for something big, bold, beautiful and bigger than themselves. The end goal is not to turn 4% of your new email subscribers into online donors this year so you can pay your staff.

No, the end goal is to get shit done. And all the staff in the world won’t make that happen. What these organizations have recognized is not how to capitalize on social media (though they work it well) but how to engage and empower people to extend the organization into personal networks and communities.

Read quotes Rob Morris of Love 146 on how they look at people coming into the group:

Rob Morris…says he wants a participant in his organisation to become a fan, then an evangelist who tells others, and finally an ‘owner’ with a sense of responsibility for the cause.

Basic engagement ladder theory 101. A participant that is able to share in the work and beliefs will be a better supporter. Every organization should have a well-defined and agreed upon plan/strategy/mission statement for engagement – as a starting point (turning that into action and programs is the next step). It’s no longer sufficient to make “be a donor” the top of the engagement ladder.

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