the future of fundraising

The future of fundraising and nonprofit leadership has been the topic of several conversations lately in the Oneicity backchannel. Sometimes the context is a charity in an executive search. Then the question is: “Who’s the right candidate for the next 10 years?” Sometimes the question is organizational: “What do we need to do to be ready for the future?”

All those conversations have me thinking about the future of fundraising. Or rather, what will fundraising look like in the next 10 years?

Here’s what I think:

1. It’s going to be about “them” not you. You’ll have to get better at thinking about what your donors are thinking. In the good old days, you could tell donors what you want to do and most donors would help you do it. In the future, donors won’t follow (or give) just because you said you need their gift. They will have to be connected (and wooed). (This is really the way it should be now, but more and more will realize how powerful this concept is).

2. You’re going to be confused and overwhelmed. What worked in the past won’t be effective. Information will flow in ways you can’t manage. The more you try to manage it, the more overwhelming it will be. Nimble will be the order of the day. Testing, failing and tracking will be how you succeed. You’re going to have to have someone leading who is comfortable with ups, downs and ambiguity. (Look for those who always sit at the front of the roller coaster and with their hands up).

3. You’re going focus on relationships first. The competition for donor dollars is going to be a painful. Donors will give where they know someone and know what the organization is really doing. It’ll be a huge plus if the organization knows the donors…really knows them.

4. Authenticity will beat slick. Big budgets can only manage externals so long. Information will flow much like a big river in flood stage. You can think you’re managing it, but you’re not. So ride the river rapids, and don’t fight it.

5. Small will beat big. It just will. So if you’re big, you have to think of yourself as small, probably even operating as small units.

6. Real relationships will be more valuable than big budgets. Those big fundraising budgets are trying to create relationships that will turn into income. In the future, we’re all going to be so connected that if you’re small, you can parlay your relationships into the best kind of fundraising…real people telling their friends about your great work. The tools are available now for those champions of yours to tell their world about you.

7. Analytics will be the secret sauce. You will have to know the sweet spots in your data. You won’t be able to guess or hope any more.

8. Brand will mean more, logos will mean less. People who have no idea what your “brand promise” is will be your champions and help you with your mission (or rather do what they are wanting to do—see #1). Focusing anywhere but on what your donors know you to be will be even more dangerous in the future than it is now.

9A. Donors will want to know more about your “business” than you may like. Donors will be more and more savvy about fundraising ratios, admin costs and how “gift-in-kind” can be an accounting game. Donors will ask penetrating questions that could either be awkward or liberating.

9B. Donors will find out more about your “business” than you may like. Be prepared for donors to find your locations in Africa or the inner city and see for themselves…or they’ll just Google and find out that your fundraising looks just like half the other rescue missions in the US. Or they’ll download your 990 and ask questions by line number.

10. Direct mail fundraising will continue to be dead but strangely effective for some. Mailing everyone on your mailing list will continue to be a way to fail in slow motion. But those who understand the power of good data will use direct mail with delightful ROIs.

11. Integration. Integration. Integration.

12. You’ll need someone who can manage a portfolio of relationships, just like you have people now who manage Major Donor portfolios. Deep relationships will become as important as deep pockets. You’ll be looking for the donor who can write the big check and the donor who can get you in front of the people who can make things happen. And you’re going to want to have someone who can manage purposeful relationships.

13. Experiences will drive donor interest. Experience is already the name of the game. Donors have to experience the reality of your work. Help them smell it. Taste it. Hear it. See it. Feel it. And then help them talk about what they experienced. The importance of experience will accelerate.

14. You’re still going to wonder how you’ll connect with younger donors. That’s the way it always has been. For some reason those “kids” are always hard for the establishment to understand.

15. Donors will want to learn but won’t want to be taught. If you “teach” your donors about philanthropy or stewardship, plan to have another plan. Donors will still want to learn but they will mostly want to find out for themselves. If you’re not answering the questions they’re asking, they won’t be listening. Answer donor questions, don’t give them your sales pitch disguised as teaching.

16. 140 characters or scannable. I have about 1,000 words going here…but you can scan it and I’ll be pleased even if you pull something out of context. In fact, few will read this post. Most will see it on Twitter (140 characters), many will scan it, a very few will read it all. That’s what I plan for. You’ll have to do the same with your fundraising—web pages, letters, emails and social media. Bank on a “scanned impression” not a careful read…really think of your donor scanning while standing over a trash can.

17. You’ll worry about different metrics. The standbys of ROI and fundraising ratios will remain important, but net income will be the new focus for donors (OK, that’s really my hope more than a prediction). Social media and relationship measures will help you know how the softer side of fundraising is going.

18. Data will be visual. It already is for some of us, but many out there are still working with rows and columns of numbers and lists of facts as the primary presentation. The future of successful fundraising will belong to those who can see the trends through data viz and drill down to the detail.

Oh, and guess what, this all starts in the morning at 9AM. Everyone hands up it’s going to be a fun ride.

I had a few more I could have put in but I thought you’d want to weigh in. What do you think the future of fundraising will be? What will be the same? What will change from today? When does the future begin? I love hearing what you’re thinking.

Steve Thomas
Partner, Oneicity

(photo credit: txbowen)

Steve Thomas

Steve Thomas

8 thoughts on “the future of fundraising”

  1. I think more and more donors want to see specifically how and where their dollars are being used. Think of the fundraising success of sponsoring a child or native missionary. I can put a face on my donation and know that a specific individual in this big world is being affected by me. Another way to look at this is tying a gift to a specific item needed, such as giving $50 for the purchase of 5 chickens for a farmer in Africa. These are not necessary new ideas; however, people will respond more readily with this personal connection.

  2. Excellent post as usual Steve.

    You’re right, there’s a shift going on in the world. I see (hopefully) a change in the business world as well towards greater focus on customer service (think Zappos). The true masters of fundraising have always known that it’s all about being donor-centric. The trick now lies in applying donor-centric technics within the options open to us – social media, email marketing, direct mail and more (btw, I just don’t see direct mail dying anytime in the near future: As you noted: integration, integration, integration.

    And, yes, studies are showing an increased preference for giving to nonprofits providing donors with measurable results.

    One area I would like to see more organizations focus on is monthly giving. It’s such a no-brainer. Establishing a monthly giving program establishes a deeper bond with your donor and is certainly an awesome way to allow donors to “experience the reality of your work.”

  3. @Jeffrey–I think you’re right that donors may want to designate where their gifts go, but most NPOs will wisely guide donors toward “where most needed” or more general designations. I think it is a great idea to draw new donors into an organization through designated giving, but long-term, designated giving is tough on many charities.
    Thanks for the input.

  4. @Pamela–the link you listed isn’t working for me, do you have an updated link?

    Also, you comments on monthly giving are right on in terms of the advantages for the NPO, but it is difficult for some to build a successful monthly giving program. For whatever reasons, managing that ongoing program is tough.

    Thanks so much for your thoughts.

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