Major Donor Fundraising – Digital vs Analogue?

Anyone who has worked with me will probably concur that whilst I’m no Luddite, I’m perhaps not an obvious choice to talk about technology at the CIOF major donor conference this year.  To use a really analogue metaphor, the stop start energy of lockdown restrictions has played with the speed of change like a giant tape recorder – slowing down some things until they seem unrecognisable and hitting fast forward on others out of sheer necessity.  What is clear is that nowhere has this momentum been faster and more transformative than in the way we use technology to engage with donors and that these changes are here to stay.

It’s important to say from the outset that technology doesn’t mean that the basic principles of what we do have changed.  These very human needs remain untouched.  An urgent and compelling case is still king.  Major donors continue to respond to the personal and to favour a peer to peer approach.  What has shifted however are the possibilities to reach them and these are now literally at our fingertips.

Far from being a negative, I believe the changes that are already here – and those that are coming over the next few years through the advancement of artificial intelligence – will transform philanthropy and our roles within it.  It will liberate us from much of the heavy lifting to focus on the most fascinating and rewarding aspects of what we do: the human connection, the story-telling and the enormous opportunity for creativity that (hopefully) no machine will be able to replicate.

A New Blend

Charities who have may have found the pandemic less arduous for fundraising are probably those who made hay whilst the sun shone.  Those who invested previous time and resource into relationship-based fundraising have had warmer, more invested donors happy to step up in a time of crisis.  Whilst there’s undoubtedly been some success stories, for many of us, using technology to cultivate cold prospects has been our toughest challenge of the past year. And one of the biggest roadblocks for major donor fundraisers to navigate next will be the replenishing of pipelines starved of face to face opportunity. 

Let’s focus first on that most laborious of major gift fundraising pursuits – the capital campaign.  Whilst the pandemic stopped many of these in their tracks (and there are various schools of thought on whether that was a wise decision), they will soon be revving up their engines.  Anyone who has worked on the private phase of a capital campaign will know that it is often prescriptive and paper heavy and, whilst much of that is unavoidable, the cultivation element can be transformed by technology. 

Imagine a world where you can bin the glossy brochure that’s expensive and time consuming to produce, is out of date in six months and is left redundant on the chair after the meeting is over? (Come on.  Does anyone really read them?)  Replace it with an i-Pad or a Zoom with images, plans, film clips, maybe even an opportunity for a live conversation with the beneficiary of a building.  Someone who can talk about what it might mean to them to have a youth centre in their area where there’s nothing to do and where they’re scared to walk home alone after school.  Doesn’t this become more human and dynamic? 

By ditching the reams of text, you’re packing a more powerful punch with a much lighter touch, particularly for a time-poor prospect who sometimes might not have the longest attention span.  By leading with images and personal story-telling you’re creating a stronger connection and a more lasting impression because the only physical hand out you really need are the numbers. 

Of course this can be true for all projects, not just capital, but what it means is charities are going to need to significantly raise their game with production values.  This may require smart outsourcing if the in-house talent isn’t available, but it will be investment worth making.

The End of the Gala?  (we can only dream)

It’s always been essential for me that events for major donors are never mass gatherings and it’s ironic that it’s taken a global pandemic to call a halt to this way of cultivating HNWs, forcing us to look at events through a much smaller and more creative lens.

My ardent wish for the future of cultivation events and for the sector in general surely has to be the end of the gala.  It’s really time it went away.  Galas have often been wrongly used, not only as a cornerstone for annual unrestricted fundraising income, but as a way of introducing HNWs into an organisation which is the worst possible starting point.  (I mean, nothing says you matter to us like putting a thoughtful billionaire in a room with several hundred ‘refreshed’ guests and asking them to bid on things they don’t want). 

Aside from the fact the whole production is expensive and energy sapping, what many HNW donors really want is to be in a select group having meaningful conversations with someone they find inspiring.  If this can be in a setting they might not normally be able to access then you’ve really struck gold.  This is why opportunities for prospects to meet experts online and in real time is really exciting.  By linking them up with the scientist in the laboratory or the curator in the archive, by giving them the chance to pose questions to the person running the refugee programme in Syria or to hear first-hand from beneficiary of the youth project, you’re continuing on the theme of bigger impact, lower cost and effort.  This doesn’t mean that these digital events don’t need careful thought and planning and it certainly doesn’t mean that face to face is a thing of the past, but it does mean that the future of cultivation (and stewardship) will be blended.

How to steward next– it’s not up to you

An old university friend of mine was musing recently on her podcast about the release of lockdown, saying ‘we’ve spent so long with nothing and no one and now we find we are staring down the barrel of everyone and everything and not everyone is punching the air about it’.  I can relate to this sentiment and so will a number of your donors so it’s important to check in.  Whilst there is clearly much cause for optimism, it remains a nuanced and uncertain situation and reactions to it will be equally mixed. 

As with last Spring, when the most important action we could take was to simply call our donors and find out how they were, now the current roadmap gives us another golden opportunity to connect.  Part of this conversation should be asking them what their preferred method of communication might be as restrictions are being lifted.  They may be double vaccinated and feeling confident to meet again face to face.  They may feel like this experience has been digitally transformative for them or they may never want to see another Zoom call again, but as with everything major donor, it must be bespoke. 

It’s not up to fundraisers to decide whether (or which) technology stays or goes.  I believe that will be largely determined by the inevitable expectations of society for faster, easier solutions to all aspects of our lives, including our charitable giving.  What matters most in this moment is to find out what your donor wants next and how they are experiencing what we are all hoping are the final throes of the pandemic. 

The Return of the Telephone

Let’s not neglect the old technology. The telephone has served me particularly well for relationship-building over the past year and as we are all so very tired of looking at ourselves, it could well be on a comeback tour.  I’ve found that I have had far longer and more involved conversations with donors over the phone than ever before and been able to push through any fears I may have had of ‘being intrusive’.  If I were running a fundraising team, I would be moving back to including meaningful telephone calls into the KPIs, and not just for donors of an older demographic.

Making the Ask

Covid-19 has blown all expectations of elaborate scene setting when it comes to making the ask out of the water.  Whilst we no longer need to see the whites of the donor’s eyes in a face to face setting, asking for money is still about timing and it’s still about having the right person do it.  I always say if it feels like jumping off a cliff, it’s too soon and this applies both online and off.  Don’t get hung up on how you do it, just focus on what feels right.

The Best Way to Say Thank You

There are so many clever ways of thanking and acknowledging online, but ultimately nothing beats finding a handwritten card from the right person on your doormat. 

Some things will never change. 

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