Friday, February 28, 2014

BIG’s Blog: Attending a Fundraising Conference

Nobody does what I do at a fundraising conference.

I always set up in the Vendor area. The other folks in the Vendor area are selling products or services. I'm not. I'm selling an idea, and sometimes it’s hard to get that across.

Fortunately for me, I am dealing with some of the smartest and most resourceful people on the planet … professional fundraisers.

We all know that there is nothing more powerful in the world than an idea … “an idea whose time has come.” But when an idea is new … it’s hard for us to get our minds around it.

We all carry “frameworks” in our head of how the world works. When we hear about something new, we connect it to a framework we already have. At the turn of the last century, circa 1905, the new-fangled contraption rumbling across town and country roads was called, “the horseless carriage.” Of course we call it the automobile today, but at the time people connected it to what they already knew (their framework).

The fundraising idea I have been sharing for the last three years starts with the basic insight that the way we generate new supporters must change. Historically, the major driver of developing new constituents or supporters has been events - if you are a locally centered organization plus direct mail - or if your constituency is national, then primarily direct mail.

The core of the new idea is that fundraising needs a new business model to address the two major shifts that have happened in our society over the last 15 to 20 years. These two huge shifts are, A) the shift in personal communication from the printed word to the Internet-based digital word ... how we communicate, and B) the major attitudinal shift in the way the Depression and WWII generations practiced giving as opposed to how the baby boomer, GenX, and millennial generations think about and practice giving. The generational attitudes are very different.

So, at conferences, I am placed in with the Vendors of products and services. And, in truth, I do have a product of sorts; it is online education. Our firm offers online e-learning courses to baby boomer and GenX fundraising leaders and their staffs. Through these courses, people like you and me who didn’t grow up with the Internet (boomers and GenXers) learn what is fundamentally different about the way the Internet works and how to attract and connect with younger generations.

Of course I also generally speak on a topic or host educational sessions while at the conferences. I usually cover one or more elements of the basic theme of this new idea, but there is no way I can convey the breadth, scope, and details of this new model in an hour-long presentation or even a multi-day workshop. This is something that a fundraising organization, and its leadership, must commit to learn.

My goal at these conferences is to reach out to as many people as possible and spread the idea that fundraising today must adopt a new model.

This is always a bit of a heavy lift since in my presentations I am not offering up a new technique or silver bullet that conference attendees can take home and immediately benefit from. In fact, it is just the opposite. My message isn't necessarily what fundraisers want to hear. Why? Because we know and understand how to do our jobs today, and the realization that we must change our approach to attract younger generations, starting with the boomers (people our own age), is unsettling.

But, unsettling or not, we really have no choice. I have yet to attend a conference of fundraising professionals and have one person tell me “things have never been better and we are raising more money than ever before.”

In fact, what I hear and see are concerned faces telling me “our new donor acquisition counts are flat, our retention of first-time donors is slipping, our active donor counts are shrinking, our file of donors grows older and our revenue is flat.” And, most ominous, most are dependent on bequest dollars (which of course we can’t plan for) to make their annual budgets.

Talk about sleepless nights!

This just doesn’t affect one segment of the nonprofit fundraising sector, it is across the whole spectrum … but for faith-based organizations, the issue is even more serious and acute.

Of course, that is all the Bad News … but there is Good News as well. Plugging into the Internet connects fundraising organizations to the world, but not in the way many organizations are using the Internet today.

But the really GREAT News is that baby boomers in particular and GenX leaders as well have adjusted to new technology all their lives . . . and this is no different.

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

BIG’s Blog: “Likes”

What kind of idiot thinks that “Likes” on Facebook will save lives or accomplish any mission?

Well, me for one.

But before some of you think I am really daft, let me explain my thinking if you don’t already know it. A “Like” indicates I concur with or find value in a post. It is a stamp of endorsement from me personally. For nonprofits, the assumption is that they are sharing stories and news of what they are doing through a social media outlet such as Facebook.

So far, so good.

When other people see a post from, say, UNICEF, before reading or clicking on it they might look to see how many “likes” it got. When you go to YouTube, do you click on a video that only has 33 views?

So to me, and I suspect a whole lot of other people, “likes” are a valuable barometer of whether people have read or clicked on the post and voted by way of their “like” that they approved or agreed with the message of the post … nothing more, nothing less. But their endorsement is helpful to us as we wade through a river of information and are made aware that a lot of other people found a post valuable.

So are “likes” valuable?  You betcha!

But apparently the Swedish office of UNICEF and, specifically Petra Hallebrant, UNICEF director of communications, felt that too many people – he calls them online activists – are only supporting UNICEF through posts or shares on social media.

In the story posted in the link below, there is an idiot, and it turns out it’s not me. Petra Hallebrant produced a series of videos that drive home the point that “likes” don’t buy vaccines or save lives. As if somehow people don’t already understand this? In an interview with The Atlantic magazine, Mr. Hallebrant actually says, “We like likes and social media could be a good first step to get involved.” But when you see the video he produced, right below every video is a bold poster that says: Like us on Facebook, and we will vaccinate zero children against polio. Translation … don’t Like us on Facebook!  

So after watching the videos (thankfully they are subtitled) you feel conflicted. The message of the video is “don’t like us, just send money.” So my takeaway is this: I guess I’ll just keep quiet because my only role is to send money. Now that really touches my heart and makes me feel a part of the mission.

Seriously, is Mr. Hallebrant so daft as to believe people don’t understand that connection? Most Swedes I have met (young and old) are genuinely smart and giving people. And if UNICEF’s supporters and donations are falling off, according to the “school of thought” of Mr. Hallebrant, you blame the potential supporters … not your communications!

Do you think that Mr. Hallebrant doesn’t quite get the interactive power of social media? If you have a media in which you can share news and stories and let people endorse the message, isn't that a good thing?

Maybe we’ll take up an offering and purchase Mr. Hallebrant a seat in our next online e-learning program, Acquiring the Next Generation of Supporters, where he can learn what all our graduates already understand about the purpose and the power of social media.
Wouldn’t you love to have this guy’s budget?


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Monday, February 24, 2014

BIG’s Blog: The Ant and the Mona Lisa

It’s all about perspective, right?

We’ve all heard the fable about the ant crawling across the surface of the famous Leonardo da Vinci painting of the Mona Lisa, haven’t we? To the ant it is merely a bumpy road, while to us with a different vantage point … a different perspective … it is a masterpiece.  

Vivek Wadha is a noted futurist and vice president of Singularity University. He recently spoke to a gathering of university Trustees to give them a sense of some of the dramatic advances that will begin affecting people’s lives in as little as the next ten years.

Below is a summary of some of the technological breakthroughs that are truly on the brink of becoming mainstream:

  • Health care: The development of self-administered health tests such as echocardiograms, broad availability of localized medicine that affects only the area requiring treatment, causing no side effects, bionic enhancements, including “super-power” sight and hearing capability, and error-free robotic surgery will contribute to significantly longer life experiences – well over 100 years – for both men and women.
  • Transportation: Driverless cars (now being made by Google and tested in the western United States), by eliminating human error, could help reduce traffic congestion and accidents. The prevalence of car ownership – already waning in urban areas with the rise of car sharing – will evolve further into a “use-as-needed” form of urban mobility, as driverless vehicles chauffeur humans from one place to another. Drones will be used to deliver packages to both businesses and consumers, expediting delivery times and reducing the need for street delivery vehicles.
  • Production of goods and materials: Manufacturing will once again be a major economic engine for the United States, with robots performing tasks ranging from clerical work to assembly. Three-dimensional printing of products ranging from dresses to building construction materials will become mainstream.
  • Energy: The cost of producing solar (and wind-powered) energy is dropping quickly, making these energy sources a viable, reliable alternative to electricity generated by coal-fired power plants.
  • Water and food: Technology is being developed to cost-effectively purify saltwater, which will help greatly in eradicating water-borne diseases and increasing the supply of usable water in developing countries. Meat will be grown through in-vitro fertilization, eliminating the need to slaughter animals for food. Vertical farms will reduce the need for large amounts of acreage for agriculture.
  • Education: The rapidly increasing availability of inexpensive tablets is changing education around the world; courses from the world’s top professors will be accessible regardless of where people are located.

Do some of those sound a bit far-fetched?

It’s all about perspective, right?

So if the above innovations are going to dramatically change the particular industries mentioned, are you still clinging to the opinion that you can’t figure out how to grow your net revenue by moving your fundraising online?

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Friday, February 21, 2014

BIG’s Blog: Customized for You

There are few people alive today who are as consistently insightful in their analysis of the changing world around us (especially in the marketing realm) and as prolific in sharing their insights as Seth Godin.

Recently he wrote a blog entitled Done to us vs. things we do.

When I read the blog, I was stunned. His thoughts captured and encapsulated the emotional tug-of-war that many baby boomers face as they lead fundraising organizations today in a world that we personally enjoy but aren’t certain how to navigate professionally.

“Malaria, the atomic bomb, the McCarthy hearings, television’s ubiquity, the decay of the industrial base – these are mammoth changes, changes that came from all around us, changes we had to withstand.”

Seth is talking about changes that personally affected us. You and I could name other changes in our lives over the past 50 or 60 years that we had to endure. They were forced on us. For us in fundraising, we have recently had to endure changes that are ending the era of the printed word, and with it direct mail as well as the shrinking pool of supporters with a trusting nature of institutions. As Godin says, these are mammoth changes that we have to deal with whether we like them or not. They are forced on us. But then he switches gears and talks about us personally.

“Today, we’re personally faced with an entirely new kind of change – changes we can choose to make, the changes that are available to us as opposed to changes that are forced on us.”

From a personal perspective, we as customers are facing a widening world of choices. You don’t have one choice in a phone. You aren’t tied to one cable monopoly. We can shop online or at the mall. Walls are falling and choices are opening up. You have freedom and options.

“No one had to cajole you into living with the changes of the last fifty years, because here they were, like it or not. You had no choice. Today, most of the change – in media, in culture, in commerce – is there if you want it. You can choose to be a media company, a buyer, a seller. You can choose to go out on the long tail, choose to be weird, choose to enter the connection economy.”

Freedom and choice are becoming the watchwords of our new world. The consumer … and the donor … are now in charge, which has huge implications on how companies must treat their customers if they want to keep them. And for charities, which have long been organization-centered (read self-centered when it comes to being transparent and accountable), they, too, must become customer oriented. In other words, charities need to be what you would personally expect them to be.

“In many ways, this choice makes the change ever more difficult, doesn’t it? The future isn’t so much about absorbing or tolerating change, it’s about making change.”

That’s really it in a nutshell isn’t it? We all personally love the freedom and choice of our changing world because we can personally choose or not. It’s up to us. We have the choice.

But it also means that our organizations have to change to offer choices that are in line with the terms of the people who may want to connect with us … not just our terms.

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

BIG’s Blog: Your Brand

This blog post is dedicated to the people who, for whatever reason, don’t have a sense of urgency in regard the major shift that is about to overtake the fundraising sector. You know that I still like you personally and respect the dedicated work that you have put into your organization. I also appreciate you taking the time to actually read and comment on my blog posts. I also understand that you and your organization, for reasons you more fully understand, will not make the moves to shift your fundraising model as it appears … too politically risky … too much to learn … just too hard.

Soon I predict that the scales will fall from your eyes and somebody will come along who is better able to communicate than I, and will convince you.

But it will probably be too late for your organization and for you personally.

I hope that you will have the time to shift, but if you do not, you will find yourself in the job market . . . and things may have changed since you last looked for employment. This is where this blog fits in. It also has applicability to all my readers, but especially those who need employment in today’s job market.

If you are under 40, do you have a mentor? Or if you are 40+, do you have a wise person to bounce ideas off of? I have a few and I treasure them. The reason mentors and wise heads are so important to us is that we have learned to trust their judgment as they force us to answer good questions. We think our idea is foolproof until we are forced to dissect it.

Authors, bloggers, and commentators are also important, although not as accessible. . . but choose wisely. One of those people for me is Tom Peters. Tom wrote In Search of Excellence in 1982. It is still the biggest selling and most widely read business book of all time. In Search of Excellence was Tom Peters’ seminal analysis of the eight common themes that are responsible for success in well-run organizations. It holds up very well today!

What I like about Peters is that he is always ahead of the curve with ideas that later become accepted.

In 1997, Peters published an article in Fortune Magazine entitled The Brand Called You. This, of course, was several years before digital disruption would begin to tear down industries and rebuild them in different ways using new technology and new business models. Peters understood the coming need for individuals in the marketplace to realize that their personal brand was going to be important for their careers. Today we are seeing this play out all around us in chronic unemployment over 7% and the work environment becoming extremely competitive, even in the nonprofit fundraising business.

You need to understand that prospective employers need to understand your value – your brand – in much the same way they understand the value represented by a national brand.


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Monday, February 17, 2014

BIG’s Blog: Remember the Titans

Every man (or woman) is a master of his own life. Abraham Lincoln said it slightly differently: “Every man owns his own face.” With very few exceptions, we own our own life. And this means that those of us in leadership positions also own the fate of the organizations, groups, or teams that we lead.

Most of us will never have in our personal lives the freedom and the power we enjoy as leaders . . . and we are loath to give up that power. Mother Angelica, the cloistered nun who built EWTN Global Catholic Network, once asked an audience why it is that we suffer aches and pains as we grow older. Her audience gave no response, so she answered her own question. “It’s because we are so powerful, it’s God’s way of keeping us humble.”

We prize humbleness in our leaders, don’t we? Because we intuitively understand that power is corrupting. I mean, seriously, when was the last time you remember a national leader “admitting” they made a mistake in a policy or action that they took? Oh, yes, there has been a steady stream of apologies and admissions of personal failure for sexcapades, especially from those in the highest offices in the land . . . but admissions of failed decisions that affect the lives of hundreds of thousands or millions? Nary a peep.

Humbleness is also when we face something overwhelmingly difficult and see failure beginning to set in … and we seek help.

Our usual reaction is to tough it out, thinking it is temporary and “things will turn around.” But what if they don’t turn around?

Sometimes we are lucky and we get to see this internal drama played out in art. And in seeing it in someone else, it challenges us.

There is that great scene in Remember the Titans where, in the final game for the state high school football championship, assistant coach Bill Youst (played by Will Patton) is the defensive coordinator and is getting his butt kicked by the opponent’s offense. Coach Youst tries every trick in his book, but nothing is working and the other team keeps scoring. Head coach Herman Boone (played by Denzel Washington) is riding him to get his defense to stop them from scoring.

Coach Youst was supposed to be the head coach of the Titans, but the school board wanted a black coach to lead the first integrated high school football team in Virginia in 1971. Coach Youst stayed on as assistant head coach and defensive coordinator because of his commitment to the players.

As his defense is getting beaten, coach Youst’s first response to coach Boone is, “you just focus on your offense.” But soon coach Youst has to admit to himself that he is out of ideas . . .  and with the game on the line, is it going to be about him or the team?

Head coach Boone had been a defensive coordinator in his previous job, but he respected coach Youst enough to let him make the calls … win or lose.  

In the end, coach Youst admits he is out of ideas and asks head coach Boone to run the defense. Coach Boone, to his surprise, switches roles and hands the offense to coach Youst. The switch works and they win the game.

I know … I know … Hollywood ending, right? But what is the turning point? When coach Youst admits he is out of ideas or when he humbles himself for the sake of the team?  

What has worked in fundraising for decades is shifting under your feet, even as you read this. This is big … very big. And no one person has all the right answers, especially as a 40, 50 or 60-something fundraising immigrant into the brave new digital online world.

But what you do have is the power to shift your future by seeking out help.

Remember the Titans … or, better yet, remember coach Youst!

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Friday, February 14, 2014

BIG’s Blog: You can never go back

I take way too many arrows in my back about my position on direct mail because too many people A) don’t read my words, and B) don’t listen to what I actually say in my Webinars and speeches.

My position on direct mail is that direct mail … done correctly … is a fantastic vehicle to generate new donors and annual revenue.

I love the predictable, beautiful mathematics of direct marketing. You test . . . if all looks good, you up your quantity and test again . . . and if the numbers validate, you roll out. I have been a direct marketing professional for almost 40 years! And, yes, I still consult occasionally with nonprofit fundraisers in direct mail techniques.

That is my real position. Keep using it as long as it is working for you.

But …

The best days of direct mail are in the past. Some would say “way in the past.” For nonprofit fundraisers who use direct mail, the best I can surmise is that the last good year for all fundraising organizations was 2005. Since then some have still been able to make it work while other programs are failing fast.

With each passing year, the symptoms of decline become more obvious and acute.

The truth is, as much as I love direct mail marketing, you can never go back. Time marches on, and though I would love to turn back the clock to when direct mail fundraising was simple and profitable, its best days are in the past.

But just when you are ready to join the “club of the disrupted industries” like the music business (which has seen album sales tank for the tenth straight year), new voices are popping up, talking about how the Internet and digital technology can create a new music business model. New people are coming onto the music scene, and despite the talk of doom and gloom, they see the prospects for massive growth.

As I list some of the new ideas that are now being touted in the music business, I will connect the ideas from it to the fundraising industry where, by the way, I see massive growth.

1) Holistic, multifaceted online music services that tie together many of the individual music-related elements today (social, streaming, downloads, concert tickets etc.). I know most of you have heard of Spotify and Pandora for streaming music, but have you heard of Kickstarter or GiveMob for fundraising? These are the new acquisition tools of the online world. Coupled with other elements and technologies, they help you reach people faster.

2) Direct artist-to-fan and fan-to-fan engagement. When you send your direct mail to prospects or donors, is that a person-to-person connection? It used to be state-of-the-art 20 years ago, but now the Internet has changed the definition of connection. And as far as fan-to-fan connection in the music world, why do you think fans want to connect to each other? Could it be they share a passionate common bond with the artist and their music? How about your passionate supporters who share a common bond with the people and the mission of your organization? The tools exist to let your passionate supporters talk to each other. Why wouldn’t you do that?

3) The rise of music festivals fueled by social media. Just imagine what you could be doing with technology-driven engagement in offline (real life) and online connection. Music festivals are where fans come together to hear music. How about creating a live and virtual conference to re-ignite your supporters?

4) Younger players in the music ecosystem inherently understand that a multipronged, community-based business model of fan expansion and direct ongoing engagement is the new normal. Young and new start-up nonprofit charities are already all over this (this is part of our online e-learning Courses), and unless you don’t want a future, you had better be figuring out what they already know and are succeeding at. New start-up charities don’t have an arms-length relationship with their supporters and neither should you.

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