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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