There have been some wonderful, impassioned, thought provoking posts (and rants!) on this blog recently, all about issues very dear to my heart that often have me ranting too. There seems to be a lot of frustration boiling up at the moment about things many of us know need to change, that are long overdue changing. And many people seem to be on the same page – that says the old model is broken and we need a new one. The problem is that we needed a new one several years ago and we’re still some way off making it a reality.
I’ve often felt like ranting about this (other than to long-suffering colleagues, in the office, every week) but I’ve held back. I’m embarrassed to say that’s largely because I didn’t have the courage after having been subjected to a rather personal, unpleasant attack in the past for expressing such hopes and ideals, and found it very traumatic. Yes, I needed to grow a thicker skin, but who wants to put their hand into the flame again when they know how much it hurt last time? Besides, it’s a useful reminder about attitudes, and barriers, to change – and we need to acknowledge and understand those in order to respond to them.
But there are other reasons I try to hold back from frustrated ranting:
One is more like banging your head against a brick wall than putting your hand into a flame. It’s the self-inflicted, inevitable pain of trying, over and over again to convince people who know the old model is broken that they must try new things, and take some risks, in order to create a new model that works, only to find that they won’t. You’ve keep at it because it’s the right thing to do but, in the end, you give up and walk away with nothing but a very sore head. Yes, I admit it, I sometimes think, “What’s the point?”
The other is the pragmatist’s response and feels like a more positive use of energy: to focus instead on the things you can change, the small steps, the incremental change, because at least that’s moving in the right direction, however slowly. So, I end up blogging or presenting about uncontroversial tactics – ‘ten things you can do to make your campaigns better’, ‘mistakes to avoid’, things like that. Things I think that people will actually do.
That’s what I was going to do today. I had the title: ‘Why online fundraising is more like direct mail than you might think’ – because I’ve found it a very useful analogy to explain online fundraising to the uninitiated; from this starting point that most know so well. The post might have demystified some of the key drivers of online fundraising enough to help anyone that still feels it is too complicated or technological to be attempted, to think about it in more familiar terms and be less afraid. Okay, so it’s not the paradigm shift I dream of, but my head is sore from all of those times I’ve banged it against that wall and I’ve learned not to pitch it too big and scare people with something that feels unachievable.
But, when I remembered Charlie Hulme’s recent post, and how stunned I was by his candid anger and passion about some of the important things he’d like to change, I couldn’t bring myself to write another post on tactics. (Thanks Charlie. You must let me buy you a drink sometime to say thank you and maybe we can have a good rant together?) The world is full of posts, presentations and courses like that, and perhaps that’s part of the problem? But this blog feels like it’s increasingly turning into a movement of people who want to change something more fundamentally than that and is not the place for such trivia.
So, how are we going to fix the problems that mean charities end up treating donors like cash machines? That result in inboxes full of ignored emails, unopened, unread and destined for deletion? That find my parents – and all the ‘baby boomers’ like them – receiving a volume of unwanted mail and inserts from charities that might embarrass even the fundraisers responsible for them, if they saw how confused and distressed the recipients are by the utter relentlessness of their continual arrival?
I think many of the answers lie in looking outside the charity sector, at the ways commercial brands engage with their customers and reward their loyalty. And I believe charities would do well to view themselves as commodities, fighting for attention in the same space as Nike trainers, Saga Holidays, the latest blockbuster movie, cult computer game and, increasingly, personal technology devices, such as mobile phone and tablets.
When I gave up my job at a charity direct marketing agency in 2008, I had the freedom to make different choices, to hang out with different people, in different places – in real life and online – and I did this extensively. I suddenly realised how closed and small the world I had been inhabiting for the last few years had been. I was so inspired by the social entrepreneurs and innovators, disruptors and technologists I’d begun to meet and share ideas with; people who wanted to change all kinds of things for the better and who had rejected the established conventions and routes in order to avoid the barriers and bureaucracy and to just make it happen. This expanded my mind and it began to explode with ideas I believed would change the way charities engaged with supporters and generated income. Looking back, that period was more energising and transformative than any before it. Writing this has reminded me of its immense value and why I must never compromise on time to do it, however busy I am.
Fundraisers need to connect with people and concepts outside the charity sector, bringing their expertise together with new thinking and technologies to create something better and more effective than they can ever do in a bubble. It is not a case of throwing out everything you know, or wholesale adoption of ‘the way IBM does it’, but of keeping the bits of the model that work and melding them with external inspiration into something that genuinely answers the challenges we face.
But the pace of change outside the charity sector is much faster than it is within, the inertia of the old ways is strong, and the cuts the sector is experiencing have placed a strain on too many charities that they were not sufficiently equipped to bear – so investment in innovation and strategies with longer-term returns is not on the agenda for many. As has always been the case, change will be largely be driven by the larger NGOs that are sustainable enough to spare the budget to do what must be done, but now it is also brought by the newer, smaller charities that have an innate understanding of the digital landscape and are not shackled by the last century’s methods and models. However, it is those charities that bravely embrace the notion that success does not simply lie in lazily aping the tactics of others that will prosper the greatest. As Coco Chanel famously said, ‘In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different’. That is truer than ever in a world where so many brands, messages and media are fighting for our attention and it is given only to those that truly merit it.