The Future of Fundraising is Organising. Because Together, We Can …!

The future of fundraising will no doubt be something we don’t even know about yet. You know, the next Big Thing. Of course, it’s going to be digital, isn’t it? Probably. Maybe. Or it could be as simple as embracing supporters as partners, and thinking about engaging with them differently.

The convulsions in the UK over fundraising practice, regulation and data protection are forcing some long-needed soul-searching about supporter experience and what it might mean to be really donor-focused. The sad truth is that people just don’t like the fundraising techniques in play, and their tolerance of them, in the interests of supporting the cause, is wearing thin. Those of you in other countries might be watching with bemusement. It’s still working fine for you, is it? Just don’t be complacent. This stuff catches on, and a lot of it is no bad thing.

So change is a-coming, “for I will not raise money by vile means”, as Shakespeare had Brutus say in Julius Caesar. (Indulge me here, non-British readers – it was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on 22nd April last week). But then, how we raise money has always changed as techniques and channels emerge, evolve, explode, become less cost-effective and burn out.

What I think really has to change, is how we view supporters in the first place. Not just fundraisers, but our organisations too. The worst of today’s fundraising is the marketing machine, encouraged by organisations with an eye on the money but not the supporters, milking them for their cash but keeping them at arm’s length. “Thanks, but leave it to us now”. That’s not how it should be. People are not generally supporting you, the organisation. They are committed to the mission. Describing them as supporters instead of donors is a step in the right direction, but perhaps still not enough in the way we think about them.

Talk of engagement and experience, and the opportunity for integration with campaigning is necessary stuff, but falls flat if it’s just viewed in the context of ‘retention’. Why? Because ‘retention’ is still all about you, all about how you hold on to ‘them’, the supporters. It’s not about why they should stay. It’s not about what they could do. It’s not seeing them as collaborators in the mission.

And this is where I think fundraisers could learn a thing or two from the ideas and tradition of grassroots organising, the principles of which were laid out by Saul Alinsky in his 1971 book, Rules for Radicals. At this point, campaigning colleagues might jump in and say, we do that already.

Not so fast. Charity campaigning can be quite as directive and extractive as fundraising, and in my experience, campaigners are far less concerned than fundraisers about supporter relationship or retention questions. This petition, that protest, sign and turn up. Like fundraising that milks the cash cow, give, give, give. Then we start again. And we’re surprised about problems of retention?

‘Organising’ not a word much used outside of labour unions, and is generally associated with the far left. It’s not much used in the US non-profit world either. But it’s at the heart of much community grassroots action, and a proven model of movement-building in the US political cycle.

“An organiser’s job is to help ordinary people do extraordinary things”, said Cesar Chavez (and isn’t that the same as any fundraiser’s job?). Cesar Chavez was a Mexican American farmworker and civil rights activist who founded the National Farm Workers Association in the 1960s, winning rights for exploited farm workers in California. Barack Obama famously cut his political teeth as a community organiser in Chicago and his “Yes we can” slogan was lifted directly from Chavez’s: “Si, se puede.”

Organising is the guiding principle of community action, and an organiser facilitates that. You don’t tell people what to do; you listen. You help people identify their own problems, and help them organise around the issues they want to address and fight for. It’s about challenging power, building community and movements, belonging and solidarity, common purpose and making a real, tangible difference. Isn’t that what we want for our supporters too?

Two experiences led me to the similarities between organising and fundraising, and the opportunities of thinking this way.

In international development, long gone are the days of NGOs wading in with answers and telling people what’s what, for their own good. Well, you’d hope so. I remember a story from a colleague spending a week to reach and visit a community in the Amazon who’d asked for assistance. At the end of his stay, they told him: thanks very much, but we don’t need your help now. He’d helped them work out what they could do for themselves. A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit a community in Nigeria that had been helped by the NGO I was travelling with to build a school (their bricks and labour, the NGO’s money for the tin roof). They still did not have access to clean water, but they had a school. That might not have been your priority, but it was theirs, and the NGO had listened and followed their lead.

Listening, guiding, working it out together and helping people arrive at a solution they own and can do for themselves. ‘Empowerment’, in the jargon. I’ve always found it a strange disconnect that INGOs experienced in this approach with the communities they work with, couldn’t see that exactly the same process applies with exciting and energising supporters. Why, instead, should it be ok to tell people what they should know, with a message of “give us your money and leave it to us”?

And then I spent a few years as Fundraising Director for Greenpeace in the US, a full decade ago. Digital was still relatively new to everyone, never mind understanding how to use it. Fundraisers and campaigners were still nervous about letting each other at ‘their’ donors and campaign supporters. (Depressingly, many still are). But Howard Dean had just run his ground-breaking Presidential 2004 primary campaign, becoming the first political campaign to be funded by thousands of small donations rather than big money. And it was done through online and community organising.

At Greenpeace, we learnt and copied. People wanted to engage in the real world, not just with online petitions, and their real world. Our campaigns became more targeted to local issues. Global warming was made real by focusing on shortening skiing seasons affecting local incomes, bugs killing maple trees affecting syrup production, flood risks in coastal areas, pollution from coal power stations affecting children’s health. Supporters hosted house parties to engage friends and neighbours. They organised community events and protests. And they raised money. Digital was just the tool they used to organise, in the real world.

What was significant was the organisation starting to value supporters not just for their money, but for the part they could play in the mission. And listening and learning from them how best to engage people in the issues, and what they could do themselves.

“The key to organizing people” said Gregory Galluzzo, a Jesuit organizer and disciple of Saul Alinsky who taught Barack Obama, “is to listen to what they said the issues are, and then either nudge them to live up to their standards or get them to understand the source of their pain and how they could organize to eradicate it”.

Maybe you’re a fundraiser in an organisation that doesn’t campaign. It would be lazy to think this can’t apply to you. In the end, we want to enable people to make a difference to the issues they care about – the mission. Our role is to help make that happen, and help make that real for them. Our future fundraiser’s role means being skilled at listening, at getting people involved, engaged and motivated, and helping them identify what they can do to make the difference they want to make. If you can’t think what that might look like, maybe your supporters can.

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