Read this only if you want to change the world!

When Reinier called for someone to write a last-minute blog yesterday, I had coincidentally just purchased a book on social marketing. I have been interested in the subject for some time, but the discussion on the recent 101fundraising blog about donor centered fundraising and public perception really made me think more about how social change organisations leverage donors.

Think about it – our donors are so much more than financial benefactors. They are consumers. And they are, above all else, consumers who feel strongly enough about the work we are doing to actually fund it. In fact, their financial behaviour proves again and again that they share our vision so strongly to actually invest in it. So how many organisations are actually utilizing donors to affect social change?

As fundraisers we have a tendency to keep using the same topics that score the best in terms of response and income. And besides occasional tests, we shy away from talking about the more difficult, longer-term or more complex areas of our work – either because we think we will fail to properly tell the story and convey the urgency; or because assume that in a saturated charity market, donors will perceive another “simpler” issue as having greater priority.

And I completely understand, and in some cases agree with, a choice to stick with the “safe” topics. Sometimes. But what I propose is that we take the idea of “donor centered fundraising” even farther, toward “donor centered engagement” in which we see our donors (and all constituents, in fact) as critical agents of social change.

There are a few comments on the last blog (which, by the way, has turned into a great discussion) that underpin the need for us to take the donor relationships a step further:

  • Reinier Spruit: “The donor makes it all happen. We share the same vision and values, but without the donor we would be nowhere. Without the donor, the Haitian earthquake would have killed hundred thousands more in the aftermath. Without the donor, Indonesian rain forests would have been destroyed already.”
  • Claire Axelrad: “It’s a symbol of how the donor could potentially care about us and our mission IF we properly nurture the relationship.”
  • Ann Ward: “We need to regard donors as a part of our organisation. Not an add-on. So they sit alongside staff and volunteers, all working towards a common goal and they are in our thoughts when we make major decisions.”

How true! And if you don’t believe donors en masse have tremendous transformative power, I refer you kindly to two events in very recent history: Komen vs Planned Parenthoood and the recent defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). You can also read here about a handful of other fairly amazing victories that consumers have acheived recently via Change.org.

When we want to change something, it’s our donors we reach out to first. They are on the front lines and carry the water. Let them be the spark that lights the firestorm!

Thus, consider the idea that you reach out to your donors on a difficult issue, and that from an income perspective, it performs more poorly than an “easy” issue. I realize that this may be a painful proposition for a fundraiser, but think about it more broadly:

  1. What can it teach us about how to (and not to!) frame difficult issues for not only donors, but other audiences? Remember, donors are consumers who are already committed to your vision, so they are actually a great test market for how to message the change you want to bring about.
  2. What value does the communication about your organisation’s more complex work add to the donor relationship? At worst, you have gained better insight into the donor’s issue interests. At best, you have strengthened the longer-term relationship by include them in the organisation’s broader work.

But there is an even greater win when you ask and empower donors to be a part of the change: you get that much closer to victory with the shared momentum of individuals who really, passionately care about your mission.

What are some examples of how you use your donors to help achieve your program goals?  Let’s hear it!

p.s. After writing this blog, I happened to see this article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy this morning about a nonprofit using video stories of homeless to inspire donors to take action. What a great example! So what are you doing? And what could you be doing?

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