Haven’t I heard this before? Will this (insert new thing) erode the core business?

Grassroots fundraising, Seattle circa 1963

Grassroots fundraising, Seattle circa 1963

At a meeting last week, the topic of “Twestival” came up — the grassroots fundraising endeavor aimed at raising $500,000 for the organization charity: water through independently-organized events in 200+ cities.  The “tw” comes from Twitter.  The “estival”… well, you can probably figure that out.  The hitch is that charity:water didn’t start or organize this fundraising phenom.  It was 100% organized by volunteers and it is not directed or supervised by the charity’s staff.   (Flash:  as of February 16, haven’t seen anything about results – but most of the bloggers who cover this “space” are probably enjoying the holiday… either that or they wore out their opposable thumbs tweeting.)

Brows were knit in concern.  Couldn’t grassroots events get out of control and damage the charity’s brand?  Would it cannibalize the organization’s own fund development efforts?

This isn’t the first time that an innovation has threatened the traditional way of doing things.  Unsponsored grassroots events: traditional fund development as outpatient surgery centers: hospitals or internet-based journalism: newspapers.

These changes take root and get traction because… well, they can.  In all three of these cases, changes in technology lowered barriers to entry.  Those low barriers aren’t just due to technology.  The low barriers may include the faster speed of doing something yourself rather than working through a committee structure or less-than-enthusiastic staff to accomplish something.  Less talk, more walk.

The bigger questions are:

  • Will these changes be sustainable?
  • How must charities change to take advantage of the individually-organized fundraisers and happenings?
  • How should the public ensure that donations are really going to a bonafide charity, for the uses intended?

Sustainability, in part, depends on whether the innovation has a decent value proposition.  Seems to me that Twestival, and similar independently organized fundraisers have a decent value proposition.  Here’s why:

  • Volunteering, and sometimes fundraising, is for many — particularly the “digital generation” — an extension of identity.  Got a Facebook page?  Post a cause.
  • Volunteers, and volunteer fundraisers, get emotional value out of organizing and helping.  Besides the warm glow of giving, they receive recognition for their efforts, and a means of social interaction with people they know — and people those people know.

My conclusion:  many of the independently-organized activities will be sustainable, unless something happens (hence bullet three in the list of bigger questions) to sully the overall reputation of this style of fundraising.

What about changes charities themselves must make?  Back in my healthcare business development days, we eventually concluded that some procedures could be done better and more cheaply in an outpatient setting.  We got over the concerns about cannibalizing our own business.  Since charities won’t be running these individually-organized activities, seems to me that the management imperatives for success include:

  • Developing guidelines – in a friendly way – about how to work with the organization (e.g. keep the parent informed in case it generates inquiries, etc.) and how to be consistent with the organization’s key messages and brand.  I’ll be on the lookout for examples of guidelines.
  • Creating a welcoming atmosphere for these volunteers by giving them an organizational liaison.  The emergence of this kind of fundraising activity may require a re-write of the volunteer coordinator’s job description, if the organization is lucky enough to have such a position.
  • Gently finding ways to tell these volunteers that the organization doesn’t have the resources to staff their efforts, develop materials, etc., at least without advance notice for planning and budgeting.  Organizations must guard against these activities becoming a big time or resource suck, or getting diverted into activities that are off-strategy.

Protecting against fraud or misuse, using the charity’s name, seems the most worrisome issue at first blush.  But keep in mind how quickly word travels on the Internet.  I don’t think it would take long for someone to check the organizer out, or verify with the charity that the funds will go there.  And, in fact, bloggers did that for Twestival.  I’d rate the financial risk as low.  The risk may be slightly higher that people have a bad experience with organizers that they “debit” against the value of the charity’s brand.  But I’d rate that risk as moderate to low as well.

On balance, I’d say that the risk:reward ratio is stacked in the charity’s favor.  I say go for it, but do some internal contingency planning (what could go wrong, and how to prevent it) and make the minimal investment in staff time to help the activity succeed.  Grassroots events have the potential to dramatically expand the network for particular causes and organizations, as well as the resources to generate donations.

Here’s a final risk.  If your organization doesn’t find a way to work effectively with grassroots organizations, don’t you face the potential of losing their energy and social network to an organization that is willing?  As in the days of worrying about cannibalization, if you don’t do it, your competitors will.

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