Why Fundraising Teams Can't Let New Tech Tools Obscure Meaningful Donor Relationships
We are all prone to utopian versions of the future—a world cured of cancer, successful against climate change, and rich with widespread happiness, health, and freedom. When we discuss how these changes will come about, the answer nearly always screams “technology!”
Like many others, the philanthropy world seems to suffer from this stilted misconception. Many who work in our sector believe that bringing new tech tools onboard will — by themselves — streamline fundraising, increase gifts, expand the donor pool and reduce expenses.
Not so fast.
As someone with extensive experience in both the philanthropy and tech sectors, I believe two things to be true. First, by and large, modern nonprofit fundraising methods are arcane, flailing, and ineffective, and they often discourage new donors from giving. Second, technology can be fantastic, but technology alone cannot and will not deliver the changes the philanthropic sector so sorely needs.
As a colleague of mine likes to say, “technology is easy—it’s people who are hard.” Sure, he’s a chief technology officer, but he also knows an essential truth. He knows that advances in technology will not solve or compensate for a dearth of human intangibles—like empathy, active listening, gratitude, honesty, and authenticity. No matter what shiny new toys your team is working with, these qualities are the essential drivers and indicators of future success in fundraising.
The future of philanthropy lies in fundraisers successfully merging these pivotal human attributes with key advances in technology.
Why? Because donors want to be seen as individuals. We don’t want to be thought of as a piggy bank or an ATM. We hate pandering and game-playing by people who seem to just want our money and care nothing about us as human beings. When an authentic connection is made, we feel noticed as a real person with our own interests, desires, and needs—not as a caricature of a person with money. It will be much easier to procure a gift from us if we feel like we have an authentic relationship with the person and the organization we’re thinking of supporting. (In fact, many donors, including myself, have given several unsolicited gifts just because we feel a connection to the organization.) New technological tools ease the cost of scaling and segmenting donor outreach, but often this comes at the cost of personalized contact. New technologies must be implemented within the context of authentic, meaningful relationships.
Let’s start with two examples of often minimized but completely essential duties of any fundraising team: surveys and list management. Both benefit from a myriad of programs and tools claiming to make these tasks more efficient and less resource-heavy.
On surveys: My friend Elad Dvash-Banks runs development for IKAR, a renowned, cutting-edge religious community in Los Angeles. When COVID-19 hit, IKAR took its programming online and experienced global growth in interest and viewership. When about 500 people outside the United States not only tuned into their High Holiday programming but also donated, Elad wondered how best to engage these folks further. With in-person meetings out of the question, I suggested that Elad query these new donors via a quick and easy online survey to ask them about themselves and to best understand what they desired in their relationship with the organization.
The results? The survey got a 70% response rate, with many respondents expressing appreciation that the organization even cared about their opinion and surprised that the survey had not been accompanied by an ask for money. The donors responded with the ideas, suggestions, and thoughts that mark a nourishing donor-fundraiser relationship. Some even provided unprompted donations in response to the survey. Elad made the best of technology available to him by combining it with an honest, donor-specific approach that aligned his organization’s values. Simply put, Elad thought like a human being and donor partner, and the result was spectacular.
Applying a similar ethos to list management will set your organization apart immediately. This is an area that nonprofit organizations want to (and should) use internally to help their organizations improve their “moves management” systems. For completely different reasons, this is an area that donors wish nonprofits would address.
There is no greater example than Giving Tuesday. Sure, Giving Tuesday is terrific, as it raises hundreds of millions for nonprofits every year. However, it also makes many donors want to throw their computers or phones out of the nearest window. Every year, I wonder why I must get a barrage of impersonal and increasingly desperate emails from every organization that has ever received my email address—emails that ignore previous gifts or disregard giving criteria I’ve already expressed. Some come hourly throughout the day. (In 2022, one prominent, established NPO emailed me 14 times on Giving Tuesday.)
That type of marketing and communication is just about guaranteed to make a donor feel that an organization views them as a “checkbook” rather than as a person, or that the information they’ve provided has been ignored. The message is that they are just another cell on a spreadsheet.
When I’ve discussed this frustration with nonprofit leaders—and even with other donors— I’ve received mixed responses. Some tell me that this type of list segmentation is too resource-heavy and that I should just “suck it up” on Giving Tuesday. Maybe.
But here’s the concern. Even if I could personally just “brush off” my frustration with mass Giving Tuesday solicitations, many donors won’t. In fact, you can bet that for many donors, sending 4–6 increasingly desperate-sounding emails will develop a very negative association of that nonprofit, and they will never consider giving to them (regardless of the organization’s impact).
You likely know that $68 Trillion (known as “The Great Wealth Transfer”) is about to begin passing from Baby Boomers to our younger generations—namely Millennials. Many of these young people haven’t yet begun to think about their own giving plans. I worry that if these potential donors dip their toes into the sector and interact with an organization or two, they will find that being charitable means being treated like a piggy bank waiting to be smashed. If a budding philanthropist learns that giving means having to deal with pushy, off-putting solicitations, that person might be soured on the whole process of giving — and their funds might just sit in a DAF fund long-term.
So what to do? Use technology to create substantive, highly personalized, informed databases that have an accent not only on money and capacity but also include meaningful and personalized information about who these prospects are as individual human beings.
Many in the NPO world are aware that major change is necessary, but inertia and fear can get in the way. As I wrote in my book, “Philanthropy Revolution” (HarperCollins 2020),“…innovation and change are inherently uncertain. But it’s high time we did this differently and started teaching it differently, too. There are so many development professionals out there who can’t wait to deliver substantial change to the sector.”
Improvements in tools like surveys and list management (many including cutting-edge AI) are just the beginning of what we’ll see in this new era of philanthropy and fundraising. When we enrich new tech with human authenticity, personalization, empathy, and active listening, we will have created a more productive, efficient and compelling version of the nonprofit sector. The positive effect this will have on our organizations’ respective missions will be breathtaking.
So when you are considering purchasing new tech tools for your nonprofit, ask yourself and your board: How do we take this tool and apply our humanity to it? This is how we create the fundraising utopia we need. Let’s do it together.
An earlier version of this article is featured in the AFP’s January edition of Advancing Philanthropy Magazine.
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