Nearly every nonprofit organization I deal with is careful to include an "experiential" touch point somewhere along the donor journey. That is, once they've cultivated a new donor, they spend a considerable amount of time and effort attempting to persuade that donor to volunteer or participate in some kind of hands-on activity at their headquarters or at an off-site location where the donor can experience their work firsthand.
Sound familiar? If your organization does something similar, how often is it successful? (Be honest.)
As nonprofit and cause leaders, we wish every individual had the opportunity, interest, and time to meet the people we serve and see the impact of our work in real time. But let's face it, getting donors to visit your offices or to join you on a site visit usually isn't realistic. Why? Because people are busy.
After my colleagues and I figured that out (it took us a few years), we adopted a number of practices designed to bring our work online: posting photos and videos on social media, sending out a series of emails, and so on. Unfortunately, pretty much everyone else adopted the same practices at about the same time. Today, they are so commonplace — and people are so inundated with emails and status updates as a result — that it's hard, if not impossible, to get your message stand out amid all the noise.
What's an organization to do? How can organizations share with donors the important work they are doing in a way that's both meaningful and experiential?
Actually, all it takes is a shift in mindset: Instead of bringing the donor to your work, you have to bring your work to the donor.
To truly capture donors' interest, nonprofits today must rethink donor engagement with an eye to bringing their issue to the donor (instead of the other way around). And the organizations that are the most successful at that are those that use technology in innovative ways to design memorable experiences.
Here are three examples:
1. The technology of tomorrow. As the technology improves and becomes less cumbersome, virtual reality simulators are making it possible to put donors into other people's shoes. For example, One.org uses VR to give donors an up-close and very personal look at the crisis of poverty in Africa, while Alzheimer's Research UK uses the technology to raise awareness of research on dementia and memory-related illnesses. In a recent Washington Post article, nonprofits using VR technology were quoted as saying it "offers the best medium to date for evoking genuine empathy for their mission" and has the ability to "combat fatigue among donors who feel disconnected from the results [achieved by] their money."
2. The mobile movement. When you think of "mobile" today, your first thought is probably of a smartphone or a favorite app. But while mobility has become a given in our lives, we've forgotten its original definition: capable of moving or being moved readily.
From literacy to blood drives, mobile awareness and fundraising initiatives work because they literally put your cause into the hands of potential donors and supporters, eliminating barriers such as time and distance. Short, phone-based "mini" experiences designed to engage donors can be completed over a lunch hour or a quick afternoon break, increasing the likelihood they'll participate. Experiences can even be brought directly to the workplace so employees can participate in real time. One Seattle nonprofit I know of uses the parking lot of one of its company sponsors to fit homeless people with eyeglasses, delivering a critical service to constituents in need while creating a meaningful (and convenient) volunteer opportunity for the company's employees.
3. The immersive experience. Even without big technology budgets, nonprofits and causes are proving increasingly adept at immersing donors in their mission and work. For example, many organizations serving people who are blind or visually impaired now host "Dinner in the Dark" events, where donors and participants are challenged to navigate through a meal wearing eye masks to simulate blindness. Other organizations are creating events and activities that pair up beneficiaries with donors for one-to-one storytelling sessions designed to make real the impact of the organization's work.
As nonprofit leaders, we want our donors and supporters to meet the people we serve and see the impact of our work firsthand. If, in our media-saturated world, that has become difficult, it's not impossible. All it takes is a little imagination, some technology, and a willingness to experiment. If at first you don't succeed, try again.
Derrick Feldmann is the president of Achieve, a research and marketing agency for causes, and the author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change, now available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble