When I was leading fundraising efforts at a national nonprofit, the focus of everything I did was the individual donor. From coming up with new ways to get donors to give to creating messaging that resonated with their interests, I spent pretty much every minute of every day thinking about how I could gain donors' trust and confidence and persuade them to support our organization.
After a while, I realized our donors had value beyond what they gave (in money or time), that in fact we could use them to introduce us to people who weren't supporting us – although I never would have asked a donor to physically make an ask on our behalf.
A few years have passed, and my thoughts on this score have changed. That has a lot to do with the emergence of social networking and peer-to-peer (P2P) models.
You can see this in our industry, which over the last three years has moved quickly to embrace peer-to-peer fundraising. I know: many nonprofit professionals argue that online giving is the hot thing in the fundraising space. It seems to me, however, that the rapid growth of online giving owes much to the emergence of peer-to-peer tools and platforms that make it easy to find and give to causes or individuals who may be many degrees of separation removed from us.
How has this changed the job of the professional fundraiser? In the past, fundraising was an activity based in part on the willingness of fundraisers to ask for support from friends, family, and deep-pocketed individuals with whom they had a personal connection. Today, in contrast, the professional fundraiser has at his or her disposal a range of options, from social media and dedicated websites to personalized giving pages and text messaging services, that enable him or her to reach many more people, in many more locations, than was possible before.
In fact, many professional fundraisers have begun to put peer-to-peer fundraising at the center of their fundraising strategies. I thought it was interesting, for example, to hear Paull Young, the recently departed head of digital at charity: water, say that one of the key decisions the organization made early on was to focus its limited resources on a peer-to-peer fundraising campaign that used supporters' birthdays as a call to action.
Similarly, during this year's Giving Tuesday event, I had a number of chances to witness the power of peer-to-peer fundraising in action. One of them involved Liberty in North Korea, or LiNK, an organization based in California that works to rescue and resettle North Korean refugees. This year, LiNK tried something different for Giving Tuesday. Rather than simply ask would-be supporters to donate whatever they could, the organization urged people on their mailing list to raise money for the cause from their social networks – and reached out to them the night before with tips and resources, including an email with social-media-friendly graphics and other collateral. The organization also changed its fundraising focus from increasing the amount of dollars donated to increasing the number of donors who actually give. Smart! The organization ended up raising $12,000 on Giving Tuesday – a modest amount, to be sure. But the approach increased LiNK's base of supporters and elevated awareness of its cause in a way that will pay dividends down the road.
What does all this mean for your nonprofit? Are we at a point where social networks have become more valuable to the development professional than individual donors?
I don't think so. But I do think the role of the professional fundraiser has changed – and will continue to change. Today, a fundraiser, to be successful, has to be good at two things: 1) cultivating and maintaining relationships with donors; and 2) developing and managing peer-to-peer networks.
And this is as true for those who work in higher education as it is for those who raise funds for frontline service providers. In fact, Achieve recently teamed up with the Chronicle of Philanthropy to explore how millennial alumni engage, work with, and view donating to their alma maters. Among other things, we discovered that large majorities of millennials said they were willing to raise money on behalf of a cause or institution they care about and that they were comfortable sharing content about those causes and institutions on social media. We also discovered that a lot of the smallish cause-focused groups that millennials form during their college years subsequently evolve into meaningful post-college friendships.
These kinds of bonds will be key to bridging the university-alumni divide that exists at many institutions, especially as the millennials age into their prime earning years. Having found like-minded people when they were undergrads, millennials remain invested in those friendships and prize loyalty — not necessarily to their alma mater but because their alma mater brought them together with people whose values they share. As they have for decades, alumni offices can reach out to alumni individually with invitations to homecoming and reminders about the importance of giving to the annual fund, but those efforts are likely to result in diminishing returns.
Instead, alumni officers should be looking at and engaging with self-organized alumni peer groups, visiting with them when they are on campus, providing updates through email and social networking sites, and working with an individual in each group to cultivate his or her – and, thus, the group's — loyalty and support.
As the emergence of the peer fundraising software business, emergency text-message campaigns for victims of natural disasters, and wildly successful "giving days" in communities across the country demonstrates, the role of peers in today's fundraising landscape cannot be ignored. Although some fundraisers may worry about the challenge of tailoring messages to small peer groups or losing control of that messaging as it is disseminated through social media, inviting others to share their support for your organization is, at the end of the day, a very good thing. After all, what's better than having ten brand ambassadors working to promote your organization? Right: having ten times ten working for the cause.
Derrick Feldmann is president of Achieve, a creative research and campaigns agency based in Indianapolis.