When I talk with organizations about what they are doing to inspire action for change, they often tell me how they use stories about impact to keep their most loyal donors and supporters motivated. Typically, this involves a communication plan that uses storytelling to help donors and supporters understand how their support for the organization positively impacts the lives of the organization's constituents.
But is it the kind of impact that every donor is looking to make with his or her dollars?
When I look at the kind of change that an organization or cause is trying to create, I tend to take a more expansive view informed by two simple questions:
- Does the work serve those in need of assistance in the short term? or
- Does it support an agenda or series of action that will create longer-term change in the lives of those being served?
In other words, is the organization reacting to a problem or issue or driving an agenda and being proactive with respect to the underlying causes of the issue or problem? The reactive approach is mostly focused on the here and now; the proactive approach is focused on driving progress over the longer term.
To do or not to do (now)
So much of the social issue work happening today is driven by real-world short-term concerns — and for good reason. But the fact of their existence doesn't necessarily mean that addressing them is going to be everyone's first priority — especially when one takes into account the differences in interests, age, and income of your donors and supporters.
The one thing most of your donors and supporters share is a vision of a better future for the people served by your organization, whether that comes to pass today, tomorrow, or both. That said, not every person you are trying to engage (or have already engaged) is as interested in what your organization is doing today as in what it is doing (or hopes to do) to create longer-term solutions to the problem. For this kind of donor and supporter, enthusiasm — and engagement — often is inversely correlated to an organization's focus on short-term needs. At the same time, while the focus on root causes historically has relied on significant investments in advocacy efforts and infrastructure, those kinds of activities often are pretty far removed from the immediate engagement sought by eager marketing and fundraising teams.
The simple fact is that both approaches are necessary.
Without a major investment in donor research and prospecting, who is to say which of your donors and supporters are interested in making a difference today and which will want to see their contributions create more sustainable social change over the longer term? It's a difference in perspective that we, as marketers and fundraisers, often overlook. Instead of segmenting donors and supporters by age or income, we need to pay more attention to their motivations and views with respect to short- and long-term change.
Again, it's no surprise that research — our own as well as research conducted by others — often finds that the campaigns which generate the highest engagement do so by clearly establishing a top-level agenda for a cause or issue while leaving plenty of room for donors, supporters, and the public to determine their own action steps. And by "top level," I mean four or five goals that are relevant and achievable, along with the core beliefs that underlie action in service to the cause or issue.
Black Lives Matter is a great example. The three entities under the BLM umbrella, the BLM Global Network Foundation, BLM PAC, and BLM Grassroots, use both approaches to engage constituents in real social change. Efforts by all three to mobilize protests, register voters, and mount educational campaigns are designed to engage supporters in addressing critical immediate needs and injustices. At the same time, BLM is working hard to advance legislation, policy reforms, and changes at the corporate governance level with an eye to permanently reshaping the political and economic landscape in the United States for Black people.
This isn't an "either/or" choice; it's a "both/and" approach. We need to serve constituents today and drive a longer-term agenda — an agenda that speaks to the current moment while keeping an eye on the bigger prize.
As someone leading a cause or issue, it's your job to define and articulate how your organization can use both approaches to achieve impact. And your planning and decisions should involve both the marketing and communications team as well as program staff in identifying and targeting the motivations of existing as well as potential donors and supporters.
The bottom line: not everyone will be interested in supporting your day-to-day work on behalf of constituents. Instead of increasing your pressure on them and/or writing them off, try to get them involved in your longer-term agenda by giving them opportunities focused on eliminating some of the root causes responsible for the challenges your organizations works hard to address on a daily basis.
And remember, as you tell the stories of what you and your donors and supporters are doing to change lives today, be sure to create an inspiring vision of a future in which your efforts will no longer be needed. You may be surprised at the response.