Next Step Innovation.

We were really pleased to be asked to write a piece for the Charity Comms Innovation Report that launched this week. The report is packed full of excellent tips, instruction guides and opinions. The full report can be found here. Our piece follows…

Innovation is very of the moment. It seems all UK charities are creating innovation teams, appointing innovation staff or outsourcing the innovation process to external agencies.

It’s very clear that we need to innovate. Fundraising using the models, techniques and channels we’ve come to rely on is becoming increasingly difficult and I think it’s fair to say that fundraising has had a tough couple of years in the UK.

Where we’ve come from

I don’t want to dwell on the negative elements of the past few years. Enough, probably too much, has already been written and presented about that. But it is important when considering future innovation to look at the reasons — above and beyond a hostile press and increased regulation — that have resulted in the UK fundraising sector ending up in the current situation.

1. We’ve struggled to keep up.

Technology is changing at a rapid pace and human behaviour is changing at a similar rate. It was only 12 years ago that the first iPhone was introduced and it’s incredible to consider how important the smartphone has become to our everyday lives in that relatively short time. Our expectations of service have changed too: we want things quicker, we want them more easily and we expect more in return for our custom or support.

It’s no longer acceptable to offer a poor online experience if our audience is expecting something better. And it’s here where we have struggled when we compare ourselves to other sectors.

2. We’ve focussed on fundraising products over values.

It feels as if we’ve stopped putting our values and mission up front when fundraising. Instead we’ve put all the focus on the thing we want people to do, rather than on what our organisation is here to achieve or what the impact of a supporter’s donation will be.

3. An (unhealthy) addiction to monthly giving.

As a sector we became obsessed with monthly giving and with very good reason. It’s an amazing way of raising money. But I’d argue that the approaches and channels we use to recruit monthly donors have become the public’s experience of charity and not always in a positive way.

4. Incrementalism at the cost of transformation.

The dominance of monthly giving has meant that we’ve focussed on working the monthly giving model as hard as possible. Of course optimizing and improving performance is critical. But surely not at the cost of investing time, energy and resource into exploring alternative offers.

5. Recruiting supporters, not attracting support.

Large scale supporter recruitment and growth has become our focus. We’ve broadcast a general message as wide as we can afford to in order to appeal to as many people as possible and hit recruitment targets — rather than inviting people who subscribe to our values to join us and change the world together.

The drive towards innovation is a good and necessary thing. But we must learn from our innovation processes and practices of the past. Particularly in monthly giving, as the copycat nature of our sector has meant that offers and channels converged across different brands and the public’s experience became about the giving mechanism, not the reason to give.

Innovating with technology

A lot of my focus is in the use of technology to deliver impact. So whenever I’m thinking about innovation or new approaches to new or old problems I always refer back to this simple diagram, to make sure I am focusing my energies in the area where they will make the biggest difference.

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Technology. What does technology enable?

Does the technology exist to do the thing we want to do? It’s possible to develop anything if you have the time and money, but building from the ground up is expensive and fraught with danger. Before we build anything we need to be sure there aren’t already platforms or products in existence which we can fuse together to deliver our idea. I honestly believe that the organisations that invest time and resources on establishing the most effective way of bringing together existing technologies will be at the forefront of redefining the fundraising model.

Behaviour: What are people actually doing?

This is important. An idea that is built around a fancy piece of technology that doesn’t have mass appeal or mass adoption won’t drive mass response. It is that simple. And a piece of technology that requires people to do something that sits outside of their existing behaviours has to deliver real value and meet an identified audience need if they are to consider using it. There are too many ‘cool’ ideas that end up being launched and then die quietly. To get traction, our ideas have to born out of and be built upon existing behaviour.

And while we are here. Not very many people want another login to another closed platform. We all have too many passwords to remember and the only people who will bother are your most engaged. Strive to personalise the experience of people supporting you, but don’t hide it away.

Impact. What will deliver the biggest impact?

I worry this question doesn’t get asked enough. Will this idea deliver impact at the level we want or need? And for clarity I mean impact as defined by you, so that’s money, actions, likes, shares, whatever it is you know you need to do. Will your idea deliver it?

So, by all means develop your Virtual Reality fused with Android Pay idea. But don’t be surprised if the millions of people who don’t use Android Pay don’t get involved.

What next?

It feels as if we are emerging from a period of time where we’ve been really focussed on what we want people to do for us — and defining supporters as what they do for us, rather than as people who share our values and who want to see the same change that we do.

If we accept that this is something that needs to change, future innovation starts with an absolute focus on what your organisation exists to do and the means by which we inspire people to join us on the journey to delivering on our mission.

Inspired by movements of the past (e.g the civil rights and peace movements) and big digital movements of recent history like Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, I’m putting a lot of focus into understanding how charities can apply the strategies and tactics from movement building into their public engagement strategies.

What makes a successful movement?

When we study the most successful movements they have these five things in common:

  1. A vision to believe in

  2. A believable plan to deliver that vision

  3. Values that can be subscribed to

  4. Useful (and valuable) things to do for those who participate

  5. Charismatic leadership or leaders

Which are things charities should have in abundance. And to effectively apply the strategies and tactics of movement building, charities should consider the following key factors.

We are not at the centre of the movement

A single organisation shouldn’t and can’t be at the centre of the movement. We need to listen to those who share our values, study the movement they are already in and then work out how we can respectfully harness the power and energy of the existing movement and ensure we are giving something back.

For example I imagine Friends of the Earth are aware that they are not at the centre of the environmental movement. They are successful because they recognise that there is a wider alliance of organisations, (other NGOs, governments, legislators and companies) all working together to fulfil on the shared objective of saving the planet.

Values. Not products.

To build an engaged, committed crowd of like-minded individuals at scale, we need to move beyond supporter recruitment and start attracting support by promoting our values instead of focusing purely on fundraising products.

Engagement and community building rather than broadcast advertising.

Advertising isn’t dead, but it’s starting to lose its relevance with the public. It feels as if the areas we should be exploring are around how we can build measurable engagement and a sense of community around a problem, or create campaigns based on shared values.

Moving on from two stage and hand raising

If we can inspire people through our values, if we are harnessing the power and energy of the existing movement, we need to be giving those who join us a range of useful and valuable things to do. Otherwise we aren’t being authentic and all we’re doing is recruiting prospects for conversion to our products.

If we are honest with ourselves, we know that if we continue with the status quo, or to tweak our existing approach, it is highly unlikely we will be able to meet our organisation’s goals and deliver the change in the world we are here to create.

We all know we need to transform our fundraising model. The key question is how.

The charities that keep up with human behaviour, successfully innovate their methods of engaging the public at scale by putting their values front and centre as well as offering the very best experience will be the ones that succeed over the next 15 years.

Originally published here.

Header photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash