Using online social media in fundraising

How do I get the agency to use online social media in our fundraising?

This question came in a phone conversation with a client of Consulting Within Reach. She’s the executive director of one of the county’s largest social service organizations. It’s an excellent nonprofit doing good work, but it definitely has a more “traditional” feel to its culture, and has had minimal to no online social media presence so far. 
Since I knew the organization well, I realized that I needed to start by first framing the purpose and cultural context of this new media for a nonprofit like hers. To do this, I resorted to my favorite metaphor for the topic (courtesy of my friend Christine Egger at Social Actions): the cocktail party.
Imagine that your organization is holding your annual fundraising dinner. Before the guests are seated for their meal, there is customarily a cocktail party where everyone lingers in the lobby, sipping drinks and chatting.
Now imagine the following behaviors on your part and how well each would go down with the crowd.
  • You jump up to stand on the bar, grab a microphone, and proceed to lecture the crowd nonstop about your organization’s accomplishments.
  • You circulate through all the small groups and hand to everyone a printed set of message points about your cause that you want covered in the conversation.
  • You have your staff circulate through all the small groups with those old school manual credit card imprinters, asking for on the spot donations.
Each behavior would be gauche, wouldn’t it? Any executive director knows that those actions are inappropriate for the purpose and cultural context of the cocktail party. 
Purpose and cultural context are critical to figuring out correct behavior. There are times when it is actually expected that you will grab the microphone and fill up the airspace with your organization’s achievements.  But that happens in the designated program portion of the fundraising dinner. 
There are times when it would be wise for the leader to make sure everyone is on message. But that should happen before the event and just with the staff team. 
And there are times when you should ask for donation in an easy to give fashion. But that happens best at the end of the evening.
So how does an organization start using online social media for fundraising?
By first realizing that online social media is the cocktail party. It’s not the main program for the evening. It’s not a “messaging opportunity” to manage. And it’s not even really meant to be the fundraiser itself.
The key for an organization that doesn’t come naturally to online social media is to internalize the cocktail party metaphor and then adjust their behavior accordingly.   And one specific adjustment is the need to converse, and not lecture.
Converse, don’t lecture
This is the biggest shift for some leaders. They can become so accustomed to thinking of all media as broadcast channels that they don’t realize that the whole point of online social media is that it breaks up the traditional one way relationship between speaker and audience. The new media is designed to facilitate conversations: some of them between the speaker and the audience but even more between audience member and audience member. 
One hint: if your organization’s Facebook page is starting to resemble a stripped down version of your web page, chances are that you’re doing the equivalent of jumping on the bar and grabbing the microphone. You should be using an online social media tool to do things that a website – more designed for broadcasting then conversing -- doesn’t do as well: like get feedback on events, quick polls, giving real time updates, and others.
The nice thing about conversation is that you get more timely feedback than you do with lecture. Use this key advantage of the medium to learn more about your audience. The best conversationalists are always the ones who ask the best questions, so start your first attempts in the medium with what would be interesting questions for your audience.
Here are some examples:
  • As an organization, we’re thinking about doing X this new year. What do you think?
  • We’re launching this program in a few months but don’t have a name for it. What are your ideas?
  • What other organizations do you support and why?
  • We’re not sure we’re offering meaningful volunteer opportunities. What are you looking for?
Now, here’s the other key to cocktail party conversations: you have to genuinely want to know what your audience thinks about these questions. You have to want to know for the sake of knowing your audience, not just as a segue into fundraising.
People can tell when there is genuine interest. There’s nothing worse than that person at a party  who asks, “So, how are you?” and then during your reply is constantly glancing over your shoulder for who else is present at the party.  Or just as bad, who nods impatiently through your reply and interrupts to say, “What I really wanted to talk to you about was… “
Genuine interest doesn’t of course mean you will adopt their suggestions of course. But it will probably involve some sort of time and effort. Again, people can tell. Not every organization is ready to open itself to that kind of input. And not every leader is willing to devote organizational bandwidth to engaging in that kind of conversation.
That’s OK. You don’t have to. But it just means that you shouldn’t be throwing this particular party.

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