Digital Transformation Offers More Opportunity for Nonprofits, not Less.
We’ve read and written a good bit about how the pandemic pushed organizations to advance their digital efforts by several years’ worth of development in the span of just a few months.
Perhaps no groups moved faster in that time that nonprofits, both out of necessity and out of opportunity. When the world locked down, new channels opened to help donors and recipients connect — and while some are returning to in-person events to raise money, the more likely evolution is a marriage of traditional and digital strategies to broaden their donor bases, according to Eden Stiffman, a senior editor at the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
“I don’t think that the digital disruption is like a replacement for the way things have been done,” said Stiffman. “But I think savvy groups are seeing it as kind of an additive way to reach more people.”
Eager to learn more, we recently caught up with Stiffman to get her perspective about how nonprofits are moving into the digital future.
Q&A with Eden Stiffman of the Chronicle of Philanthropy
Obviously, things have changed in our world — and especially in the world of philanthropy — in the last two to three years. What changes have you seen that have been the most meaningful or impactful?
Nonprofits had for years been talking about the promise of online giving and online fundraising, and a lot of groups just hadn’t really invested in building out their strategies until they were forced to during the pandemic.
I think we saw a lot of innovation in that space over the past 18 months, just out of necessity.
The investments that groups have made over the past 18 months are really setting them up to reach a broader donor base going forward and to continue to connect with donors they might not have been able to reach prior to the pandemic.
When you talk about a broader donor base, are you talking about just in terms of number or across different generations?
Certainly across different generations, but also I’ve been speaking to fundraisers at a lot of groups that weren’t able to hold big in-person events, and so they transitioned to online events and they were able to have people join in who lived across the country or the world who they never would have interacted with in an intimate way prior to the pandemic.
So I think it’s geographic diversity. I think it’s racial and ethnic diversity — and certainly generational diversity, too. There are groups investing a lot in TikTok strategy or in reaching the gaming community, targeting people who maybe hadn’t been — and still aren’t — huge donors, but have the potential to grow into supporting nonprofits for the rest of their lives.
It sounds like you’re talking about Gen Z. While Gen Z is only just now getting into the workforce and beginning to have income to donate, it feels like that group also may be more driven by volunteerism. I wonder if you see that as part of a successful funnel for nonprofits, so that over time, they’ll become financial donors if they’re committed to the cause.
I think that’s a big idea, engaging people however you can. Maybe there isn’t the payoff in terms of financial donations for years, but you’re building those relationships that will hopefully help some folks stay connected with the cause later in their lives, when they do have more money to give.
With the digital disruption you referenced, are nonprofits learning anything else other than that they should have invested in this long ago? Are they changing their approach to fundraising?
I think a lot of groups that have really pivoted to virtual events and broader digital outreach are not saying they’re doing away with meeting donors face to face again at some point or hosting big in-person events. I think they still see value in those, but they realize that those efforts reach a limited audience.
In order to grow, they have to be where their future donors are. That may be on different social media platforms. It may be coming up with new kinds of events to engage people, like how a lot of the health groups that would have had big runs or walks in the past put on digital versions of those events where you can participate in your own way, in a safe way.
Nonprofits’ messaging to donors can be far more direct today, in part because of technology’s ability to reach audiences, but also because the tenor of the times has changed so much. Nonprofits know they may be able to reach people who are angry or emotional about a situation more easily. Is that part of the digital disruption?
You certainly see what people call “rage giving,” which is a reactionary donation in response to something like the Texas abortion law. That kind of messaging, I think, is causing people to react in different ways than maybe more subdued fund-raising messaging has in the past.
But in terms of being straightforward about impact, there’s so much talk in the nonprofit sector about how donors want to know the impact that their gifts are having. I think when charities are thinking about retaining donors who made a one-time gift, really being able to drill down and say, “This is what your donation accomplished. These are the ways we’re measuring that,” that’s increasingly important to be able to keep people engaged in a cause.
It’s not just fundraising. It’s relationship building, right?
I’ve been thinking a lot about all the ways people give that don’t pass through normal nonprofits and why some people might give to a mutual aid effort or a crowdfunding campaign in addition to a traditional charity, and a lot of donors say it’s because they can have that personal connection to who they are giving to.
They know the family that their donation is going to, whereas if they give to a charity, they know it’s helping someone hopefully, but they can’t necessarily put a face with their donation. They haven’t necessarily had the experience of donating food to a food pantry and physically interacting with the cause in a way that they’re able to outside of the formal charitable sector.
So the impact of giving can feel the same helping someone at my local food bank as it can helping someone across the country — if I know how that’s being used and I feel a personal connection to it. Is that what you’re describing?
I’ve been thinking about these crises upon crises that are happening around the world, the natural disasters and the ongoing pandemic, and I think a lot of people are engaging hyper-locally in their giving as well as supporting efforts internationally.
Fundraisers often talk about the fear of donor fatigue. Will their donors just be bombarded by too many appeals for too many different causes or too many different disasters and not be able to continue giving?
And the research behind that shows that crisis donors do behave differently than everyday donors to charity, but crisis giving doesn’t necessarily divert donations away from the causes people were already supporting. People often give during a crisis in addition to the giving they’re already doing.
Giving in 2020 looks very different from giving in 2021. What do you think the headlines will be saying by this time next year?
One thing that’s worth noting is that even before the pandemic, we’ve seen this bigger trend where philanthropy is becoming top-heavy; there’s a smaller number of donors who contribute a greater proportion of total giving. The share of Americans who give has been on a steady decline, but the total amount of giving continues to go up.
I think 2020 intensified that even more, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we continue to see that trend in 2021 as recovery from the pandemic continues to be so uneven. That’s a longtime trend that doesn’t seem to be slowing down.