Living in a digital world

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Why your fundraisers are your biggest competition

People are changing their giving habits, fast. So what’s happening? Time to wise up to the new world, says Rik Haslam

(Note: this is an article I recently wrote for the International Fundraising Conference’s magazine – here’s the original article).

Here’s the thing.

I am a charity. I’m not registered. I have thousands of fundraisers, but I don’t pay any salaries. I have advanced technology and communication systems, yet zero overheads. Nor do I pay business rent. I have my own in-house media production studio: it’s my camera phone, bargain basement netbook and some free, open-source software. I create dozens of ads but wouldn’t dream of shelling out on media placements. Instead I put my messages on email, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, my blog and fundraising platforms like YOCO and JustGiving.

There are millions like me. And we are your real competition. If it feels like we have an unfair advantage, we do. If it feels like we’re a threat to your business model, we are. If it feels like we think you’re irrelevant, maybe we do. Don’t panic though, there is some good news later. Kind of.

And here’s another thing. I’m a regular giver. Each month a sizeable amount automatically transfers from my current account. But, that money doesn’t go to any particular charity. It goes into a dedicated charity account I’ve set up. Then, whenever a friend emails me announcing they’re running a marathon, climbing Mount Fuji, cycling across the Sahara, or doing a fun run, I dip into my account and happily support their fundraising efforts.

I now have no direct relationships with any charity. I can’t be acquired, up-sold, cross-sold, retained. I’m not a customer, supporter or prospect, as far as I’m concerned you don’t exist. All that exists is the causes my friends and I want to support. I don’t support Macmillan, Save the Children or Amnesty. I support friends, colleagues and family. I support beating cancer, protecting children and an end to political torture.

To be clear, my relationships are with people and causes, and no longer directly with brands. However, even though I don’t want a relationship with you, I do want you to continue your good work, and I do know you need funds – I just prefer to siphon the money via my friends. It’s a bit of a terrifying paradox, isn’t it? Or is it an opportunity?

For a little while longer (maybe two years max) your business model isn’t completely broken. There are still many people, perhaps even the majority who still behave in traditional ways. Still like direct mail. Still prefer to speak to a person on the telephone. Still think the Internet is a bit pointless.

That’s all about to change in a very dramatic way. Here’s why…

Until the beginning of April this year, the Internet wasn’t really a mass market proposition. You had to buy a complicated machine with GHz and NVIDIA and Bluetooth, and other weird techno-babble nonsense. I love it, but I’m a geek. My mother, on the other hand, hates technology (more on this later). For people like her the internet was (at best) in a cold, spare bedroom, plugged into the wall and never moving. Setting up wi-fi was an intimidating business, so the Internet never really came into the centre of most homes. Mobile Internet was even worse. Expensive data-charges, even more complicated set-up processes, and, on the majority of devices, an awful experience. And the screen’s too small for my mum’s eyesight anyway.

At the beginning of April all that changed. The iPad arrived. It’s not a computer or a mobile. It’s a TV, a book, a photo-album, a chess board, a record-player. It’s the internet in your handbag. You don’t need an instruction manual. There’s no keyboard, mouse or complicated cables. It’s just a screen. You touch it and stuff happens. The iPad and dozens of other devices like it (they’re coming later this year) change everything.

Suddenly the internet is a mass market consumer phenomenon. Suddenly the internet is everywhere. Suddenly everyone can do all the things I talked about at the start of this article. Suddenly my mum likes the internet. I actually had to pull my iPad from her hands. She loved it. And so will millions of other ordinary, everyday people – i.e. your best customers.

And that spells big trouble for your business, because now (well, since April 3rd when the iPad launched actually) there’s a people-friendly version of the internet. And that means it’s not just the minority who will do the scary things mentioned earlier, but everyone.

Suddenly nobody needs you as the fundraising intermediary between their money and the cause. They can cut you out. So…how the heck do you stay relevant in this consumer-empowered environment? It’s simple, but not easy.

You need to join in. You need to give people the tools that help them connect with one another and achieve their own objectives. You need to deliver experiences that involve them and their friends directly with the causes they’re concerned about. You need to encourage the formation of like-minded networks, to stop thinking about customers and start focusing on influencers, to stop pushing messages and start building engagement. Tools and experiences are your new best friends. The age of marketing communications is over. Your job as a marketer now is to deliver value, not to sell, incentivise or persuade.

It is a fundamental shift, but without it your business model will come under increasing pressure, and your brand will become an increasing irrelevance. Already a number of charities are having significant success by embracing the new landscape.

A good example is how some fundraising brands reacted to the Haiti earthquake. Christian Aid generated 25% of its web traffic by harnessing the power of Twitter (whose top demographic is 45-54 year olds by the way).

A single embedded link in a YouTube video generated £35,000 for Oxfam. YouTube incidentally has over 300 million users and 46% of them are over 35.

Médecins Sans Frontìeres recruited 24,000 prospects through its Facebook fan page. And if you think social media isn’t a mass market channel yet, ponder this – during the first week of April, 14% of all US based web traffic went to only two sites – Google (of course) and Facebook. Most of it went to Facebook.

The message to charity brands is clear. Discover a role in the new landscape, and invent new tools to help facilitate the connections and interactions individuals want to have with one another and the causes that are close to their hearts.

July 1, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , ,


  1. I tried to find a way to disagree but, ultimately, could not.

    Comment by robbierae | July 1, 2010 | Reply

  2. Interesting stuff Rik, timely and I agree with the broad sweep of what you’re saying. There are just a couple of points I’d add

    “There are still many people, perhaps even the majority who still behave in traditional ways.” Um, it’s definitely the majority. IoF was full of i-phone toting outliers who are convinced the i-phone changes all our lives forever. No, it’s changed *their* lives forever. We need to consider the 99% of people who don’t have an i-phone or an i-pad. Yes, they really exist!

    And the other one is that all those people who you support because they’re doing events, are doing them for charities. Someone has to support something somewhere. A significant minority will want to change the world without an organisation getting in the way, just as some people cut out supermarkets by growing their own veg and baking their own bread. But not the majority, and not for a few years yet. That’s my guess.

    Comment by reuben | July 15, 2010 | Reply

  3. Just found this post and love it. Mobile internet on ipad, phone or other device is very exciting and I agree will radically change how companies and charities interact with their customers and supporters. Broadcast marketing is surely in decline and community building the future?

    Comment by Paul de Gregorio | January 1, 2011 | Reply

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