Charities are missing opportunities by thinking in terms of legacy channels and fundraising methods, argues Phil Gault. It’s time to go against the grain and think short-term.

I’ve just been reading Blackbaud’s 2018 Benchmark Report on the status of UK Fundraising. Covering feedback from 850 not-for-profits, it provides a useful snapshot of the sector’s key dynamics.

This is the chart that really jumped out at me:

34% of organisations receive the largest proportion of their income from cash or cash equivalents; only 14% receive the largest proportion via online donations. That’s a big and rather surprising gap – and like all such gaps, it represents a significant opportunity.

In order to capitalise, I think charities need to do one thing in particular: they need to focus more on short-term thinking. That may sound counter-intuitive; but here’s the logic.

  1. Smartphones increasingly dominate our time and attention. As Ofcom’s most recent report points out, even the lightest users (men aged over 55) now spend 100 minutes a day online via their mobile. The heaviest (women aged 18-24) spend the best part of four hours each day.

    The rise of mobile has impacted us in many ways; one of the most important is that it has changed our expectation timeframe. Whenever we make an action, we expect a near simultaneous reaction.

    This is the first reason why charities need to do more “short-term” thinking. To win on mobile, they need to provide fast feedback loops and immediate rewards. Without these, as recent USA research illustrates, NFP’s will struggle to involve people in their story and lead them on the journey towards participation and donation.

    Gaming provides some useful models for this sort of “short-term” thinking. Charities could consider content that includes easter eggs (i.e. hidden material that surprises and delights) or unlockables (i.e. additional material that only becomes available when the user performs a specific, desirable action). But whatever the mechanic, the goal should be to generate faster, near real-time stimulus.

  2. My second argument for more short-term thinking is that people increasingly want to be active players rather than just spectators or supporters. They want to feel they are participating directly in the narrative of a brand or cause. This is a core reason why companies need to do as well as tell stories (a shift I talk about in greater detail here).

    In the physical world, NFP’s already leverage this brilliantly: from MoonWalks to marathons, from Soccer Aid to Teenage Cancer Trust’s gigs at the Royal Albert Hall. The challenge is how to tap into this demand in the digital world, where there is often little or no ‘planning’ and gratification needs to be more or less immediate.

    Although surely niche in its current form, Csnaps demonstrates one solution. The core concept is that celebrities turn photo requests into an opportunity to raise funds for their favoured charity: selfies taken via the Csnaps app are released to the fan once they’ve made a donation of $3. These sorts of ‘give to get’ micro-donations feel instinctively right for mobile, and it’s not difficult to imagine how the mechanic could be scaled across any entity that attracts a passionate community of fans.

    Thinking short-term could also unlock rich opportunities with programmes like Amazon Smile. With 0.5% of the nett value going to the nominated charity, there is potential for NFP’s to sequence and unroll a story with every purchase made; reinforcing the donor’s connection to the cause and making them feel ever more integral to the work being done.

  3. I’ve argued above how charities need more short-term thinking in order to command an (un)fair share of attention in a mobile-driven world; and – more importantly – convert that attention into participation and donation. But short-term thinking could also help with another urgent challenge: proof of impact.

    In today’s sceptical and increasingly transparent world, people expect NFP’s to be able to demonstrate the value they add. More, they expect them to do so in terms that are comprehensible, tangible and relatable.

    Whilst there are some interesting experiments taking place with development-impact bonds (where the returns an investor receives are determined by the degree to which a project meets its specified objectives), individual donors work to different timeframes. The mobile mindset looks for immediate payback. We want, perhaps expect, impact to be proven in hours or days rather than months or years.

    This is obviously a complex task, and the best solutions for now will involve creating the feedback loops and affirmation mechanisms mentioned above. Over time, however, new answers will emerge – and blockchain technology is likely to lie at their heart. Here, for instance, is a fascinating initiative by payment platform UTRUST.

Providing immediate rewards to maximise engagement; letting your  audience touch and shape your narrative; nudging them towards low-friction donation mechanisms; building trust via transparency – short-term thinking can help charities with each of these challenges. The trick lies in identifying the magic moments, the points in time that matter most to people and then finding fast, impactful and relevant ways to occupy them. And then, of course, in developing a robust strategy that ensures each of these gains ladders up to long-term success.

But increasingly, that long-term will be determined by the accuracy and quality of your short-term thinking.