Digital toppled the donor pyramid. Actually, it crumbled it… slowly, surely, until there was nothing left but an empty frame. A triangle on paper. The donors no longer fit inside of it.
Now we have a vortex — an energy circle.
But first, let’s give a nice eulogy to the golden triangle. The donor pyramid was a great model for linear thinkers like me. It was neat and orderly. Engage folks from the bottom up, level by level, one step at a time. It was stable. Or so we thought, until research from Adrian Sargeant and Penelope Burk showed we were losing up to 70% of our donors before they ever moved up the ladder. Oh well.
R.I.P. donor pyramid. You had a good run.
Back to our new vortex. Today, electronic communications – social, mobile, email, crowd funding, online donating — have permanently disrupted the traditional donor-engagement process. People get information online. Network online. Make decisions online. There are so many different ways for folks to find you and interact with you that it’s dizzying.
Entry points are becoming increasingly complex. Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube, viral competitions, texting… it’s a lot for your typical nonprofit to wrap arms around.
Yet wrap you must. There’s no going backwards. Change is change. You adapt or die.
Every entry point into the vortex offers a pathway to deeper engagement. What complicates things is that you’re no longer in control. You contribute to the energy, but you can’t create it or contain it. The circle offers many opportunities for folks to be influenced by forces outside your organization’s control.
You can join the circle and become a part of the forces that influence behavior, or you can try to control things from the outside. But have you ever tried to enter an already speeding circle? (I’ve done this with folks dancing the hora, and it can take awhile to break in unless someone unlinks their arms and welcomes you in).
How do you work the donor vortex?
Begin by accepting the fact that this is a non-linear, non-orderly process. It’s downright messy. Folks can interact with you in multiple ways. They aren’t confined to a single level. The only constant is energy, which ebbs and flows. Your role is to keep the energy flowing and building until…. swoop! – your donor is happily hurled into the vortex as the circle opens to welcome her.
Keep the vortex fun!
Less like a hurricane; more like a ride at Disneyland — or a circle dance. Engagement is constant, interesting, educating and rewarding. You offer your donors rewards for their engagement. You keep them smiling, and enjoying and feeling good.
How does this happen? It begins by changing the way you’ve traditionally done fundraising and marketing. In silos. In segments. In ‘low touch’ at the bottom and ‘high touch’ at the top strategies. Boundaries are blurring. You’ve got to integrate all online and offline communications functions across your entire organization.
Jennifer Wayman, executive vice president and director of social marketing at Ogilvy Washington, calls this a “surround sound” experience—one that uses various channels in people’s everyday lives and increases opportunities to both introduce and reinforce messages. Social media makes it possible to provide folks with continuous energy. And it enables them to respond in kind. Then you respond back, and so forth.
In other words, you build relationships with folks in ways that previously were unimaginable. Your constituents also build relationships, on your behalf, with their peers. And their peers do the same with them.
When you rank the potential forces on a donor’s decision to give, family, friends, and peers rank higher than anything else.
According to a recent survey by Georgetown University Center for Social Impact Communication, 39% of Americans are motivated to get involved with causes that have affected someone they know, and 36% are motivated by it being an important cause to family and friends. These reasons for involvement far outweighed having time or money, or feeling an urgency to help people in need.
Back to understanding the vortex — and how getting rid of pyramid thinking can help you.
When you think about the most famous pyramids, what are they but forced creations of slave labor where people go to die (yes, remember the pyramids were built as tombs), whereas vortexes are freely and naturally occurring energy. Which sounds more donor friendly?
I’m not the only pyramid slayer out here. The brilliant Julie Dixon & Denise Keyes wrote an article in Stanford Social Media Innovation Review that nicely sums up the benefits of the vortex model (I encourage you to read it — and stop looking at me with your squinty eyes, like I’m a little bit daft). I know you love your pyramid. I get it. But… it’s time. The vortex model:
- Allows your donor to be engaged at different entry points and move easily between them during the engagement life cycle.
- Has no fixed end point for your donor’s engagement.
- Allows for your donor’s engagement footprint to expand or contract in ways that are unique to and driven by the individual donor.
- Places your donor’s needs—not your organization’s—at the center of the engagement.
- Accounts for the influence of other people on the strength of the donor/organization relationship.
What’s notable about the vortex is an absence of a fixed goal.
No more is climbing to the top of the pyramid the only path to success. There is more than one route to maximizing a potential donor’s support. The vortex model values many different types of contributions. Smart nonprofits have always known to let donors know they’re valued for more than their money. The vortex model makes this happen. Influencers, advocates and ambassadors are highly valued contributors – and sometimes they will influence donations well beyond what they themselves are able to contribute.
Think about it. Who’s worth more to you? A single $100 donor, or a $25 donor who influences 20 friends to join her in that gift?
The vortex model also means reimagining the concept of “lifetime value.”
It’s no longer simply a combination of average gifts, future capacity and attrition rates. Now it must encompass factors like the size of a person’s network and their propensity to use that network. In other words, the “Connectors” and “Mavens” and “Salesmen”of whom Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The Tipping Point become very desirable constituents.
Like everything else, if you want folks to connect, persuade and sell for you you’ve got to ask them. This is a change in modus operandi for most nonprofits. And it’s why I advocate developing a content calendar that includes calls to action for every communication you put out there. If you don’t call for an action, how will you know your communication was even worth the effort?
Get some new goals (vortex-related ones; not pyramid climbing ones) and measure whether you’re achieving them. Here’s what to do to boost the sense of impact your supporters feel when it comes to your cause:
- Ask for retweets on Twitter.
- Ask for sharing on Facebook
- Ask for pins on Pinterest
- Ask for comments on blog posts.
- Ask for links to your blog posts on Linked In and G+.
- Ask for forwarding of e-mails to friends.
- Ask for advocacy initiatives like signing and forwarding petitions.
- Ask for crowd funding and peer fundraising initiatives.
A lot of what nonprofits need to do today is layer
Continue to ask for gifts, of course. Simply also ask supporters to share your e-mail appeals with their personal networks and post information about your organizations’ efforts on social media. These tasks require minimal effort on the part of your supporter, but can reap tremendous benefits by (1) introducing you to a broader constituency and (2) making your supporter feel they’re having added impact. It’s a win/win.
Not all calls to action are created equal
Some require low involvement, yet yield high influence. Though there are relatively few of these, they are the gold standard and you should use them the most. I especially like asking supporters to share e-mail appeals. Others require high involvement, yet yield low influence. It’s just good to know where influence counts, and where it doesn’t.
Yesterday I received an appeal that said “Your gift encourages others to give.” I thought: How does that work? They don’t even know I gave!” It turns out I was right. If you donate, and no one else knows, this is not an influential act. But if you allow charities to share your name, and even your story, this can have influence.
So how does a charity put the vortex model to effective use?
Different strokes for different folks. Pay attention to the way folks connect with you; then tailor your connections with them. For major donors, ask them if you can let others know they support you. For Facebook fans, ask if they’ll share your e-appeal. For instagram users, ask if they’ll post to your Pinterest board. Speak to donors where they’re most comfortable; tailor calls to action to maximize their engagement and impact. Continue to come up with asks throughout the year; not just for money, but for energy, influence and impact.
Working with limited staff and resources? Create a donor-centric culture of philanthropy. Again, get rid of silos. Everyone is in sales now, and everyone is in communications and fundraising. Have periodic trainings for all staff so they can learn your messaging and how to engage folks online. And recruit your influencers to be your ambassadors. Pay attention to who comments and tweets the most. Reach out to them and… yes… call for the action you want!
The other way to think about this is as a donor engagement journey.
Donors will still travel a path from awareness… to interest… to engagement… to investment. So don’t stop trying to move them along this continuum. The difference is that the continuum is no longer linear or static, it’s circular and dynamic. To be truly effective at this means putting it on everyone’s plate; then hiring a manager to coordinate your efforts.