Tuesday, 27 March 2018

What does digital fundraising really mean?

This is a Victorian book called ‘Enquire Within Upon Everything’ - a book full of all sorts of useful advice about everything. This book was the inspiration for the web.

The dream of the web was for a common space in which we can communicate by sharing information. And that’s what the web is today - a tool for communication between people, where the technology is largely an invisible part of the infrastructure. When Tim Berners Lee created the web, he built a place where any person could share information with anyone else, anywhere.

But it wasn’t just the technology that created the web, it was a mindset of openness, inclusivity, collaboration and trust that Tim and his contributors upheld. These became the guiding principles and vision of the web. These principles are constantly being challenged by people trying to monopolise the web and interfere with the information flow - intermediaries trying to get in the way.

I believe the best digital strategies are when organisations stay true to the principles of the web and they make the technology and the teams responsible for it - an invisible friend. Ultimately they try to get out of the way and let the humans figure out the best way to communicate with each other. 

How does this apply to Fundraising? And is this what digital fundraising is all about?

In 2010 I was recruited as a Digital Fundraising Manager at Alzheimer’s Society. My role was quite digital marketing heavy at first, and fundraising teams expected me to do all the ‘digital stuff’ for them. But I soon realised that this wasn’t a very good use of my time and, actually, it would be a lot more effective for me to get out of the fundraising teams' way and show them how to use the web for themselves.

So my job became about helping fundraising teams learn about the principles of the web (and it’s pretty much been the same ever since). It was about showing them how to use the web to better understand the people we want to give us money.

To my surprise, at the time not many other digital fundraising people had a role like mine and, most of the time, they were doing the ‘digital stuff’ for fundraising teams and not teaching them how to use the web. I've found that a really good test for understanding the digital maturity of a fundraising team would be to ask them what their definition of digital fundraising is. If their answer is more about supporting fundraising teams to learn about their supporters, I believe it shows that these fundraising teams are more digitally mature.

Recently, when someone asked on the (awesome) ‘Fundraising chat’ facebook group what the definition of digital fundraising was, the response was a really interesting mix of people saying that digital fundraising is either 'doing digital stuff for fundraising' or 'helping fundraisers to learn about their supporters'. So things have definitely moved on - but we still have some way to go as a sector.

My definition of digital fundraising

Digital fundraising is about helping fundraising teams use the web to learn what supporters want to get out of their fundraising experience, understanding what their emotions and needs are, and working out what we can do as a charity to help meet those needs (what products or services we should offer). Then it’s about helping them to figure out if there’s a viable business model that generates profit from us offering these products or services.

Digital fundraising is also about changing fundraisers and the environment they operate in, and change is bloody hard! We need to help fundraisers talk about stuff that hasn’t worked in an open way (the ability to fail fast). We need to empower fundraisers to learn and not just deliver an Ops plan. We need to give fundraisers the time to understand their audience and become closer to what motivates them.

It’s about changing the way we approach fundraising so that it is more aligned with the principles of the web.

Maybe we should stop calling it digital fundraising?

We don’t call ourselves ‘Digital Fundraising’ at Cancer Research UK as we’re trying to drop the word ‘digital’ from team as well as role names because well, it doesn't really mean anything. We are the ‘Supporter Insight & Testing team’ and are responsible for helping people to:
  • know what the supporter's needs are
  • use a 'test and learn' approach
  • get access to the right data as simple as possible
  • work together better from across the charity (not just in our silos), and use everyone’s skills and experience
  • use plain language - UX, Lean, Content Strategy, Agile, Scrum Wizards…..it all gets a bit Hogwartsy so we try and steer away from it.

Our vision is to help fundraising teams use testing and insight to make decisions about what has the most value for our supporters and Cancer Research UK. 

I dream of a day when fundraising teams are getting out of the way and making themselves invisible. When we are building closer relationships between the supporter and beneficiary (bring on Blockchain!)

At Cancer Research UK we have a long way to go to achieve all of this, but the fact that we are even starting to think about fundraising in this way is a good start. And it means that we are in a great place to better react to what our supporters' needs really are.

If there is one tiny thing you do next, read this article and it will help you understand where best to start.

But this is just my opinion, please challenge me in the comments!

Rob Green


  1. Great article Rob! Thank you for all your work and support to make us all a little more 'digital' in our worlds. Best wishes, Myles *btw, this is my first ever comment on a blog post, so you must have had an impact on me ;-)

    1. Thank you Myles! I'm so glad that I was your first ;)

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