Nonprofit Disruption: Evolving Models of Engagement and Support | Beth's Blog

Nonprofit Disruption: Evolving Models of Engagement and Support

Fundraising, Research Studies, Social Media Policy

My colleagues at The Monitor Institute  just published a study called “Disruption: Evolving Models of Engagement and Support,” a national study of member-based advocacy organizations. The study was funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.   As they mention on the Working Wikily Blog,  they are releasing the findings of the study in a more dynamic form because they want the organizations and funders to be part of telling this dynamic story.

The traditional form for these type of findings would be a whitepaper. Instead, we are sharing them as slides (original and annotated) that not only conveys what we’ve found but also serves as a tool for sharing and discussing the conclusions with others. We do this not only to stay in the spirit of the participatory engagement styles that are now emerging, but also because the findings represent only the present moment in a story that is far from concluding. Nothing is settled about how even the most relevant and impactful advocacy organizations engage constituencies or attracts resources. We want the organizations themselves and their funders to be a part of its telling.

The research sought to answer a question about member-based advocacy organizations, historically supported by large numbers of loyal, annual donors.  The question:  How are these large organizations making the transition to a connected world?  What are the new models for sustainable advocacy efforts?      The traditional donor profile includes those individuals who write a check for $25 or more – in response to a direct mail solicitation and receive their calendar.     But younger donors, who connect to causes through social networks and their mobile phones are different and perhaps not quite as loyal or even interested in joining established member-based organizations.

In short, the younger generation doesn’t want to be identified as a member and doesn’t see the value.    Younger donors have different demands and the benefits of traditional membership are not enough to attract and enagement them.    Ironically,  the finding is echoed in this comment for the  blog post over at WorkingWikily.

As a 33yr old digital pr gent, I personally don’t see a reason to become a member of any organization, when there’s an opportunity to interact with multiple ones.  Providing super transparency into action on the ground through viscerally engaging media (email/video/photography) while providing opportunities for me to act and also socialize with other like-minded folks, are the attraction and loyalty factors.  I’m keen to believe that’s been the case for a very long time, and not just some emerging generational divide in expectations and behavior.

The study reports that many of these organizations recognize the need to innovate and experiment with  social media, but still rely on direct mail, email, and web sites for fundraising.     Most do not have a replacement strategy for these tried and true methods.  This is troubling given the changing media landscape.

The study shows a maturity of practice in integrating social media into membership and fundraising that is startling.    Half of survey respondents have only just started experimenting with social media in the last two years.    Few nonprofits have really mastered an effective social media practice that is integrated with communications and fundraising.   The study suggests that this is a time of disruption and experimentation and the best way to get through it is to accelerate the experimentation and diffuse the learning from experiments.

The study also revealed that respondents recognized the need for innovation in fundraising and membership but continue to rely on foundation funding.

The study highlights two brief case studies of nonprofits often cited in the interviews for their innovative approaches to integrating social media,  this included Momsrising and Environmental Defense Fund – both have contributed guest posts sharing their practices.

When there is disruption, there is a lot of confusion.     There is a continued need to share best practices about social fundraising that highlight learning and insights with the field.

How are you experimenting and learning about how to integrate social media into your fundraising and membership strategy?   What is keeping your organization back?

9 Responses

  1. Beth –
    Thanks for sharing this important study. It’s so true that individual donors and segments of donors (generational, perhaps) need to be treated differently according to their wants and needs. I work with my clients to try to identify what works best for their donors, individually and as a group. It’s always good to have the latest and greatest research available, so thanks.

  2. There is so much here to learn from! A big takeaway for me is: experiment, experiment, and don’t be afraid to fail. (I know you’ve written about this concept a lot.)

    Any new disruptive technology is bound to cause long-term changes in the way people and organizations do business. The idea of experimenting in public with new ways of using social media is probably a bit intimidating, but seems to be what is called for for the long-term sustainability of the sector. However, with encouragement from case studies and blog posts that you and other colleagues put up, perhaps that will ease the barrier to experimentation.

  3. Steve Smith says:

    I have a nonprofit marketing class that gets underway at Northeastern University this week, and I will integrate Beth’s Blog on the topic of “Disruption.” If we’re going to understand the impact of trends, we need to engage lots of folk in the conversation; in reading and discussing the study. Thanks for getting this in front of us. I want to see how this data will shape my students’ advice to nonprofit “clients” looking for direction with social media.

  4. Clare Neller says:

    Really interesting study. Everyone likes to be communicated with in different ways and respond to different things. With well-targeted, customized communications with multiple mediums – you can track responses, and learn what works and what doesn’t – enabling you to refine your marketing programs over time and get increasingly higher response rates. Social media is necessary to include as part of an overall marketing strategy. Good to know nonprofits are heading in this direction as well.

  5. Musimbi Kanyoro says:

    cannot wait to read this new study. Member Associations can use their members as social network outlets. Do they? Thanks Beth for announcing this study.

  6. Maggie says:

    As a ‘senior’ operating in circumstances that restrict both my community involvement, and any $$ I may have to donate anywhere, I, also, am resistant to focusing my support to one group.

    One thing that ‘slows me down’ in throwing myself into an existing group’s efforts, aside from time/money (exacerbated by geographical isolation from urban centers), is that many continue to be use what might be ‘manipulative’ language. The question: “How can we convince, persuade, increase our numbers?” makes sense at one level. At another level, the question can only come up if somehow, perhaps fully unintentionally and very subtly, a belief of “rightness” exists – a belief that leads to “talk to” rather than “listen to” communication.

    I may have missed it so far, but I’m looking for much stronger promotion of true, grass-roots, consensus building activities, and am not finding it. I’m looking for conscious, articulate, intent to ‘educate by asking questions’. The numbers of people ‘disenfranchised and dis-empowered’ by poverty and other access restrictions is legion across the globe. These people do not primarily need to be organized by a group of “better educated, better trained” thinker/leader class.

    They need to be asked about their needs in such a way that their own solutions emerge as they begin to ask relevant questions. The ‘better educated’ then perform the role of clarifying information, answering more questions. The solutions, however, come from the shift from dis-empowerment to empowerment. This is where ‘consensus model planning’ can serve.

    If “new thinking” becomes a “new religion”, with its own priestly class, etc. – then we have merely changed clothing. Status quo will quickly re-establish itself as far as ‘human liberation’ is concerned.

    Many thanks for ‘listening’!!

  7. This study was the last Monitor Institute project I worked on before joining the Salesforce Foundation. The findings point to the need for a new model for engagement and fundraising and it is clear that orbs that continue to rely on direct mail are seeing a decline in returns as well as escalating costs. That approach is dated and rapidly losing it’s value but where are the replacements? We need more examples for the community to build from.

  8. Beth says:


    The examples are there – more and more. IT takes learning from adjacent practices though – I think one problem is that some sub-fields or disciplines in the nonprofit sector are so insular they can’t look outside their field of reference and learn.

    See the collective action fundraising campaign in Alexandria — so these networked social fundraisers are a model to look at. The leader is Minnesota – and Give to the Max Day. How do you marry collective action to fundraiser and network of nonprofits?

    Could it be that resistance to change is because some organizations have donors to step in fill in the gaps? I noticed in this in the symphony orchestra field … I’m sure there are other examples.

  9. Alyssa Kopf says:

    Beth – I have been doing a lot of thinking about how poorly the nonprofit sector prepares for disruption. For my nonprofit (a grassroots community giving fund) the greatest disruption to our business model is the rising culture of free. Every high profile fundraising campaign trumpeting “no fees” and “100% of Funds” makes the work of fundraising harder for all nonprofits. How can nonprofits compete with that change in value expectation?

    Alyssa Kopf, CEO
    Community Shares of Colorado