Sector Fundraising and Marketing in a Digital World

Notes from a talk at the 2020 SACOSS Conference by Nick Crowther.

The question posed for this session is ‘what will social sector fundraising and marketing look like in ten years time?’. Not one to pass up an opportunity to speak my mind, I am going to talk about fundraising and marketing but also about corona virus.

I run a creative agency here in Adelaide called Freerange Future. We work a lot with not for profits, social enterprise and the arts.

Freerange is a certified B Corporation. It’s an ethical standard for business. I’m pretty proud that we’re a B and like to start business introductions by dropping this little fact into the conversation. In fact, one important factor for us in becoming a B Corp three years ago was a desire to prove to our non-profit clients that we were one of the good guys.

It might impress you or it might not but that’s not my reason for mentioning it this afternoon. I wanted to share the aspirational B Corp tagline and riff off it – you might nod your head if you’re into social enterprise, or you might scoff at it but it is meant with all sincerity. “Business… as a force for good”.

Something I talk about with other B Corps when I meet them is “marketing as a force for good”. B Corps typically are very good businesses – well run and ethically run. Often they have a social purpose and they’re progressive. They have money to invest into marketing / campaigning and many align with and are prominent in campaigns like marriage equality, change the date, save the bight, etc. I talk to them about how their marketing can serve two purposes – brand building and progressing a cause.

I think it needs to be recognised that business – not Facebook scale business but – real businesses run and staffed by real humans, can be agents of change and allies of the social sector.

There’s a bigger point I want to make about this – marketing and leadership, but hold that thought.

In the charity sector, the mindset I see is one of marketing as a function of fundraising. Campaigning to a lesser extent, mostly fundraising. And like all of the world, it’s neolibrified.

Future trends in fundraising – big data, behavioural economics, machine learning, multivariate testing – influencing people with tech. How is it different to what bad actors on Facebook are doing, or the Chinese government? Answer: cloud AI voodoo for good.
Of course the sector needs money. Of course you’re made to work ever harder for ever less money by government and so adopting practices and tools that improve your ability to get money from the community are going to be vital.

When you write that quarterly fundraising letter, when you set up that crowdfunding campaign or peer to peer campaign, from the inside it looks great. You’ve followed all the best practice and hopefully the results are an incremental and measurable improvement in donations.

But from the other side, a generous citizen will receive a dozen such letters when it’s tax time or spring campaign season, that all read the same. The same phrases bolded, the same things underlined. The same personal and direct message from the CEO with heart rending story. The same dollar ask increased $4 from the last time we gave.

I’m not criticising you for your campaign, your heartfelt letter. Of course they’re sincere and the money is needed and put to good use. And my agency is involved in creating these campaigns too. People like us fundraise like this. The point I want to make is that in the next decade, we need to think about marketing as a function of leadership, not of fundraising.

Marketing as a force for good.

Yanis Varoufakis mentioned Star Trek replicators in his keynote this morning. I have been in the past a tech geek and an avid reader of science fiction. I’m not either of those things so much these days but I do think a lot about the future. I used to imagine living the future and it would be the cool stuff – visiting other worlds, flying cars, teleportation, everyone free and equal, everyone dressed in lycra. I think we can say we’re living in the future now and it’s definitely something out of an SF novel but something darker – dystopian disaster – climate crisis, mass surveillance, tech overlords and now a global pandemic.

Be careful what you wish for bookish little boy.

When I think about the next decade I truly believe everything is up for grabs. A concept explored in science fiction is the singularity. Essentially there is a point in the future – after a general AI is created or people merge with machines or quantum computers become practical, that we can no longer predict the future as a logical progression from where we are today – that all bets are off and anything could happen. Could be good, could be bad, but definitely big change.

Well I suggest to you that COVID-19, the coronavirus pandemic, is a singularity. I’m not saying it’s a zombie apocalypse or total collapse of civilisation but in 2020 the systems of the world will be exposed as the house of cards, the smoke and mirrors that they really are: global trade that offshores everything, just in time supply chains, the stock market, extreme leverage and financialisation, privatised health systems, abundance, the primacy of the individual.

The terrible fires we had this summer were a wake up call for this country to face up to climate change. This virus is going to make us wake up to the fragile-by-design global systems that only just hold everything together.

Our government tried to pivot the bushfire conversation away from combatting climate change to climate adaptation and resilience. Adaptation and resilience in social systems is going to be a much more difficult conversation for them to lead with any credibility but this sector – social services – knows all about this.

When things start to settle down, things are going to change. Now is the time to think big. When people in the middle suffer, change happens, for better or worse. The world will be ready to question things. To see that the emperor has no clothes. We need strong voices with viable and rational alternatives. Our leaders need to be vocal, interpreting what all this means for our communities, ready to step up when old voices lack credibility and painting a picture of a different, equitable future. Like Yanis said, clear practical proposals.
But there is going to be a lot of noise, a lot of fear mongering, a lot of fake news and disinfo. To be heard amongst all this and to reach out broadly, we need to position marketing as a function of nonprofit leadership and embrace marketing as a force for good.

Topics: B Corp, Fundraising, Nonprofit