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The future of non-profit fundraising has been sealed: it’s on the web. I am sensing a frenzied agitation and excitement amongst business leaders who are thirsty for the type of success demonstrated by President Obama’s online fundraising campaign, and it’s reaching a frightening level of hype.

I am feeling the frenzy too. After reading books like The World is Flat , it’s easy to realize that trends well underway that we should have been on board with at least 3 years ago. Any non-profit serious about longevity needs to be actively engaging its supporters online. It’s time. It can’t be ignored anymore.

That being said, there has never been a better time to just cool it. Calm down. The web is both urgent and attractive right now, but we need to maintain temperance and caution in any strategy we pursue. Of course it’s the future — it has been for years.

Here are a few rules to help us keep our heads on straight:

1. IT’S YOUR CAUSE, NOT THE COMPUTER

Don’t fool yourself: being successful online, whether you’re Obama or the local food bank, is only 10% due to the technology. The rest depends on the strength of your cause.

Obama, for example, had a compelling personal narrative. Do you? Obama had a well-controlled brand. Does your organization have that? Obama also had a captive audience that spanned not only the nation but the world, and had a major presence on every single media outlet for the previous 2 years leading up to the date of the American election. Does your organization have that? Lastly, Barack Obama had a role of historical significance unparalleled in America’s recent history. If your organzation doesn’t have those things, then use the Obama example as your inspiration, not your business plan.

You’ve got more work to do than just “get up there” on the web. It’s wonderful start, and by all means, run with it, but don’t forget to be a well-rounded organization.

2. STRATEGY FIRST, SOFTWARE SECOND

There is absolutely no point in shelling out the dough for an expensive constituent relationship management tool (CRM) or online fundraising solution if you have no internal strategy behind it. If you’re investing in your online giving technology, make sure that you know why you’re doing it.

  • Have you found yourself limited by the free tools, open-source software and community-driven social networks that already exist?
  • What percentage of your supporters currently give online? Has that number been growing or shrinking?
  • Have your past online endeavours shown your supporters are comfortable interacting with your organization on the web?
  • What is the impact on your organization if you don’t expand your online initiatives?

Do not swoon at the first software salesperson that comes digi-knocking. Know why you need to grow, before you branch out.

3. PEOPLE ARE THE ANSWER

Web 2.0 is not a machine made up of parts, but of people and faces. “If you build it, they will come” does not apply online. On the web, people gather where they feel connected. You need to reach out to people to meet them where they are, and to give them what they need — it’s not just a matter of dropping your organization’s fishing line into Facebook and hoping for a bite. Software is not going to do the work for you — people need to be behind it, before it, within it. If people are passionate about your cause, their personal endorsements and support will carry you far further than any purchased tool or ad ever will. It’s vital to respect that support by showing that you’re listening. You can’t just set up a new website and expect (or demand) they sign up.

4. EXPERTS ON THE INSIDE

Just like our mothers warned us about taking candy from strangers, the same applies to taking advice from consultants. If you want to develop a web strategy that really works for your organization, it needs to be developed from the inside. Not just because it’s less expensive, but because it’s more relevant and valuable. At your organization, at least one half of somebody’s job should be dedicated to overseeing your web strategy, including social media.

There are so many nuances to how your organization lives, breathes, works, thinks. There’s an equal amount of nuances to how to use the web. Knowing the intricacies of both is what makes a good web strategy work.

5. THE WEB IS WORTH INVESTING IN

As a direct counter-point to Rule Number Two, sometimes you have to pay for services and software if you want to do the job well. Assuming you’ve done your homework and checked out the existing free or low-cost options, don’t be afraid to part with some serious cash if you’re getting a good product. Do the math, do your homework, and make sure that you’re going to be getting an adequate return on your investment…then pay up.

6. JUST DIVE IN

Go to http://search.twitter.com and type in your organization’s name. Read the results: that’s what people are saying about you right now on Twitter. You don’t have to stay on the outside looking in: you as an organization can start participating in that discussion within minutes.



Non-profits have a lot of catching up to do regarding how to use the web, so let’s go, and let’s move fast. But along the way, don’t be stupid about budgetary and strategic decisions, because we can do this right, or we can waste a lot of time and money. I’d prefer to see us do it the first way.

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Kevan Gilbert

Kevan Gilbert is a writer, speaker and content strategy on the West Coast of BC, Canada.

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