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Donor 3.0

Connecting with the prospects of today, and tomorrow
University Business, Jan 2010

WHEN IT BECOMES HARDER TO raise funds and the notion of success is coming up with just 90 percent of last year's revenues, fundraisers must get smarter--by better understanding their donors and the different tools and approaches to connecting with them. Colleges and universities of all sizes now have the opportunity to influence and motivate a new generation of donors and get them in the "habit of giving," but it's an uphill climb. The competition for every second of attention and each dollar is frenetic.

We're far enough into the confluence of changes to begin to make sense of what's happening. New paradigms are emerging from the disruptions in our economy, our lifestyles, and the ways we communicate with and relate to one another. Better knowledge of what's possible, what's expected, what works and what doesn't, is helping us form a working theory of the next archetypal university supporter, whom we'll call Donor 3.0.

In the beginning ... there was Philanthropy, the domain of the wealthy and well-connected Donor 1.0, and Charity, which was what the rest of us supported. The last two decades saw broader engagement between institutions and their constituents (mostly alumni), with connections motivated by rising costs and fueled by growing personal wealth. Philanthropy reached the middle class Donor 2.0 (representing, for many, more strategic "investment opportunities" than charities). Donors in these first two eras had options and self-determination, but for the most part, gifts represented votes of support for institutions' top-down priorities.

Donor 3.0, however, will have a much more essential role in defining those priorities. Who is this new partner in shaping and realizing your institutional vision?

Donor 3.0 is the prospect of the next decade--more informed than ever and less dependent on any institution for information. He is connected to more people and organizations, but these connections further stretch his finite attention and resources. He understands that his role in ever-expanding campaigns and movements is small, but nonetheless, he expects to have a more direct impact.

Donor 3.0's attention is, at best, dynamic and multidimensional, and, at worst, fragmented. Like everyone, these donors are expected to accomplish more with the same (or diminished) resources. They are bombarded with commercial, political, philanthropic, and personal messages, and the lines between work and home, local and global, and private and social are hard to draw clearly. In this context, they're challenged to make meaning out of too many options and to prioritize, inevitably excluding many worthy causes.

These new donors have changing expectations of engagement. Some organizations have become so sophisticated in their message and outreach methods that impersonal or poorly aimed communications from other organizations are just not acceptable to donors.

This sophistication has created almost a sense of entitlement among donors: You had better know exactly what they're looking for or your organization won't make the first cut. This doesn't refer to mind-reading, but rather the importance of honing a few clear messages that resonate.

As many of our choices self-consciously reflect our "personal brands"--the images of ourselves we build for others in our increasingly "social" world--Donor 3.0's objects of philanthropy are selected, at least in part, for their role in the donor's personal brand story. If that's part of a widely shared vision, so much the better. As last year's presidential campaign showed, personal identification with a message--in small units but on a massive scale--is possible and capable of making a critical difference.

Our new donors are immersed in a mixed media, mixed channel sea, where economic, personal, and charitable interests are co-mingled. They have more encounters with support appeals in their everyday experiences and opportunities to mix philanthropic business with personal pleasure.

When it comes to actual giving, here too, Donor 3.0 has unprecedented options and informational resources. From low-threshold, low- but sustained-intensity opportunities like Facebook Causes, Twitter fundraising, and blog/badge challenges, to pools of "venture philanthropy" in online giving markets, through the high-touch, tailored services of independent philanthropic advisory firms, Donor 3.0 has more than enough ways to discover and act upon philanthropic impulses. These instruments for connection and influence (including your university) allow donors to customize and fine-tune philanthropic activity. More to the point, they define their own philanthropic strategies, and don't have to see themselves in someone else's priorities.

The crash in value and wealth, compared to a global escalation in costs for nearly everything, creates personal disconnections from institutional goals, which routinely number in the hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars. It's hard for anyone to find a meaningful place in a $1 billion campaign. What can one's $15,000 nugget accomplish? Or $50? Donors have always wanted to feel their gifts make a difference. Donor 3.0 expects to see a concrete plan--and to be kept up-to-date on progress and results. These donors must be convinced of their stake in the mission, and that sometimes means having a voice in the institutional story (at least by proxy) for a lot less money than it used to take.

These conditions--the scarcity of time and money, the personal importance of the goals, and the increasingly customized means of taking action, of exercising influence--add up to Donor 3.0's greater expectations for results, and those that are tangible and personally meaningful.

When colleges and universities are looking for every conceivable way to reach donors of all ages, be they alumni, parents, or corporations, varied and dynamic communication channels should be unified by at least a provisional strategy or message philosophy. Traditional channels and their more recent digital counterparts need to evolve to meet the challenge of engaging Donor 3.0.

Much virtual ink is being spilled about digital and social media in the search for sturdy practices and benchmarks. Increasingly synonymous, the terms tend to denote the media themselves--Facebook, Twitter, mobile web, etc.--but this is changing. Their roles are taking shape, and together they're making channels between people more direct, transparent, immediate, and available--to the point of being intuitive and ubiquitous. But for all their novelty, they underscore the importance of time-honored principles: good relationship-building and careful stewardship.

Social media is also helping to mold the contemporary donor. Donor 3.0 often discovers philanthropic opportunity through personal connections. Those connections lend the objects of philanthropy a key ingredient: credibility, or prequalification for the next step of engagement.

By tactfully infusing philanthropic practices in digital communication channels like social networks, development teams can effectively reach bigger communities and ensure self-selecting donors are just a few clicks from trusted conduits. More frictionless personal connections mean social media can facilitate engaging personal interactions among prospects and their schools, and in many cases make real-world meetings more attractive and rewarding. Schools and alumni organizations are becoming more responsive to the combination of niche interests and local presence, cultivating small group events and shared interest communities--pub nights, distinguished speakers, and team reunions--on shorter notice than traditional events and with less organizational overhead. The results are feelings of community belonging, just maybe not to one single large community.

Print communications are going through a transformation in their prospect communications role. Glossy comprehensive case books are being replaced by digitally printed, topic-specific "mini cases" produced in smaller quantities. They're used as fallback lines-of-reference communications, with subordinate tiers of lower-production-value materials, like desktop-published funding opportunities sheets. Print is becoming a niche communication channel--but it remains a crucial support element for personal interactions.

People now have the power at their fingertips to easily explore, share, and even create rich media (movies, animation, music--more than text and pictures). Annual appeals are delivered through movies and music, leaders' addresses are filmed and broadcast, and photo galleries cover more than black tie party pics and new construction groundbreakings. The availability of rich media raises the stakes for all development communications. You're swimming in the same water with these communications, so you don't want to seem boring or backward.

Personally relevant shared-interest groups and microcommunity membership might succeed where generic annual appeal messages and headline events have failed.

Microsites and even micro brands, once considered anathema to a strong university brand strategy, are increasingly effective in providing personally meaningful touchpoints for prospects. They can help break down enormous goals and initiatives into smaller ones, with a more human scale and focused messaging. Until recently, such initiatives threatened to fragment brands and badly allocate scarce communication resources. Without a clear strategy and thoughtful management, this can still happen, but many tools and practices for keeping decentralized communications coordinated are making these strategies more attractive.

Many of the strongest charities and nonprofits are associated with popular movements, such as AIDS or autism research. Colleges and universities can't often align themselves with popular movements, but they can characterize their initiatives by articulating a clear and positive vision for change, and acting with urgency.

While we're living through a period of exciting experimentation (or troubling uncertainty, depending on your point of view), these new means and methods in fact underscore the importance of time-tested principles. Institutions have more tools at their disposal to connect their priorities to donors' passions. Development and alumni relations administrators are paid to articulate reasons why prospects should give. Many make excellent intellectual cases; others make excellent emotional cases. A few do both well. What actually prompts the gift is the donor's desire to give. So a guiding principle should be to make each donor--not just major donors--feel important. This acknowledgment and stewardship of smaller donors makes a difference in quantity, and could keep in the pipeline higher-value donors who might otherwise be attracted to another cause.

These new tools and methods for connecting to Donor 3.0 suggest the need for new relationship models--updated definitions of one another's roles and our means for interacting. Most important is a decisive shift from communicating to donors to communicating with them. This means at least better listening and the mass-customization of dialogues, designing communications that anticipate and encourage personal interactions within a strategic context.

Another departure from familiar communications is the shift from cyclical strategic planning and execution in two- to five-year campaigns to constant iteration and refinement within a strategic framework. It's easier when you tie up fewer dollars in boxes of brochures, but it requires new levels of tolerance for uncertainty and evolutionary ability and a different staffing strategy. (Can you believe you might pay someone to spend their day on Facebook?)

These new tools for reaching and engaging people present new pipeline sources. Personally relevant shared interest groups and microcommunity membership might succeed where generic annual appeals and headline events have failed. Active supporters promote their involvement with you and bring their friends into the fold. Topical or cause-related communications can further engage traditionally nonaffiliated prospects (i.e., those who have no direct personal experience with your school) by demonstrating you have solutions to important problems, that you have something to offer to the whole world, not just to alumni and their families.

As institutions grapple with cultivating a culture of philanthropy, most alumni never feel it, and those who do tend to be drawn back in after their sojourns in adulthood. But if students are eased into the idea of philanthropy by their alma mater, and relationships with young alumni respect and accommodate their stations in life and interests, then you will, over time, build a healthy community of people primed to give when the time is right.

This emerging toolbox of communications and the new lifestyle of Donor 3.0 allow for more integrated brand experience across touchpoints. Magazines, virtual and physical communities, letters, videos, news updates passed on by friends, and alignment with other lifestyle and workstyle behaviors add up to an opportunity to fit into donors' lives and personal brands.

Coupled with this opportunity is the requirement that institutions truly and deeply appreciate that brand management and communications are not solely the domain of the communications staff. Whether they know it or not, this new environment of multidirectional, multistakeholder engagement heightens the pressure to coordinate communications from various brand stewards (e.g., admissions, alumni relations, development, public and community relations, and executive leadership, to name a few). Communication dollars will go further--and Donor 3.0 will see institutions as having their acts together with one unified overarching message.

Eric Norman is a strategist at Sametz Blackstone Associates, a brand-focused strategic communications consultancy in Boston. The firm's higher education clients include MIT, Tufts University, and Worchester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, as well as Colgate University (N.Y.). He can be reached at