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The Imperfect Storm: Nonprofits Need to Engage Their Donors (Series Post 2)

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In our initial blog post, we identified five key shifts affecting the environment for nonprofits that have co-mingled with the economy to create the potential for continued rough times. That is, if organizations don't change. So where to begin? That's an easy one. Begin with your donors.

Shift #1: Nonprofits need to engage their donors.

Although nonprofits talk about keeping their donors "up to speed," the real challenge is keeping the organization itself up to date on its own contributors. Generational shifts are changing - in often profound ways - how people are doing things. Our parents gave to causes because they felt they should, to gain status in their community and to "get into Heaven." Our generation (boomers) focuses on the results a nonprofit generates through its services (the question of what the money's actually doing to help people vs. the focus on the money itself). Our children, and the next generation, ignore the "once-a-year" cycle we've always thought was the way to give and, instead, seek multiple touch points in a search for meaning. They tie accomplishment of the nonprofit organization, or the cause, to their own donor identities. They want to put themselves in the picture in deeper ways.

Today's nonprofits need to ask some vital questions about how they are looking at the world of philanthropy. Are donors external (outside looking in) to the nonprofit and what it does, or are they part of it? Does the organization inform, or does it engage? (The two are very different.) Do supporters feel that the only thing of value they have available to give is money, or do they offer other treasures, like time and talent? We know of a donor who gives to an orphanage in Mexico that tells its sponsors they are expected to visit at least once a year and stay in touch with the kids they support via email, phone and Facebook. This is really different from the days when donors to international NGOs got cards in the mail with a photo of a kid, not caring if the same picture went to thousands of others.

Donors don't just want to give money. They want what we call "personal discovery" that involves a give and take of information, shared by both the donor and the organization. They want to advocate, volunteer, test things out and be a part of the cause. They want, through all of their gifts, to find meaning. This makes communicating with donors -- getting to know them - something you can't just do by deploying the latest technology tool.

The news is all atwitter about Twitter. It's all about Facebook. It's all about the latest version of the iPhone and the power you hold in your hands to connect with the world through a small little screen. Being on Facebook and Twitter, using smart phones and tablets are all important in some way -- really important, in fact. But on their own, they have little value if they aren't used for intentional engagement, used to help you get to truly know the donors you have today (not yesterday).

As a donor, what do you want from an organization? As a nonprofit, how are you engaging your donors? Please share your experiences, and look for our next post introducing shift #2: Nonprofits need to define themselves by their results.