Are you experienced?

I’ve been a-buzz with thoughts following the Institute of Fundraising convention last month.  In particular I’ve been thinking about a phrase AJ Leon used in his session on the last day: “Experiential Philanthropy”.   Those who attended his presentation (or have checked it out on SlideShare ) will remember this was part of a trio of ways to raise funds by networking the networks of others.   Or, to put it another way, to apply word-of-mouth marketing techniques to fundraising.

We’ve always valued opinions told directly to us. As we’re increasingly over-whelmed by choice in all product categories, a recommendation from a trusted source can cut through the marketing noise quickly and effectively. Indeed, word – of – mouth is the primary factor behind 20 to 50 percent of all purchasing decisions. A customer’s review after experiencing a product or service can be the cornerstone of success (or failure).

Donating to a charity, particularly becoming a regular giver, is a purchasing decision. One that has more empathy and emotion involved than buying a new toaster, of course, but ultimately our audiences are consumers, with demands on their money from all quarters.  And we need to know how to engage them and understand their motivations before we can inspire action i.e. the ‘purchase’.

Word-of-mouth is as old as the hills. Our ancestors no doubt swapped foraging recommendations around the campfire as soon as there was language.  But the digital revolution has amplified and accelerated the reach of word-of-mouth to the point where it is no longer an act of intimate, one-on-one communication. Now it also operates on a one-to-many basis: reviews are posted online, opinions shared through social networks, blogs are created to praise (or punish) a brand.

So how can these networks be harnessed to create what AJ Leon dubbed “unfundraising”?   This is where I think the “experiential” bit comes in.  Whilst of course we can’t take all of our prospective donors physically out into the field, we can do it virtually.  (And by “virtually” I don’t just mean digitally: good storytelling works across all mediums, of course.  Indeed, a multi-media, integrated approach can really enhance the message.)

All charities have great stories. How often do we allow people to be part of the story? AJ claims that people buy into projects not charities. Whilst I don’t concur with that statement, I do agree that people like to feel they’re investing in something tangible.  His “Adopt a Village” campaign is a great example of how to build a strong virtual community around an ongoing story.  By giving the village the resources to continue the conversation long after the original project team have left, donors and supporters can see the impact of their investment.  As with all stories, things don’t always move along smoothly.  But this ‘warts and all’ approach adds to the authenticity, to the empathy on all sides.    This is “Experiential Philanthropy” in action.   Give or take a few wires, satellites and screens, digital is a face-to-face medium. Why not use the advances in behaviour and technology to allow people to share experiences, both with you as an organization and their networks?  We know that face-to-face is a successful fundraising medium in the real world, so why not apply those techniques virtually?

Let’s give people a chance to partner, not just donate (which despite technically being an action, can often feel quite passive).  Let’s give everyone a voice, and everyone an opportunity to spread the word. Let’s keep refreshing the story, the experience. After all, in a 140 character world, is a quarterly newsletter enough to engage?

(Twice as nice: this post first appeared on the Good Agency website.)

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