Being an Ambassador in Our Brave New World

March 25, 2013

How has the rise of social media affected the board’s role in fundraising?

For a long time, conventional wisdom has told us that all board members must do two things related to fundraising: make a personal financial gift, and serve as the organization’s community ambassadors. While these two principles hold true today, the way that board members carry out their ambassadorship role is changing rapidly, influenced by the many changes in the way we communicate with one another. Is your board ready to take their ambassadorship and fundraising into the brave new world of social media, viral videos, online conversation, and the virtual web of connections that link us all?

First, let’s look at the upside: social media allows board members to share their excitement about the organization’s work with a lot more people, a lot more easily. Shared content on Facebook or Twitter may inspire someone to get more involved, even if that person has a relatively distant relationship to the board member. Since you don’t have to see someone to communicate with them, these online tools open up new opportunities to be an ambassador to a wider social circle. Board members don’t even have to leave home to do it!

But these new communication methods are also creating new, and possibly permanent, changes in the way nonprofits think about fundraising. A great new article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review called “The Permanent Disruption of Social Media” highlights recent research conducted by Julie Dixon and Denise Keyes into how online communication is affecting fundraising. Some of their more interesting findings include:

  • 40% of their survey respondents reported that they first became involved with a cause when they donated money – turning our long-held belief that personal cultivation always precedes solicitation on its ear.
  • The majority of people who promote causes on social media are not just casually clicking the “share” button when they forward petitions or fundraising links. Instead, they have usually been involved with the issue as a donor or a volunteer, and are using their online networks as a tool to raise awareness about causes that really matter to them.
  • Peer influence continues to be a major path for getting people involved in causes – 39% of respondents said they get involved with causes that have affected someone they know, and 36% said they are interested in issues that are important to family and friends.

All the trends point in one direction – we are no longer in control of how people learn about our mission and decide to get involved. They are much more likely to come to us when a family member or friend points the way, and this makes our board’s ambassadorship role even more important.

What can we do to take advantage of this trend? Here are a few ideas:

  • Recognize that someone’s value to an organization goes far beyond their ability to make a donation. Someone with modest financial resources but the ability to activate a strong network on your behalf is just as important to promoting your cause and raising funds. We need to expand our definition of “a good prospect” and ask board members to cultivate great networkers as well as great givers.
  • Offer good-quality online content for easy sharing. As people’s communication increasingly moves online, board members will need information – photos, videos, articles, and interesting links that they can share with their own networks. Think of this as a modern version of the fact sheet and organizational brochure; if you don’t offer board members these kinds of tools, they are unlikely to take advantage of chances to promote your organization via social media.
  • Expand your definition of engagement. For too long, we’ve viewed a financial contribution as the pinnacle of our relationship with someone. While donating will always be important, online communication makes it easier for us to ask people to be more engaged – promoting issues to their own networks, organizing online fundraising campaigns, recruiting new participants – and this kind of deeper engagement leads to a greater sense of satisfaction for the donor. The board’s ambassadorship role should expand beyond cultivating and soliciting financial gifts to activating participants in a variety of ways that support the mission.

Here’s another piece of good news: we’ve known for decades that the number one reason why people give is that they know someone involved with the organization. And this hasn’t changed. If anything, the new frontier of social media has intensified the importance of a personal connection in fundraising. And that makes our board ambassadors even more effective in securing all kinds of support for our organizations.

The article that inspired this blog post can be downloaded for free from the Stanford Social Innovation Review site.

Allison Trimarco is the founder and principal of Creative Capacity, a consulting firm that collaborates with nonprofits to find creative solutions to management challenges. She is also an affiliated consultant and instructor at The Nonprofit Center at La Salle University.