'Online fundraising will change everything'

Azadi Sheridan, the chair of the Institute of Fundraising's Technology Special Interest Group, tells David Ainsworth why donor 'churn and burn' won't work in future

The big changes to fundraising in the coming years will spring from the power of the web, according to Azadi Sheridan, chair of the Institute of Fundraising’s Technology Special Interest Group. He says charities have been relatively slow to start using the internet to communicate with their supporters, but he believes they will catch up quickly.

Charities have tended to churn donors, he says. They’ve bought blank lists and cold-called them. But the world is moving away from that sort of direct marketing. It’s hard to obtain cold names online because it’s difficult to buy email addresses. Churn and burn just won’t work.

Instead, charities can make use of the web to build a more personal relationship with donors and supporters. Charities will need to hang on to their donors and communicate closely with them, he says. The web makes it easy to do that because so much information is available.

More and more data about a charity, he says, will live beyond a charity’s control. You will need to work through Facebook and Twitter, but they control that data, not you, he says.

Sheridan says that the ability of charities to track references to themselves will also allow them to manage reputational risk. If you have a supporter broadcasting the charity’s message online, the charity can now monitor that message, he says. Charities’ volunteer supporters have always handed out misinformation about charities. At least now you can track what they are saying.

The internet also gives charities the chance to talk back to their critics. If I tweet about EasyJet, EasyJet knows about it, he says. It makes a point of answering criticisms very quickly. It will explain to customers why problems happen. It is able to put a human face to its interaction with customers. Charities can use this to make sure they know what people are saying about them.

However, the ease with which charities can communicate their messages, he says, is bad news for small organisations with local profiles. Increased international competition and the power of big-name brands to win support on the net mean that people will be less likely to look for causes to support close to home.

Online branding will become more important than mission, he says. That makes it difficult for small organisations to compete through their use of local channels of communication. It will become easier to attract major donors across borders as the flow of information gets easier and easier.

The world of technology changes so fast, he says, that it is important to keep track of new trends. If we had been having this conversation five years ago, we would have been talking about the future of databases, he says. But databases are powerful enough now, really, to do whatever we want them to do.

One major change will be even greater permeability, because of handheld devices. Already, I can take a picture of a street in London and my iPhone can tell me where the nearest coffee shops and train stations are. Couldn’t charitable resources be advertised in the same way?

Charities have an opportunity to be at the forefront of what people are talking about. But they need to be willing to act quickly, to change and adapt.

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