Leesa Harwood: You must ask the right questions about the future of fundraising

The Fourth Industrial Revolution, technological transformation, means using the existing fundraising paradigm is like sleepwalking backwards into the future

Leesa Harwood
Leesa Harwood

Ask the wrong question and you get the wrong answer. When it comes to technology and the future of fundraising, we often ask the wrong question. It’s comfortable to ask how fundraisers can use technology to raise money, because this perpetuates existing fundraising roles and the control we think fundraisers have over the use of technology.

Make the question less about fundraisers and more about technology and things become more uncomfortable, because we no longer make assumptions about current fundraising roles and our control over technology.

Thirty years ago, I believed that people gave to people. The idea that fundraising would not involve personal relationships between donor and fundraiser was unthinkable. But back then I did not have a computer and email was just a dot on the horizon. I keep an old (paper) memo from a manager refusing email functionality because it was not a viable relationship-building tool. I keep that memo as a reminder that we were asking the wrong question back then too. Our starting point was what we could do with technology at that time. It should have been what would society do with technology in the future. It wasn’t about us or our capability.

Now we know that people do not always give to people. People give for people as beneficiaries. But we have created an arm’s-length approach, that encourages people to give to campaigns, to DRTV appeals, to door drops.

Person-to-person fundraising has become the expensive option reserved for donors with a high financial return. So if volume driven, short-term fundraising has challenged person-to-person relationships, does technology challenge both? Has technology beaten fundraisers at their own game? Is there even a future for human fundraisers?

The World Economic Forum has declared a Fourth Industrial Revolution, a technological transformation. Changes in technology will never be as slow as they are today, so we should expect today’s advances in technology to transform the way people support social change. Arguably this has already started, with platforms such as Kiva directly and digitally funding a loan every two minutes across 85 countries, or GoFundMe supplying $5bn from 20 million online funders since 2010 (and $40bn projected within the next decade).

How can technology help people to support their chosen causes? If this is the right question, we should look outside today’s paradigm and fundraising intermediary roles for the answer. Over the past five years I have seen a significant increase in the number of donors seeking direct relationships with the people who deliver the mission instead of fundraisers. It’s a trend that shows no sign of slowing down among tech-savvy millennials.

Using the current fundraising paradigm as a starting point in our thinking is comfortable, but tantamount to sleepwalking backwards into the future. It’s time to engage with a future where technology could democratise social giving more than human fundraisers ever could, while finding a place for the essence of humanity. Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum explains: "In its most pessimistic, dehumanised form, the Fourth Industrial Revolution may indeed have the potential to ‘robotise’ humanity and thus to deprive us of our heart and soul. But as a complement to the best parts of human nature – creativity, empathy, stewardship – it can also lift humanity into a new collective and moral consciousness based on a shared sense of destiny. It is incumbent on us all to make sure the latter prevails."

It is time to stand square to the future. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us.

Leesa Harwood is a fundraising consultant

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