News analysis: Fundraisers follow Murdoch model

Helen Barrett

The International Fundraising Conference was urged to make more use of digital media.

When Rupert Murdoch bought online networking site MySpace for $580m (£308m) last year, many commentators thought it a panic buy. Until then, his News Corporation media empire appeared reluctant to invest in digital media. So why suddenly swoop on a disorganised and potentially faddy site that offers 16 to 35-year-olds the chance to make virtual friends?

Fifteen months later, far from being a bad investment, MySpace reportedly has 106 million users, with 230,000 new people signing up every day. So it was no surprise to hear the latest Murdoch success story repeated over and over at the International Fundraising Congress in the Netherlands last week. It was used as an example of why fundraisers must not only invest urgently in digital media, but also use it more creatively than the next charity to capture an elusive young generation of donors. One of the strongest messages for delegates was that they must embrace the digital revolution, because cause-related marketing has been replaced by digital media's customer-managed relationships, known as CMR.

CMR uses digital media to let the donor decide how and why they communicate with a charity - whether it's through blogs, podcasts, email, text messages, online ordering, social networking campaigns or a combination of the above.

But no matter which digital media donors choose, CMR means they are in control.

A person, not a wallet

In a presentation that questioned whether digital media can create "donor intimacy", Per Stenbeck, international fundraising director at Unicef, urged fundraisers to remember that young donors want to be treated like "a person rather than a wallet".

He added: "The tsunami saw 1.6 million first-time donors worldwide give to the relief effort, but charities and NGOs have failed to strike, treating them in the same way they treat established donors, so the opportunity was lost. But young donors expect more of their relationships with charities than the previous generation."

Greenpeace was one organisation Stenbeck picked out as being ahead of the field. It has signed up 100,000 online activists, who can be galvanised with mass calls to action for lobbying campaigns. It is currently urging supporters to pressurise Apple to remove what Greenpeace believes to be toxic chemicals from the manufacturer's computers, equipping them with an arsenal of e-cards, blog tags and downloadable banners.

Although Greenpeace is a campaigning organisation, Stenbeck described its approach as a model for CMR because it takes time to engage with its audience before even thinking of asking for money. When supporters become donors, he argues, they are often more valuable.

However, consultants Jason Potts of Think and Michael Johnston of Hewitt & Johnston warned that fundraisers should not expect to control digital media relationships with young people. In a packed presentation on digital media fundraising, Johnston pointed out that one US blog alone generated $20,000 for the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, but the recipient charities had no say in its content. Nor are they entitled to, he argued, because to do that would miss the point - young people expect to have an independent voice on the internet.

Potts and Johnston urged fundraisers to copy the internet's big players.

Amnesty International's US office, for example, is about to test a MySpace-style networking site for supporters. And the Salvation Army's Canadian web page emulates photo-sharing site Flickr by including an area to which volunteers can upload photographs from their work in the field.

Marcelo Iniarra Iraegui, international fundraising manager at Greenpeace International, made his point about digital media with a live demonstration.

He invited IFC delegates to text him to win a prize. Despite requests that mobiles should be switched off during presentations, many switched their phones on to enter. Not only did they respond immediately to the right incentive, but they were prepared to disobey rules to do so.

So what can delegates do with their digital media knowledge now? Tony Elischer, chief IFC compere and board member of conference organiser the Resource Alliance, believes that digital media works best when fundraisers treat it as a new way to learn old tricks. "Twenty years ago, fundraisers had campaigns in schools and dedicated representatives in universities liaising with rag committees," he says. "In the 1990s fundraising became more aggressive. Digital media offers us a low-cost chance to warm up and cultivate tomorrow's donor."

His model is probably Rupert Murdoch, cultivating a new generation of News Corporation consumers, who happen to meet their friends on MySpace.

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