UK fundraisers operate in one of the best established and most successful traditional fundraising markets in the world. But fragmenting media and the drive to personalise donor communications mean they will have to change if they are to cater adequately for tomorrow's supporters.
This was a recurring theme at the 27th International Fundraising Congress in Amsterdam late last month, where social networking was the hottest topic because of its potential to engage segmented audiences.
But several speakers pointed out that most innovation in this field had occurred not in developed markets such as the UK and the US, but in developing markets, where fundraisers have bypassed traditional direct marketing techniques and started out online.
"The traditional workhorses of donor recruitment through mail, face-to-face propositions and legacies are still bringing in the money," said Simon Collings, chief executive of the Resource Alliance, which organised the congress. "But response rates to direct mail in many markets are declining. There's a growing interest in engaging with existing supporters and new supporters more effectively to maximise the contributions they can make."
He said organisations in the UK were increasingly engaging donors through campaigning and non-financial activity to bring them closer to charities' aims. One example highlighted in a plenary session was an RSPB campaign that invited people to share special moments with the charity. The RSPCA has also invited people to post pictures of their pets online."No one had any idea that so many people would want pictures of their cats and dogs on the website," said Collings.
There was a huge interest in Web 2.0 applications such as Facebook and MySpace, he said, and the implications of these for existing and new donors. But the moment charities understood MySpace or Facebook, he added, something new would emerge.
"The waves of change are happening so rapidly it is hard to know how much effort to put into some of these new media," he said. "No one has proven results. Many charities know these are the communications media of the future, but as a fundraising director you have to prioritise your spend on traditionally tried and tested methods. We would love to spend all day experimenting on new websites, but we can't afford to do that."
There are no such restraints, however, in developing markets - online or offline. "Real innovation is not happening in the US or the UK," said Jon Duschinsky, of Ressources Non-Profit. "It's happening in Asia, South America and eastern Europe. These guys have never had a rule book."
He pointed to an example of innovation in Albania, where traditional fundraising has not been possible because people don't use the banks much. But they do go to coffee shops, and a micro-credit finance company, Planet Finance, wanted to set up an Albanian equivalent to Starbucks, Duschinsky said, as a social enterprise.
Balazs Sator, executive director of the Civil Society Development Foundation in Hungary, a regional support centre for NGOs that aims to develop fundraising in central and eastern Europe, agreed. "In eastern Europe you are made to take risks because you don't have any industry standards at all," he said. "You don't know what the appropriate ratio is for a DM campaign, for example.
"In the UK, there is little risk-taking. If something works well, it is reapplied with some adaptation - but it's all the same stuff."
Norma Galafassi, director of Buenos Aires and London-based fundraising firm in2action, said: "We are more open to testing in developing markets. We face more daily challenges because things don't work so well. We are more adventurous."
As an example, she mentioned a Greenpeace campaign in India that combined mobile marketing with face-to-face. Donors were first sent a text, then a tree, which they were invited to plant. A donation was requested at the same time.
South America had adopted new media especially quickly, Galafassi said - half the people on social networking site Orkut were Brazilian. "Cyber activists are replacing volunteer activity," she said. "There is a whole new generation of people who volunteer online and become involved with charities before they are asked for money."
Collings said that within five years charities would be doing more to engage supporters, the segmentation of supporter bases would be more sophisticated and social networking would have a key role. "The great thing about Web 2.0 is that it is interactive," he said. "By interacting with supporters, you can gather data and build up cost-effective small segments to receive segmented messages."