Nothing. But you're doing it wrong.

What’s wrong with traditional fundraising?

The real issue: you’re wondering whether I’m some hotshot kid who thinks old people are just old-fashioned, and wants you to ditch tried-and-true methods for a fleeting piece of technology you don’t even understand and might blow up on you when it goes out of fashion in two years.

Social fundraising IS traditional fundraising.

Those of you who have gone shopping for a men’s suit in the last decade will know what I mean when I mention a “traditional” suit. What is referred to in, say, Jos. A. Bank as a “traditional” suit is boxy, with fairly wide lapels, slacks that fit loosely, and a tie that’s at least three inches wide at its widest point.

But that’s not really traditional. That’s just what was in fashion in the 1990s, and the proportions involved are unflattering to the human body—they just worked well in a time when most men wearing them were overweight. By contrast, if you go back to the 1960s (think Mad Men or White Collar), you’ll see men who dress a heck of a lot better, in suits that today would be described as “tailored fit” or even hipster.

Social fundraising vs. “traditional” fundraising is a similar dynamic. What passes for traditional fundraising—mass mail prospecting, quarterly newsletters, and annual giving campaigns—is actually a fairly recent invention, as the 20th century’s fetish for mass everything hit the nonprofit sector. The same fad that brought you the DMV, unpronounceable food ingredients that make you develop weird disorders over time, and TV talking heads telling you how to think also produced a nonprofit model that has some really inhumane elements to it. For example:

  • Donors divorced from the people they’re trying to help, eliminating much of the psychological benefit of giving and creating extra pressure on you to prove your value to them
  • Way too few employees doing way too much work for way too little money
  • Professionalized mass philanthropy where a foundation makes you jump through a hundred hoops to get a chump-change grant to do something you would do better if they let you work freely
  • Nonprofits that are more or less divorced from the public and private sector advancements that could dramatically improve their work

By contrast, I firmly believe that social fundraising is a more humane way of doing business. I don’t call it “social” fundraising because of social media; I call it social fundraising because it’s social. It’s based on relational connections, building trust, and empowering people to solve problems together. That may sound a little warm and fuzzy, but the model is actually structured to work that way—the way people did business before we got so disconnected from each other that everything had to be impersonal. Social fundraising just takes advantage of some technological tools that allow us to go back—to some extent—to a better way of life.

That doesn’t mean we’ve learned nothing good in the last half-century. I’m not suggesting you abandon everything you currently do to raise money. I am suggesting that if you care about traditional fundraising, about long-term investments, about strategies that will stand the test of time and build donor bases that will still be with you for years to come, then you may want to think about raising money in more humane ways.

If that sounds vague, or you’re interested in understanding better, I recommend my “Enlisting the Amateurs” report—it’s a detailed look at American charitable activity, how it got off the rails, and how we can create organizations with very committed supporters.

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