Fast and Furious Philanthropy

April 24, 2013

If you have a tendency to click on news items that might make you cry, you likely saw that hundreds of sea lions have been washing up- starving- on the shores of Southern California.  I possess that tendency as well as some well-worn tear ducts.  Within two minutes of reading about those poor little pups, I was typing my credit card info into the Pacific Marine Mammal Center’s website to help fund the rescue effort.  This isn’t the first time I’ve made an impulsive decision to send aid through the internet.  And I know I’m not alone.

I first heard the term “impulse philanthropy” in Ellen Cushing’s The Bacon-Wrapped Economy.  Nonprofits in the Bay Area are seeing a shift in funding patterns as a result of our “new money” economy.  One of those big changes is in not just who gets charity, but how.  Techies flock to crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter to sponsor projects, where it’s less about donation and more about investing.  These platforms also appeal to the impulsively charitable types like me.  I’ve helped to fund my share of pet projects through these platforms, in addition to funding actual pet projects benefiting animal rescue organizations.

Susan Medak, managing director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, says impulse philanthropy is “a sort of charity equivalent of the aisle in the grocery store closest to checkout, the one with the candy and glossy magazines. And if you look at the projects being funded and the products being bought right now, they are, more than ever before, tech-oriented, flashy, and novel.”

While some of us may remember the day they first heard “www dot,” to the next generation of charitable donors, the internet has always been a reality.  How are nonprofits taking advantage of this? Kickstarter and Indiegogo may be leading the crowdfunding pack, but there are a slew of other platforms geared toward social causes, environmental projects, creating nonprofit outreach and even giving to people directly.  The benefit of sites like these is that people are there to “shop” so you already have a willing audience.  The downside? You’re competing against dozens of other worthy causes.

With the average nonprofit’s donor base aging quickly, it’s important to experiment with new technology and tactics to reach younger supporters. Studies show millennials tend to spread their dollars around. And timeliness is the name of the game. Focusing on specific projects, rather than the overall cause, appeals to the same “business model” sensibility that finds Kickstarter and Indiegogo such success.  This new brand of donor wants a deeper understanding of how their money will be used.  They also are keen to share their charitable deeds with friends, which is great news if you’re trying to reach a wider audience.  (Did I mention those sea lions??)

But, before you abandon your 2014 fundraising plan, experts warn crowdfunding is not the Holy Grail of charitable giving. It’s more like a drizzle of honey on the bread and butter of direct mail, memberships and fundraising events.

Perhaps the best return on investment for online campaigns is information: digital tools provide a real time feedback loop about the language and images that inspire your audience to act. And many groups are willing to take risks with social media they would never take in print. (Memejacking, anyone?)

Has your organization experimented with Kickstarter or another crowdfunding platform? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Krista Meyer


*Heart wrenching sea lion photo courtesy of Mike Baird.