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There’s no such thing as new – and that’s a wonderful thing

Published by Tony Charalambides on

Light Bulb by Adreine from The Noun Project

The hunt is always on for the next big thing in fundraising. The thirst for innovation, for that neat, new way to attract donors and supporters that no one has conjured before, is in so many ways the holy grail of fundraising today. Who will finally ‘crack’ digital? What will it take to make legacy fundraising reach its true, vast potential? What form of face-to-face might one day prove truly sustainable without being truly exasperating? Valid or otherwise, these questions get asked in charities and agencies across the globe.

But the truth is, in fundraising – as in life, as Mark Twain once wrote – there’s really no such thing as new. I don’t mean that dismissively or negatively, nor do I deny that new channels will continue to emerge. But what I do mean is that the recipe for effective fundraising was written long ago, and has not (and will not be) changed. It’s a recipe exemplary fundraisers will already know well: comprising a good quantity of salience and urgency, fantastic storytelling, and the genuine sense one can make a meaningful difference above all. In truth, these are the primary devices in the fundraiser’s armoury, and our role is to deploy them as potently as possible within the contexts we work.

A distinct opportunity

But back to Twain for a moment. By denying true novelty, he was doing more than just gloomily underscoring the human’s (and the fundraiser’s) limitations. He was also underscoring our distinct opportunity. Wrote Twain:

There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.’

What he is talking about is not mere recycling of thoughts, but (to borrow a term from the textile recycling industry) upcyling, finding new ways to combine and shape them so that – in essence – a kind of newness is achieved after all. This, too, is the great skill of the master fundraiser, knowing how to adapt timeless truths to the circumstances (audiences, channels, social mores and so forth) around us.

Learning from WWI fundraisers

Let’s look at an example. In my research for my recent series of WWI blogs to mark the war’s centenary this month, I discovered almost all of the kinds of fundraising we rely upon today are anything but modern. Indeed, I found that everything from direct marketing to face-to-face fundraising to payroll giving to celebrity junkets to ambassador fundraising got their start in the early part of the twentieth century or before (and if you thought donor fatigue was a modern phenomenon too, then think again, because it was the occasionally disgruntled public reaction to this super-proliferation of fundraising that forced the first attempts to regulate charitable giving through law in the shape of the War Charities Act 1916).

But it was the direct marketing that intrigued me most, as I read about the sophistication and innovation of Princess Margaret’s Christmas Box appeal to deliver supplies to soldiers on the front line on Christmas Day, 1914. What the Christmas Box campaign did was take the relatively rudimentary medium of DM, as was, and make it more complex and more targeted – going so far as to introduce shopping lists and some degree of audience segmentation (even if all of those segments were essentially compartments within the uppermost tiers of society itself, including Masonic lodges and people with five servants or more!). It went some way to recalibrating appeal writing by post, integrating original thinking on how society was shaped and what it was motivated by.

Something old, something new

Clearly, this is the kind of opportunity that exists for contemporary fundraisers, too, in this era of unprecedented technological advance inviting us to apply existing fundraising techniques more broadly. This undoubtedly is the time to leverage emerging print and fulfilment technology, mobile phones, tablets, the exponentially growing world of apps and software.

But I think the opportunity is even greater than that. Twain also wrote:

‘It always happens that when a man seizes upon a neglected and important idea, people inflamed with the same notion crop up all around.’

I’ve seen with my own eyes how appropriating old thinking from other disciplines – not least social psychology frameworks – can reframe and freshen fundraising and voluntary action mediums, and how they soon catch on like wildfire.  I’m thinking of the impact of behavioural economics principles on face-to-face fundraising and the resulting development of two-step (or prospecting). And I’m thinking of the integration of social norming techniques into government schemes to get communities doorstep recycling at the turn of the century. And here at Listen, we’re exploring currently where those kinds of behavioural insights might take us as fundraisers too, and what products they might help us forge.

A diverse fundraising toolkit

Yes, there’s no such thing as new. But there does exist a unique double opportunity, at present, for fundraisers to leverage both emerging technological thinking and well-established but somewhat untapped behavioural theory. The First World War fundraisers I explored were able to rely upon salience and urgency on an unprecedented scale, all but guaranteeing success. But in the absence of such extraordinary, extenuating conditions, the contemporary fundraiser’s toolkit must draw from far more diverse sources – the frontiers of technological and psychological thinking among them – as a means of building that same sense of salience and urgency.

Because finally, what we’re asking people to feel, think and do is no different to what we’ve always been asking them to feel, think and do. Only, the truly great fundraisers are the ones who are able to do so in a way that feels like we’ve never been asked before, and who can do so because they have used that ‘mental kaleidoscope’ of Twain’s to remould, once more, the oldest question of all: can you help?


Tony Charalambides

Tony is the Founder/Managing Director of Listen, an award-winning telephone fundraising agency based in the UK and now raising money and awareness for good causes worldwide. He has been fundraising since 2003 and is particularly interested in supporter engagement and innovation. He is a regular blogger and you can follow his tweets @Tcharalambides or e-mail him.

3 Comments

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