By Chris Carter

In these uncertain times, there has been a rush to embrace all things “digital.” However, much of these pivots aren’t being thought through and are missing key foundational steps. Often this embrace has been done at the expense of channels that have been deemed too traditional, such as direct mail or television. This is happening despite the fact that email inboxes are full--while physical mailboxes are empty--and people are glued to their TV sets like never before.

Part of the problem for fundraisers and marketers is the word “digital” itself. It’s a channel that’s been attached to important-sounding words like “revolution” or “maturity.” So, it’s easy to think that digital is the one-size-fits-all solution to fundraising and marketing. Here are a couple scenarios to demonstrate the problem.

Digital major giving?

Any major gift officer knows the importance of direct contact with donors: whether it was in person or over the phone, it’s about relationships. Now imagine if we said, “Okay, all those phone calls and in-person meetings need to stop. We need to digitally transform, so that means only emails and social media.” You know the result—revenues would tank.

However, if you were instead to empower your major giving officers—perhaps with full research and donor profiles, technology that is easy to use, and the ability to simply update contacts on their phone—that would likely boost revenues. The latter is the right kind of digital transformation.

Direct mail transformation?

Consider this hypothetical: there’s a crisis happening, business is drastically reduced or outright closed, and the economy is dipping as many people’s employment changes or ends. You hear through your networks that other non-profits and other fundraisers are shifting their planning. The new emphasis is on direct mail transformation. Why? Everyone has a mailing address, you don’t need to set up a new online form for your special front-line appeal, and we all know how ‘sticky’ mail is since it hangs around in entryways and on dining rooms tables for weeks before getting dealt with. It’s a great solution to reduced budgets.

Too far? Does this seem ridiculous? When we extend arguments made about online channels to direct mail, we can more easily see their failings. However, many don’t see the problems in reducing or removing entire channels in favour of digital, even though the shortcomings are exactly the same—not being where your donors are, losing important sources of revenue, and investing heavily in fewer channels, thereby increasing risk. 

Digital efficiencies?

Scenario 3: Someone in your network is posting about moving to virtual events. You know they work for a new charity, still small and building up its fundraising program along with its infrastructure. Your contact is excited about this new direction, and people are chiming in with all the things that make digital so great—you can send an email in days, get gifts right away, receipts go out automatically, and so on.

But you know the org your friend works for: their databases are rudimentary, they don’t have staff with the expertise to set up and maintain the infrastructure needed, and their gift processing department is a fraction of someone’s time. You know the road to fleshed-out digital campaigns are longer than they think, much less for the type of events they’re hoping for. However, like many others, they believe digital fundraising requires little investment to start or maintain and will be the answer to all their problems.

Unfortunately, these things are happening now—whether it’s cutting funding to an effective traditional program to throw dollars into the great digital unknown or even eliminating channels altogether. This is a very risky strategy and is contrary to direct marketing best practices. Recent charitable history is littered with organizations that have collapsed making similar decisions.

So, the solution in part is to think of digital transformation in terms more like efficiency rather than by a channel. Deloitte has provided some excellent insights into digital transformation. They offer up a list of seven digital pivots to propel an organization’s progress towards digital maturity:

  1. Flexible, secure infrastructure (Think about things such as a sophisticated database)
  2. Data mastery (Wiping out silos, having clear 360 views of constituents) 
  3. Digitally savvy, open talent networks (Improve training, and flexibility)
  4. Ecosystem engagement (Leveraging partners)
  5. Intelligent workflows (Minimizing manual processes to free-up resources)
  6. Unified customer experience (Integrated channels and thematic integration etc.)
  7. Business model adaptability (Innovate, expand)

It is clear that the first six steps are really focused on things such as getting the right infrastructure in place, cleaning up your data, improving workflows, and integrating channels. It is not until point 7 that the organization has reached a place where it is possible to significantly innovate. There’s a current rush to step 7, skipping points 1-6. However, best practice still stands: before you completely pivot between channels or try an unknown, get your house in order and test.

The authors of the study themselves recommend that you begin with foundational pivots, namely points one, two, and three. So as exciting as that TikTok awareness campaign looks… if your data is siloed or you’re still dependent on excel worksheets and photocopies, just say no and focus first on building a strong foundation.