Hey Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime?

To the Yahoos, Amazons, AOLs and other dot-coms that have made support for nonprofit charities a part of their business, we have two messages:

First, thank you. You have generated needed revenues for a multitude of causes, from saving the rainforest to freeing political prisoners.

Second, get over yourselves! You’ve helped, but maybe not in the ways that will really help nonprofits fend for themselves online. If cyberspace is to infuse new life into constituency-building for do-gooders, dot-orgs are going to have to get more than the current scraps from the master’s table.

By our reckoning, even big nonprofits are years behind their e-commerce brethren, in terms of the sophistication of their approach and their success at acquiring and retaining donors. If dot-commies are going to really help make a difference, we need to re-think e-philanthropy.

According to a study CMS Interactive commissioned by nationally-known pollster Mark Mellman, there are 50 million Americans who give their time and/or money to charities and are online. But, these so-called socially engaged Internet users are still not engaged online: Only seven percent (roughly 3.5 million folks) say they have given online, and fewer than half say they have ever even visited a dot-org site.

Most of these people, we found, are still on the bunny slopes of cyber-Mountain. Most see the web as an engine for communication and information, and to a lesser degree, shopping. But not for charity.

One of the most tantalizing findings, on the other hand, is that socially engaged Internet users may represent a new universe for e-giving, including a big chunk of baby boomers and Gen-Xers, who are increasingly direct mail-nonresponsive.

So how do we translate this promise into reality? Herewith are some suggestions for how the dot-com world can really and truly empower charities and nonprofits online:

  1. Share Wisdom On Acquisition and Relationship Building

    Even the largest nonprofits don’t have the luxury of losing zillions of dollars trying to figure out the most-cost effective means of acquiring and retaining a customer (or member or donor). They certainly don’t have seven and eight figure offline ad budgets.

    After 25 years of direct response fundraising, CMSi has learned a thing or two about direct mail and telemarketing for causes that matter, but we cannot in good conscience tell an Amnesty International or a Habitat for Humanity to throw megabucks at what is still an unproven vehicle for long-term constituency-building. Certainly many of the e-commerce lessons learned are applicable to e-philanthropy, and could steepen the collective learning curve in dot-org land.

  2. Put The Best And The Brightest – On The Job

    Honest to God, building a community online for human rights or a cure for paralysis may be more difficult than selling widgets. Yet, e-causes often find themselves low on the feeding chain in terms of human capital, creativity, and technology.

    Back in 1990, when I was at World Wildlife Fund, we released a phenomenal public service ad on the rainforest, shot by leading ad photogs, produced by a hotshot USC film school grad, and supervised by the creative time at Ogilvy and Mather/NY that was working on the American Express account, one of O&M’s largest.

    The resulting campaign was far and away WWF’s most successful ever, generated hundreds of millions of impressions, hundreds of thousands of member leads, and impressive free media coverage. This was an A-team project and an A-team product, with all creative donated by O&M.

    It was a smart investment by O&M, as team members all derived enormous gratification from having something different on their plates in addition to the usual fare. And it could serve as a model for future dot-com/dot-org partnerships.

  3. Make A 10 Percent Pledge Of Ad Space

    Driving site traffic is a bigger challenge for dot-orgs, who simply lack the brute force of massive ad budgets. Here’s where a strategic hand-out could serve as a pump primer: If ad companies and big media-rich sites could pledge ten percent of their banner real-estate for nonprofits, it might make a world of difference. Yahoo and other big portals have been generous, but none has made a public commitment, or challenged the industry to set a standard.

  4. Opt People In For Charity Email

    As best as we can tell, there is no such thing as an opt-in email list where people have specifically opted-in to hear from charities and nonprofits. So, the Yesmails, Junos, AOLs, and other e-list folks, get with it! How difficult would it be to ask permission to contact them for various good causes? Terrestrial list acquisition by nonprofits is a multimillion dollar business. If good e-lists existed, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be a nifty profit center for e-list owners.

  5. Disintermediate Yourself

    Nonprofits are finding themselves in Faustian bargains with charity malls, auction sites and other big dot-coms, who are swapping modest pulses of money or exposure for the patina of goodness that comes with having a do-gooder partner.

    But at the end of the day, the dot-coms own the names and the relationships, depriving the dot-orgs of what really matters in the long run – the opportunity to build and grow online communities of committed, engaged, and generous individuals. Some of the charity malls, by arrogating to themselves the community function, may be doing the most harm of all. It’s not a great deal for nonprofits, but it’s often the only one available. Dot-coms: Use the power of your reach to match-make between nonprofits and supporters, then get out of the way.

Ironically, in the long run, maybe the most important contribution e-commerce is making to dot-orgs is getting people to buy stuff. Shopping, we found in our CMSi/Mellman study, tends to beget charitable engagement.

But the arc of adoption that will see 10 million new online shoppers manifest this year as customers and maybe some day as givers is a slow one. In the words of one or another of the Presidential candidates in this already tedious election season, We Can do Better. Care to join us?

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