Technology is changing the face of the nonprofit sector at a breathless pace.
The escalating ROI on new tools for messaging and fundraising is eclipsing traditional budget lines for postage and printing — and events that cost nearly as much as they raise. It’s altering the job descriptions of new hires, and changing the way people spend their time on the job.
But the same technology makes it more challenging than ever to achieve one of the critical goals of social advocacy, namely, creating a personal connection between individual and cause.
We at the nonprofits are busier than ever, blogging, tweeting, posting, and wrestling with our tricked-out, multifunctional databases. Many among our supporters — the movers and doers — are too buried in e-mail or overbooked with kids and families to find time for the up-close-and-personal experiences that help them truly understand the needs we serve. And for many organizations working with under-resourced children or families, that personal encounter builds commitment in a way no You-Tube video can replicate.
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So while we tap into technology to build and keep support, we also need to innovate in the high-touch realm. Here are some ways we are keeping it personal in a digital age.
SENSE OF PLACE: If you want people to care about Miami’s problems, why not also help them experience our ever-evolving assets? A fund-raiser that introduces supporters to the great place we are becoming generates a buzz that magnifies the drawing power of a good cause.
Case in point: Three years ago our organization, Breakthrough Miami, launched a signature art-related event at the de la Cruz Collection in the Design District. That morphed into a soiree at Wynwood Walls; this September, we’ll move to the Sagamore Hotel on South Beach. The positive association we’ve created with these extraordinary art venues and the visionary leaders who run them is priceless. The annual change of venue keeps it interesting.
EXPORT THE EXPERIENCE: The best way to understand the work of many nonprofits is to visit a program in session. But summer or Saturday open houses compete with family time or work commitments. Consider an event that both advances your mission — and puts it “on the road.”
On Career Day – July 15 this year – we’ll bus 750 middle-school students from low-income communities to 50 workplaces across the county for an extraordinary exchange. Employee groups spend a few hours sharing information about careers, educational requirements and personal success stories, inspiring students’ on the path to their dreams. They also experience our work through direct student interactions.
BAKE A BIGGER PIE: Studies show that philanthropic giving is flourishing in America, but community-based nonprofits often see themselves competing in a zero-sum game for shrinking pools of funding. Supporters who love what you do will love you even more if you’re investing in partnerships that magnify your impact. By expanding your network – an inevitable corollary to partnering – you increase your exposure to new opportunities and new personal connections.
Where are the organizations that can achieve their missions by working through yours? Look at nonprofits providing services that complement yours. You might also look to the institutions that provide your facilities, and at alumni and other affinity groups that benefit by association with your engine of social change. Find a collaboration that has mutual value — and not necessarily in dollars. Then watch the sparks fly.
TEACH THE WORLD TO PLAY: With the possible exception of the Caitlyn Jenner saga, few aspects of modern life leverage the convening power of sports. Whether it’s industrious student volunteers bringing communities together for a 5K Fun Run, young lacrosse or water polo players teaching other students, or selling mulligans at a charity golf event, South Florida likes to move, and prefers to keep it outdoors.
In the case of a youth-oriented organization like ours, such sporting events connect students with community service commitments AND link their families with the work you are doing. For other organizations, such events tag into interests of potential supporters who might not yet be familiar with your work.
IT TAKES A CHAMPION: Getting a large number of people to turn out for an event in the middle of summer isn’t easy in this town. So shift your focus from head count to stature. Bring in one community leader to speak on a relevant topic (or better yet, create a format for dialogue with your constituents, whether children, families, staff or volunteers). Prize-winning writers, rags-to-riches entrepreneurs and CEOs, media moguls, champions of humanitarian causes – they are our friends and neighbors. We inspire each other by sharing our stories; having one more influential who knows your work is valuable.
WHERE LOW TECH STILL WORKS: “Old” style media still has a place in raising awareness. There aren’t too many school buses on the road in June or July, and traffic is still sluggish during rush hours. The cost of 14 bus magnets with logos: $500. Hmmm. I wonder what they do?
Elissa Vanaver is CEO of Breakthrough Miami, an 8-year, tuition-free educational enrichment program for motivated students from under-resourced communities. For more information, www.breakthroughmiami.org
Spreading the Word is a new monthly column that will feature professionals sharing thoughts and advice on branding and social media. To be considered, submissions of 750 words or less should be sent to rclarke@MiamiHerald.com.