Nonprofits in the Digital Age

Study: Four Generations, Many Marketing Paths

By Published on .

Sarah Spivey
Sarah Spivey
The times, they are a-changin', as Bob Dylan sang in 1964, reflecting the social and political upheaval that characterized the 1960s. For different reasons, Dylan's evocative lyrics are as meaningful for today's nonprofit world as they were an anthem for change more than four decades ago.

The heartbeat of any nonprofit is the ability to engage interested constituents and raise monies to support various projects, initiatives, campaigns and missions—ultimately, to improve the world in which we live. Historically, nonprofits did this almost exclusively through direct mail campaigns to donors, and donors responded in kind with a check in the mail to the cause or issue they supported.

Direct mail still plays a huge role in engaging constituents and raising money, but the onset of the digital world changes the table stakes for nonprofits and requires a new approach to constituent engagement and fundraising. Where we lived primarily in a single-channel world even 15 years ago, it's anything but that today. It's a big, broad multichannel world.

Consider the rise in the last five years or so of Facebook, smartphones, Twitter and other technologies that enable quick and easy communication with friends family and co-workers. Our social networks have broadened as we reconnect with long-lost friends who now live halfway around the world where we would never consider sending a letter, but with whom we now can quickly interact via e-mail, text or tweet. We're becoming accustomed to different ways of communicating and interacting with our environment, including the nonprofits we support.

Recently, Convio, in partnership with Edge Research and Sea Change Strategies, conducted a survey of more than 1,500 individuals across four "generations" to determine their communication preferences and donation habits in regard to nonprofits. The results proved some assumptions we have about the use of technology to interact with the world around us.

The survey looked at:

  • Matures (65-plus)
  • Boomers (46 to 64)
  • Gen X (30 to 45)
  • Gen Y (19 to 29)

Not surprisingly, the Matures still responded to direct mail and 77 percent of those surveyed preferred to give a check by mail. That's very much in line with traditional thinking and bears itself out in the research. Where it starts to get interesting is moving down the line to younger generations. While Matures predominantly chose one channel to interact with nonprofits, Boomers, X and Gen Y are overwhelmingly multichannel in their behavior when it comes to interaction with nonprofits. While the direct mail approach continues to play a role across all generations, it decreases in importance dramatically (Boomers drop to 54 percent while Gen Y drops to 26 percent).

For Gen X and Gen Y, the preferred giving channel is the checkout line (at the grocery store, the coffee shop, etc.). But for both, the website and other technology channels (such as mobile/texting) are playing an increasingly important role.

In terms of how these individuals prefer to get information from the charities they support, Matures, not surprisingly, still prefer to receive information in the mail. The other generations are, again, much more multichannel. Gen X, in particular, cuts across nearly every channel—mail, websites, newsletters, issue updates, Facebook, texts and Twitter.

With personal interaction on the rise across multiple channels, Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y rely heavily on peer-to-peer interaction and solicitation from friends and family (89 percent, 87 percent and 84 percent, respectively). In a world in which we are overwhelmed by information, trusted sources are becoming a very valuable commodity in terms of helping us make good, solid decisions about where our money goes and the organizations we support.

So what's the lesson to be learned here? The world around us is changing—in some instances, very dramatically. To stay connected to the constituents that matter most, nonprofits need to change as well. Older generations will continue to respond to direct mail and write checks, but younger generations—especially those who have grown up in a digital world—interact with the world in a dramatically different fashion, consume information in a different way and donate to nonprofits in a number of ways. There is no longer one tried-and-true method to reach constituents, to engage constituents or to raise money. The times, they are a changin'.

Sarah Spivey is CMO of Convio Inc., which provides software and services that make it easier for nonprofit organizations to more effectively raise funds, advocate for change and cultivate relationships.
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