icon of people with gears turning in their heads, symbolizing meeting of the minds

It’s been a month since the Meeting of the Minds conference on the campus of Cal Poly Pomona. However, as I’ve gotten the distance I’ve found that many of the topics I heard are still poignant for where we are in today’s fundraising paradigm.

My team and I heard from several wonderful speakers: Ryan Lawrence, Lynne Wester, Rodger Devine, John Taylor, Bob Burdenski, among others. The topics ranged anywhere from Managing Our Expectations Toward Millennials to Creating a Culture of Engagement and Giving. You can see the full schedule here.

But a golden thread I heard woven throughout is the need for a more authentic and personalized giving experience.

Unfortunately, the definition Google provides for authenticity is:

noun

  1. the quality of being authentic.

…But upon further research, the definition I found that best describes authenticity is “relating to or denoting an emotionally significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life.” It is acting in accordance with our purpose — a deeply felt call-to-action.

Essentially, it’s being true to our values with respect to others.

That last part is important. Many articles (1, 2, 3) talk about the pitfall of viewing authenticity as the siloed act of being “true to yourself.” In reality, it is relational. To be authentic, we must value our moral center, but also listen to the world around us and be willing to act and grow in accordance with that feedback.

This is where personalization comes in. Authentic people are great listeners, and personalization is the act of hearing.

Humans are emotionally driven and crave the security of knowing there is an underlying foundation of mutual respect, honesty, and trust between them and the establishments they associate with.

Personalization is part of building that rapport of mutual respect through valuing what others tell us is their authentic experience.

So how do we embody these qualities as fundraisers?

Here are the top lessons I learned from the Meeting of the Minds to help:

Storytelling is a Dialogue

icon of a book with a heart on the pages

The first step in a personalized, authentic relationship with supporters is…well, creating a relationship. We have to start by opening the dialogue between our organizations and our communities.

There is no way that is more powerful to do this than by sharing stories.

Good stories are relational. They create an emotional connection that allows people to empathically see themselves and the potential for impact. They are character-driven, have an arc, and have a clear call-to-action.

A story is not “donate to this cause,” it is a narrative like this one from Habitat for Humanity that shares the experience of Walter, an 81-year-old man, who was directly affected by Habitat’s work.

Because stories are so deeply rooted in our empathy, according to Lynne Wester (definitely one of the most engaging presenters I had the pleasure of hearing from), they have the most power to influence our actions.

Lynne suggested harnessing this within your organization by first focusing on your “core stories.” These are the pillars of every story your organization has to tell. They are simple to understand, powerful, and describe your impact.

Everyone should know them.

For instance, the core stories of a hospital focused on pediatrics might be “to (1) eradicate childhood disease and (2) improve the lives of the children who currently suffer” and the core stories of an educational institution may be “to (1) provide meaningful learning opportunities to (2) grant choice to students.”

These are the roots that branch out to become more specific, like a former patient fundraising to supply hats for premature babies in the NICU, or engineering students applying their skills to build life-saving footbridges in Swaziland.

Once you have your core stories, the key is to make them ongoing. That is the dialogue you are engaging your donors in: a constant tapestry of related narratives that provide opportunities for them to create meaningful change. As donors interact, that narrative becomes a conversation on the change you are focused on and how that intersects with what is meaningful to them.

They become the heroes of your core stories.

Authenticity Means Empowerment

icon of a hand symbolizing empowerment

Not every story is our story.

Organizations are the sum of all the wonderful, diverse things they are doing in the world through a network of many people who impact many more.

That extends to stakeholders beyond our fundraising teams.

We can certainly be good stewards of these stories. But we can’t tell them with the same authenticity as the people who live them, benefit from them, or whose passions are driven by their particular purpose.

However, entrusting our mission and brand with our constituents can be a daunting leap.

Many of the panels I heard like “An Annual Giving Roundtable” and “What’s Next For Giving Days: A Giving Day Forum,” talked about navigating the balance between empowering storytellers outside of development and centrally creating campaigns to ensure a consistent message.

However, I think the concept that was brought up brilliantly through the experience of those with their “hands in the dirt” like Howard Heevner and Ryan Lawrence, is the role of a thoughtful shepherd.

Howard spoke about how the University of California Santa Cruz grew their Giving Day from 60 projects to 175. You can see his full presentation here.

Ryan talked about the evolution of the crowdfunding program at UC Berkeley to become an integral part of the institution’s fundraising operation and culture.

Both presentations delved into the hard work each is doing to provide an environment that facilitates learning and stability through a clear training path.

The systems of idea submission, vetting, and campaign creation that they’ve created are a guided experience that is thoughtful, and therefore teaches participants to be thoughtful. Thoughtful about how to tell a compelling story, how to budget, what good stewardship looks like, or where to go to access resources.

This has allowed both to confidently step into a new role: the shepherd. To be a shepherd is to be a guide, but ultimately one that does not take the journey in place of someone.

As shepherds in fundraising, we need to put the power of the ask in the hands of our most inspiring advocates.

If you’re still not buying it, Ryan showcased a hilarious example of how the resulting message is so much more engaging than we as fundraisers could ever create in a silo.

Personalization Means Possibility

icon of a head

Yes, we know donors expect choice. But what does that really mean?

Choice is the implication of possibility.

When we are generous, we all make choices based on what we care about most and how we can best affect meaningful change for those things.

What we care about starts as a concept. This could be children, music, or even something more granular like helping researchers treat diabetes. It can also be as broad as wanting to benefit someone in general.

However, when we are ready to take action, we search out the ways we can manifest the soul of this intention.

How and where we search are choices we make based on where we believe we will find opportunity.

This means two things for us as fundraisers: (1) we need to dedicate to a multi-channel approach that honors the multitude of ways people may choose to find giving opportunities, and (2) we need to offer clear choices of what to impact once we are found.

This means dedicating to transparency and specificity. In the presentation from our CEO, McCabe Callahan, he introduced the concept of the don-sumer which he defined as:

noun: donsumer; plural: donsumers

  1. a person that both donates to meaningful causes and, consumes products or services — conducting both activities typically in the same way online.
  2. a real person not just a number in a CRM that has feelings, emotions, and expects things a certain way.

Just as consumers expect connected journeys that help them easily find and fulfill their needs, donors expect (and rightfully so) the same experience to identify a specific story, give transparently, and receive a specific result from that gift.

In “giving,” they also expect a choice of how to best effect change.

“Giving” does not always mean a large gift and it is not always monetary. Brian Gawor talked about “How to Amplify Your Millennial Giving” and touched on the high correlation between volunteer outreach, social media outreach, and donations for this generation.

In today’s connected world, social capital and volunteer advocacy are meaningful points of engagement that can actually produce more value than the gift an individual may have been able to make independently.

It’s critical to offer these engagement points during the transaction experience to not only allow for donors to choose between them, but to empower them to potentially choose multiple avenues of support.

The more we identify and empower the champions of our causes by providing them the tools to advocate, the easier realizing our call to action becomes.

Overall, I’m excited to hear what comes from this conference next year and many of the others around the country where thought leaders are engaging with the dialogue of how to shape fundraising for the 21st-century development professional, stakeholder, and donor. It’s only through a meeting of all of our minds that we can effect systemic change to move towards a more human fundraising experience on all sides.