We’re ready for more disruption in fundraising

Picture it:

It’s the late 80s/early 90s. You’re watching your favorite episode of The Golden Girls, when right in the middle of a commercial break for Chia Pets and The Clapper, you’re interrupted by a dramatically solemn Sally Struthers, clad in dust-covered chinos, slowly walking down unpaved dirt roads with emaciated children pretending to play on either side of the dolly rigged camera in front of her. (If you are under 30 and not sure who Sally Struthers is, go look her up.) In her best emotive voice, Sally engages you in a guilty appeal, begging you to look, just look at the faces of these starving children surrounding her. For only $20 or more a month, she pleads, YOU can give one of them food, shelter, hope—and get photos and letters from your chosen beneficiary in return as “proof” of your impact.

I may have been a relative youngin’ in those days, but the imprint of Sally’s humble plea has stayed with me all these years later. In fact, to this day, I can’t think about any kind of child sponsorship program without picturing Sally and her freshly crimped hair, surrounded by all that desperation.

But rather than this very vivid memory sparking something good and altruistic in me, it actually makes me a bit uncomfortable. It’s not Sally Struthers’ fault. She believed in the work and the mission, which undeniably, is valuable and positive. What makes me uneasy, every time I encounter it, is the seemingly untouched-by-time child sponsorship model itself. We as a society have evolved, but this method of giving has remained largely the same.

Which is why a few weeks ago, when I read about World Vision flipping the child sponsorship model on its head by letting kids pick their donors instead–I was excited, energized, and inspired.

The Vox article crystallized the exact feeling I’d had all these years, and I’ve heard others (yes, even in the NPO space) echo as well:

“Isn’t there something off about looking through pictures of people to pick one you want to help? Aren’t the power dynamics that haunt international charity particularly present here? Do the cuter children deserve sponsors more?”

This acknowledgement that our culture and expectations around philanthropy have changed is a big reason why World Vision‘s new approach is so compelling to me. (Additional acknowledgement to organizations like Save the Children, who have broadened from individual sponsorship models to include more community and program-based giving options.) Don’t get me wrong—I know World Vision’s new recipient-centered approach is not a silver bullet or the only answer out there, but it is a great indicator of progress—a significant step toward exploring more unexpected ideas in the child sponsorship space, and giving more organizations of all kinds the permission to define what’s next in fundraising: looking beyond new platforms, tried-and-true tactics, and evolving the discipline and mindset as a whole.

Beyond the flashback to Sally, why did this particular sponsorship model shift catch my attention?

1) It redistributes the balance of power from the ones doing the servING to the individuals in the community actually being served. Here in Atlanta, where I’ve lived for the past 12+ years (and opened our fourth Media Cause office in early 2018), there are many organizations that provide gifts to homeless families during the holidays. But rather that preselecting items to be delivered, several of them do it by setting up boutiques and letting the parents “shop” for their kids’ gifts themselves. Why go through all the trouble and expense to setup a physical store environment when the org could just do what most others do: simply bundling them up and handing them out?

When parents feel like so much dignity and self-esteem has been taken from them due to whatever circumstance they’re in, the basic act of being able to choose their own gifts for their kids, in a setting that feels like a “normal” store, means everything. It gives THEM back the power. The respect. A sense of independence. I believe the same rings true with this new World Vision model, because it gives kids the chance to have some small say their own lives. And even more than just being a one time experience for them, in the long run, this model can go a long way toward teaching these children that they don’t have to be “chosen” by someone else in order to be worthy of help. It can boost their self-esteem. Give them perspective on the world. Let them be the ones writing some small storyline of their own futures.

2) It can add an extra layer of meaning for the donor. Everyone wants to feel special. Including donors. (Ever play Red Rover? No? You are under 30. Go look this one up while you’re Googling ol’ Sally.) Yes, we as humans already get some level of gratification just from the act of giving. But think about how much more special that might become when we’ve been hand-picked by a child as the one they want help from. ME. The Donor. OMG. They want me. I have something special to give. (It’s like those animal shelter bumper stickers–Who rescued who?)

I have to imagine (personal POV here) that being selected, rather than selectING, would also make donors more reflective and aware of their own actions and impact beyond monetary contributions. “How can I be the best sponsor possible? This child chose ME! I have a responsibility now.” It has the potential to open up a whole other level of involvement that can create far more engaged donors than just having their monthly contributions auto-drafted from their bank accounts.

3) It’s a clear brand differentiator. Yes, the classic child sponsorship model has been proven effective with older, wealthy audiences. But if I had to guess, I would bet that it’s not on an upward trajectory with anyone else. Want to attract a younger, more fluid, culturally conscious donor base? You need to switch up your business model, not just your marketing tactics, tools, or platforms. If you want to get all buzzwordy with it, World Vision’s new approach is what you’d call being “disruptive.” I don’t know if it will ultimately catch on, or how successful it will prove at helping them reach or exceed their annual revenue goals. But by taking a leap into a little bit of the unknown, and creating a new model of sponsorship for a new generation of donors, they’re opening the door for others to do the same.

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What does that mean for our own organizations?

As we inch closer to Giving Tuesday and End-of-Year campaigns, and thinking even longer term, to fiscal year planning for 2020 and beyond, my challenge to everyone in the giving space is this:

Instead of defaulting to what’s always been done, how can we push our teams to explore what’s NEVER been done? How can we take off the handcuffs of tried-and-true to have the freedom to develop new-and-untapped?

As an agency, it’s our responsibility to constantly be thinking about how to help our clients succeed, which includes bringing these kinds of disruptive ideas to the table (not necessarily instead of proven tactics, but in addition to them). But it’s up to each organization’s leadership to be brave enough to see the potential in exploring a new direction. To be comfortable being uncomfortable for a bit. To champion the upside of risk-taking with other internal decision-makers, so that everyone’s invested enough in the outcome to give it a chance to succeed–and at the very worst, learn some incredible lessons if it doesn’t.

We can all do more to change the way giving works, not just the way it’s marketed. I, for one, would be happy to start associating a new paradigm with the child sponsorship model (sorry, Sally), and for that matter, start creating new paradigms, in partnership with our clients, throughout the fundraising world as a whole.

If you’re with us on this, let’s get to work.

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