“How technology will or will not transform our work this year is in your hands.”
Katya Andresen kicked off a recent nonprofit direct response fundraising conference in Washington, D.C., with those words. “You are not a passive person being buffeted by all these changes. You’re in a position to determine how your organization will use these changes or ignore how people are interacting with you,” she continued. “You’re in charge of determining whether these are tools to increase giving.”
Andresen, chief strategic officer and chief operating officer of Washington, D.C. nonprofit Network for Good, gave a keynote address about the potential — or lack thereof — of technology to impact the work of nonprofits. There are three philosophies on what technology can do, she said. There are some people who are “wildly optimistic,” about technology, those who believe that technology can “unleash generosity like we’ve never seen before.”
Then there are those, said Andresen, who say that technology isolates us, the “alone together” crowd. “Because of the nature of technology, people are less likely to have deep relationships, including with causes,” she said that camp feels.
The third camp, she said, believes there’s nothing truly new, but it’s all in the way we use technology. She relates a description she saw on social news website Reddit on how someone might explain a smartphone to someone from the 1950s: “I possess a device in my pocket that is capable of accessing the entirety of information in the palm of my hand. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers.”
Technology has the potential to be game-changing, said Andresen. “Everyone is in the delivery business,” she said. “The thing that erodes confidence of messengers, that calls into question the assertions of marketers, is other people talking about their experiences with that company. Technology amplifies this ability to have those peer to peer interactions.”
Andresen’s advice is to switch up your spokespeople. “When you have fans and champions, put them forward and give them tools,” she said. Three groups of people are ideal to court. You’ll want witnesses, “someone from the front lines who can speak authentically about the change they see”; fans: highlight them and incorporate their thoughts in your appeals; and third party individuals with “credibility and authority; people will still look to experts,” she said.
Technology makes things easier, and that can be a mixed blessing, argued Andresen. “Anyone can hit ‘like’ or sign an online petition, but it’s not a big level of engagement,” she said. She talked about “slacktavists, someone taking actions that require minimal effort.” They’re often sneered at, but Andresen believes that reaching out to these slacktavists can lead them to greater levels of engagement with your organization. “It’s a foot in the door technique, momentum of compliance,” she said. “If I can get someone to do something little, they’ll do something bigger.”
A similar point is to lower the bar for engagement on social media. Most nonprofits don’t follow up with constituents who take action on social media, and Andresen said that’s a mistake. “Even a small action, if you advertise it, creates a message that you’re a strong organization with lots of followers,” she said. “You need to treat people in a relationship, not transactionally; build off of those baby steps.”
Changing your message delivery system and lowering the bar for engagement is necessary, but so is doing all of that on mobile. “If people are checking their phones 34 times a day, each of those are an opportunity to be in front of someone,” said Andresen. But being there isn’t enough either; if a smartphone user then goes to your un-optimized, barely readable donation page on her phone, you’ve probably lost that opportunity for a gift. “You must make it easy for your cause to be experienced on mobile,” Andresen said.
Ultimately, whether the sector should be optimistic about technology this year depends on how nimble organizations can be in accommodating users in how they want to experience your brand. “Technology doesn’t inspire people, it carries the inspiration you have,” said Andresen. “You are the inspiration.”