Commentaries

The Digital Divide and Grassroots Fundraising

The Digital Divide and Grassroots Fundraising

       In his seminal 2001 article, Harvard technologist Marc Prensky discusses the differences between digital immigrants and digital natives. Having grown up with technology, Digital natives have a level of innate comfort while the digital immigrants are learning “on the fly” as they move through their careers. The PC wasn’t a household item until the late 1980s and the Internet did not start to become the information hub we know today until 10 years later. Because of the timing of these technical advancements, digital natives tend to be under 40 and digital immigrants over 40. Prensky’s dichotomy points out that learning technology is similar to learning a language, and that as one ages, the ability to learn technology becomes more difficult. Conversely, the younger you are, the more integral technology is to your development and learning. 

       This dichotomy becomes problematic as digital immigrants are often the ones doing the leading, teaching and guiding. Digital natives must learn from, adhere to and acquire skills from teachers who think very differently from them about their primary mode of communication. This has an even deeper implication for the nonprofit community and especially grassroots organizations. “Old Philanthropy” is often thought of in terms of Andrew Carnegie and his beard, but truthfully, much of philanthropy is outdated in terms of communicating to its potential donor base. Younger donors receive there news differently, socialize differently, and give differently than their predecessors. For the digital native donors, texting a donation is a logical next step.
 
       Development directors will have to use whatever part of the brain which will allow them to adapt. Text donations, Twitter, Facebook, and what comes next will be expectations for the next wave of wealthy donors. Waiting for a check to be written will make no sense when younger people do not have a checkbook.
 
       The implication for grassroots organizations is monumental; because of their youth and “native” approach to technology, the opportunity will exist for them to be able to communicate with the next wave donors in the mediums that they find inherently more comfortable. A written appeal may make as much sense as sending the letter in a dead language. “Older” organizations may not be able to appeal to a large part of their donor base. If organizations like Greenpeace are not able to communicate with younger donors in the most optimal way, they will lose out on the opportunity and the organizations that will. Hospitals, universities, museums, foundations and other old guard philanthropic institutions may find themselves at a competitive disadvantage to newer more adaptable organizations. The next generation of donors will expect the nonprofit community to adhere to the standards of communication and interaction which they are most comfortable with.
 
       Adapting organizations will “get the gift” and move forward. The organizations that can’t will lose donors at the early stage of their giving horizon and lose out on the opportunity to steward these relationships into potentially larger gifts later in the relationship. Twitter and You Tube both cater to the expectation of instant information and visuals; a donor accustomed to receiving information in this manner will not spend time reading thorough written materials if other options are available. Given the opportunity to donate online or via text versus writing a check (again, an option many digital immigrants do not have), the more convenient and comfortable form of giving will be more appealing. And the organizations willing to adapt to these new forms of giving will be in the “drivers seat.”
 
       Foundations may find the nonprofit community less willing to spend large amounts of time with tedious Request for Proposal processes if there are alternatives for funding which involve more familiar (and time effective) means of communicating. Why spend all the time and energy necessary to develop a significant relationship with a foundation when other funding sources may be available through the use of social networking tools? Time may be much more effectively spent developing a proper new media campaign for donors compared to the paperwork, reporting, and catering to foundations which is now necessary. 
 
       Technology will undoubtedly play an increasingly important role in how the philanthropic sector at large communicates their messages and builds relationships with donors. Given the ubiquity and user friendliness of new technology, small nonprofit staffs may have the ability to outmaneuver larger, slower to adapt nonprofits, altering the funding landscape. And that is something worth thinking about-from which ever side of the brain you use….. 




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