W. Marc Ozburn, Jr. is founder and CEO of TheDoGooder.com, an online fundraising network for schools and nonprofits. TheDoGooder revolutionizes antiquated school fundraising models by infusing social entrepreneurial and networking principles so schools/nonprofits can fundraise completely hands free throughout the year. Prior to launching TheDoGooder, Ozburn was an environmental consultant focusing on waste reduction strategies. In addition, he helped launch MY ECO, a sustainable consumer products company. Ozburn's passion for education began when he developed and implemented School Reuse Challenges to create environmental consciousness with children. He resides in New York City.
Bob Dylan’s first verse of Times They Are A-Changin’ sums up the current times the best: “Come gather 'round people, Wherever you roam, And admit that the waters around you have grown… you better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone for the times they are a-changin.” There is no doubt that “times ARE a-changin” in all aspects of culture, and the philanthropy sector is no exception.
Social networking has flattened the global community with warped speed. A 30-year-old dictatorial regime can fall in 18 days, an East Village songwriting outcast can become a pop phenomenon overnight and a community organizer with a funny name can mobilize support to become the first African American U.S. president. The underlying commonality of all these scenarios is the powerful use of social networking. Today, one can find connection through technology and strengthen resolve to recruit participation behind a common purpose. The impact of social networking is clear, so much so, that I argue it should be more aptly titled social engagement.
Culture defines how information is consumed and philanthropic endeavors must adapt to remain relevant. Gone is the Walter Cronkite era where the national consciousness, and thereby conversation, was determined by a regimented newscast format. Today we find a minute-by-minute news cycle with an endless scope. As I ride the subway every morning, I read the news through my Twitter feed and have never felt so connected. Not only can I learn about breaking news as it happens, but I can monitor reactions and opposing sides (a refreshing reprieve from a singularly focused cable news agenda).
Philanthropic organizations must embrace the cultural changes ushered in by digital advances to communicate with their supporters. Institutions that take advantage of new communication platforms will energize their support network by empowering them with information to become advocates for its cause. I have seen this in action as I launched TheDoGooder.com.
TheDoGooder.com is an online network that fundraises for schools and nonprofits through DoGooder Deals, which are exclusive discounts on either local or sustainable products or services. Schools across the country register at TheDoGooder.com and invite their students, parents, grandparents, faculty, alumni and stakeholders to create a free profile and select their school as their partner. Members receive great discounts on products and services they love and their school partner gets a portion of the profits every time they buy. Through TheDoGooder, schools and nonprofits can leverage their relationships to fundraise completely hands free throughout the entire year.
Not only does TheDoGooder fundraise for schools, it connects members to a broader movement and promotes sustainability, wellness and service. This allows schools to fundraise with a mission, a necessity to all successful fundraising. Our content-rich network offers aggregated news, original features, webcasts, blogs, lesson plans, book clubs, fun at-home projects, healthy recipes, dinner conversation starters and much more.
TheDoGooder’s goal is to create a consciousness early to spark a conversation and empower youth with tools to become advocates for change. It is my belief that you must educate children early before their habits are formed. Not only will their behavior change, but they will also disseminate these lessons to the rest of their family and community.
We launched TheDoGooder in May 2011 with the annual goal of registering 100 schools and met this goal in just three months. We now have public, private and public charter schools from all over the country participating in our movement.
What is hard about social networking and modern fundraising is that you must be agile. What you understand today can change tomorrow so you must be willing to, as Bob Dylan puts it, “start swimmin’” and adapt or you will “sink like a stone.” An example of this is Facebook’s redesign last month, the updates completely changed the way it functions.
I don’t claim to be a social networking expert because the technical lessons I’ve learned can all change tomorrow. However, I have discovered some underlying themes that I believe will be central for philanthropic organizations to embrace in order to communicate effectively through social networking and evolve with the changing digital landscape.
I. It’s not just about the Money… It’s the Movement
Too often, organizations view fundraising one-dimensionally by only focusing on the money. This is a mistake. Studies have shown most individuals direct their charitable giving to community organizations like churches, local food banks, and community foundations. The reason? People choose to spend their money where they can directly see the impact.
Social networking gives all nonprofits this same opportunity to make a similar connection. By clearly defining the need, organizations can engage the follower to see beyond the dollar signs and focus on the impact. Highlighting the humanity and not just the logistics makes people feel like they are part of a broader movement.
II. Content is Key
Mirroring community organization, larger institutions can provide a connection through dynamic and up-to-date content. In the same way we consume news, people want to know what is happening on the ground on a routine basis. Content allows your organization to develop a voice/narrative that provides the underlying humanity that individuals crave.
It is important to ensure your content isn’t solely promotional. At TheDoGooder.com, we have designed our content with a focus on sustainability, wellness and service. Therefore, we share news that meets our focus, original features spotlighting DoGooders, eco tips, book selections, lesson plans, recipes and much more. This variety of content gives us a reason to communicate and share with our members on a daily basis instead of focusing on our DoGooder Deals or other fundraising tools.
Even if you don’t have a broad focus like TheDoGooder.com, you must define your mission or brand identity so you can develop a culture to your organization. Once you have that culture or “voice” you can use existing resources, such as news or suggested reading, to provide content beyond promotional messaging.
III. Embrace Technology and Win-Win Solutions
When I ask organizations how they communicate with members, they usually say one of the three: their annual report, website, or newsletter. Although it is good they are engaging with their supporters, they must understand that people’s attention spans are limited in this crowded digital landscape. People don’t have the time to sift through an annual report or website. Newsletters have a less than 10% click-through rate because people are inundated with newsletters from every other organization cluttering their mailbox.
Therefore, TheDoGooder.com, through its DoGooder Deals, provides the user an incentive to click open the email. We provide a reason to open because we are giving them something. They not only see the deal, but also read about what is happening at the organization on the grassroots level. This win-win type of solution has become TheDoGooder’s philosophy and mantra. As we have proven, you can provide individuals with an incentive, in our case a discount, while helping worthy causes at the same time. Beyond the direct financial donations to the organization, we are helping them find their voice and communicate it effectively in the crowded Internet space.
Although at times overwhelming, social networking or social engagement is key to any organization’s communication practices in the ”growing waters” of the 21st century. Not participating effectively in this medium can alter your credibility and alienate a whole new generation accustomed to being constantly connected. It can be difficult to stand out in the digital crowd, but remembering to cultivate a consistent voice for your organization will help you develop content that exemplifies your organization’s culture on a daily basis. Clearly defining and embodying this culture is what will help your organization build sustaining support because, like in all relationships, deeper connections are fostered when it’s reciprocal.