So let’s say you are interested in a global issue like world hunger. Perhaps you had a vacation in India and were dazzled by the beautiful sights, bright colors, delicious food, and welcoming people. But you were also deeply disturbed by the poverty and living conditions of some of the people there. You may have seen people that you thought were literally starving and did not know what to do about it. So you returned to your home in the United States and hoped to find a way to make a difference, through a donation or other means.
Like many people might, you sit at your computer, go to your favorite search engine, type the words World Hunger in the search box and click on Search Web. You will certainly get, at the top for the results page, a group of links to nonprofits or Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that have paid for that top placement because their mission is to fight world hunger. Below that you will find links to reports on world hunger, publications, and perhaps a blog posting about hunger issues. You may choose to do some research on sites that are more academically, historically, or religiously based. Or you may go directly to the web site of one of the aid agencies that fights hunger.
When you visit this NGO site, what do you find? Well, I just did that and clicked on the first site in the top box of my screen; I will not give you their name. I came to an organization home page that shows their logo, a small box with some statistics, and a large photo that dominates the page of a small, dirty child with pleading eyes and an empty bowl. A video immediately starts playing about a young child and the miserable conditions she lives in. It does not show her gaining assistance from the organization or anyone else; indeed she seems to live with her helpless siblings in isolated misery. The only navigation buttons on the page are ones where I can send this video to a group of my friends, and where I can donate money, one for a one-time gift and one for a monthly gift. Surprisingly, there are no navigation buttons anywhere on the site to tell me about this organization, who works for them, what countries they work in, how they distribute food, what their strategy is, and what kind of results they have. They only have their address (a PO box) and phone number.
Photo by Susan Hardman (not taken from NGO site)
With this organization, there is nothing for me to do or learn. My only choice for engagement or interaction is to give money electronically; no chance for human interaction, for building solidarity with people who are starving, for learning about hunger issues or contributing anything but my money. I am an intelligent, curious, well-educated, resourceful, energetic, able-bodied person who wants to make a difference and in this instance I am reduced to a nobody (who can use his charge card). Worse than that, the child in the picture and those in the video are reduced to ciphers, shallow representations of victims, with no resources in their families, communities, environments, no inherent potentialities. They are solely objects of pity.
This may be a wonderful and effective organization. However, through my first and only interaction with it, I have learned that it is patronizing to me and its beneficiaries. It is not interested in anything but my money and will take that through a cold white electronic form. Since it is not willing to tell me anything up front about how well it uses the resources it collects, I would assume that I will get no report of how my contributions have made any difference after they have been given. There is nothing on the site to indicate they are connected to any other organizations, ones that sanction nonprofits or even ones that guarantee secure financial transactions on websites. I wish them well but go to another site.
The example above is real and not exaggerated in the lack of information available on their site. However, it is an extreme example that illustrates an outmoded way of engaging people to help with a mission. The newer way is to be transparent, informative, engaging, have options for people to create their own interactions, and in the end allow people to use the richness of their gifts (and not just their money) to assist with a problem. I believe that people are looking for meaning, connectedness, to be recognized and to be useful. They are also aware of how much we have to give to something we care about. Some organizations understand this and are using the knowledge effectively.
The Hunger Project is a great example. Their home page is full of information, but is not cluttered. It depicts people, in photos and stories, working toward their own self-reliance. They have clear buttons leading to sub-pages describing who they are, what they do, and where they work. When you click on their Get Involved link, you come to a page that gives you options for a whole list of ways to give financially as well as options for corporate sponsorship, volunteering, support their business partners, attending or hosting events, traveling with them to their work sites to help, and working with them as an employee, an intern or a pro bono technical supporter. In other words, you can choose to interact with their mission solely through the web, at their offices, just with other supporters, or in the countries they serve. They actually mean it when they say get involved.
Photo from The Hunger Project site
The Hunger Project web page also has information available in different formats (including video), has a report of their results, and shows Hunger Project as being recognized by 3 rating organizations. In other words, this organization gives me self-determination; just as it gives it to the people it serves. It also recognizes my individual preferences and ability to give various types of gifts; just as the people it serves have ways to contribute. It assumes that I will do research to make sure my gifts are used effectively. It even has a program for me to do direct face-to-face work with the people that it serves. This is not only an organization I would want to engage with, it serves as a great example to other organizations.
A question always looming over donor relationships is: how ready is the organization for lots of really passionate people to engage and invest with them, not just donate? How can they balance their strategic plans and methods with the influence of their contributors, be they donors, volunteers, or beneficiaries? I call this openness to non-staff contributors, organizational permeability. Hosting these non-staff members takes staff or volunteer time, which can be draining to needed resources. If those people are forceful and have significant amounts of money to donate, they will also want to help determine the goals and strategies of the organization. And, if unguided, these passionate givers may create “mission drift”, where the priorities of the organization alter to accommodate a particularly influential or generous donor.
I believe that deflecting the passion of these people and walling them off from true engagement is a waste of potential assets. It can turn away both their financial resources and everything else they may have to contribute. The clear alternative to this is to seek their involvement and guide them to an understanding of the organization’s planning and strategies. This can be achieved by giving contributors well crafted choices of communication formats and levels of engagement, which will reveal and develop their interests and capacities. Meanwhile, balancing the benefits of permeability and contributor engagement against the dangers of contributor demands and mission drift will need to be perennially considered and calibrated by nonprofit organizations.
[Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with The Hunger Project in any way and have never visited their web site before. Therefore, I cannot vouch for any of their work – beyond their web strategy and implementation, which is excellent. Check them out for yourself!]