This morning I went to a talk on disrupting philanthropy, where I heard Lucy Bernholz talk about how new technologies are changing the way we need to think about giving. She’s great, you should check out her blog, and follow her.
Organised by many fab people (including NCVO, Guardian Voluntary Sector Network, Big Society Network and more), I thought it was a really interesting morning – as much for the discussions afterwards as for the talk itself.
A lot was said about new technology and how powerful it can be, although Lucy’s caveat of “if you know how to use it” didn’t appear to be picked up by many people – but it’s a very important point. As much as I love new technology and applying it to the charity world (which I’m lucky to say is my day job) the technology in itself doesn’t change anything. It’s how people use it that counts, and how technology is designed to complement existing human behaviours and what we know about people who give to charity.
Much was made (in the questions after at least) about data, it’s importance and the fact it should be open. To be clear, I agree on both counts – and it was great to meet Chris Taggart, who’s responsible for using data very cleverly with opencharities. Data should be open, and it is important.
But data alone is not the be-all and end-all.
One question in particular was asked about how effective things like pie charts are in showing how much charities spend on admin or fundraising, for showing impact to grantmakers or individual donors. I think data in that context misses the point, or where the really valuable data is (which for me, is in social networks).
Any research or focus groups with *people who actually give to charities* will tell you that they want to know what happens to their money when they give. Somehow we’ve extrapolated from that fact that people want to know what percentage is spent on beneficiaries versus other things like admin or fundraising.
How did that happen? Aren’t we missing the point?
As a donor, I want to know what you’ve spent the money on so I can understand how I have helped. This isn’t about the data, its about the story of what a charity did with my money. This appears to be the same as what Lucy referred to as “impact investments”, which to me seems a posh way of describing a donation that is followed up with a story about how that donation has helped (I’m probably doing her a dis-service here, this is just my interpretation). Saying 80% of a donation goes to help beneficiaries is totally pointless unless you say what that 80% of my donation has actually done.
I think stories in the charity press about donors “being concerned about how money is spent” is a symptom of not being told how their donation has helped, and not a green light to start publishing ratios on fundraising spend vs admin spend in all fundraising material. If you could see what the money has done, you can innately understand, or at least appreciate, that costs were involved in making that thing happen.
And as much as I love navel gazing about new ways of giving, or sexing-up how we talk about giving, ultimately the point of all of this is just that: to tell people how they’ve helped and the demonstrate it. It’s the feedback loop.
To power that feedback, you tell a story. So what you need is content. I’ve talked before about charities and the art of digital storytelling, because new technology helps people tell stories, and stories are the essential ingredient here. Whether you’re a small or large charity, you can tell a story by having a Facebook page, sharing videos on YouTube or by tweeting. That technology is available to all.
Having said that, one good point raised was about whether new technology gives a voice to people who don’t have one :
I’d argue that this is one role of charities – being the people who give a voice to the silent, to empower the people who are neglected or who need help.
Anyway, back to the data point – sure, data can be part of a narrative, if it helps a story, but if one charity gives me a pie chart when I donate showing how much is spent on beneficiaries and another gives me a story of how a beneficiary has benefited, I know which one I’m more likely to become a long term supporter of.
So, how do we disrupt philanthropy?
Do what charities have always done, tell stories. Just do it in a new way. It doesn’t have to be complicated.
Here’s just one of many interesting tweets from the event, one making the point that data is usefulif it shows efficiency, but connection with the cause is just as, if not more, important.
The talk did cover other areas too, but these were the topics I was most interested in, so if you took something different from this morning, I’d love to hear it.
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