Lessons from young charities - part 1

Written by
James Read
May 22, 2012

Part one: what today’s innovative new charities can teach the rest of us

You’ve probably heard of Charity: Water and Invisible Children, two of today’s most exciting new charities. In less than ten years, they’ve rocketed to national prominence in the US, with appearances in prominent media venues like the Oprah show. Both raise millions of dollars for their causes.

Along with them, hundreds of smaller charities you maybe haven’t heard of are rapidly growing their constituencies and spreading their wings.

Oozing with passion and charisma, and usually helmed by hip young founders, these brash start-ups often inspire envy in their more established peers. Mature nonprofits wonder, ‘What are they doing that we’re not? How can some of their magic rub off on our organisation?’

To answer those questions, I recently attended the Ideation Conference, a gathering of new charities and social entrepreneurs. I came away with five principles that characterise today’s most innovative nonprofits and thoughts on how you can apply them to your organisation:

Principle 1: focus on a powerful idea

The most successful recent start-ups are invariably built around a clear-cut problem and a simple idea to solve it. Every day, people drink dirty water and die from it. Give $20 to Charity: Water and they can turn it into clean water for one person. Invisible Children is built on the energy of three young men who couldn’t believe that guerilla general Joseph Kony forced children to fight in his East African war and resolved to stop it.

In each case, the energy comes from a compelling idea that donors can quickly understand. Of course, that’s not surprising, because most of today’s large, established charities were built on strong ideas as well. For example, we all know that Red Cross helps people in disasters and that the American Cancer Society fights cancer. These are simple, easily understood ideas that give these organisations real strength.

Unfortunately, many successful organisations eventually suffer mission creep – they add programmes and initiatives that diffuse their focus. The solution? Get back in touch with the simple idea that made your organisation great. Focus on it again and again in your communications. Your constituents won’t get tired of it. After all, it’s why they support you.

Principle 2: recruit passionate advocates, not merely donors

Today’s cutting edge charities focus on building a group – a tribe, as the author Seth Godin calls it, of people who will rally around their big idea, tell their friends and make the solution reality.

Rob Morris of Love 146, an organisation dedicated to ending child slavery, says he wants a participant in his organisation to become a fan, then an evangelist who tells others, and finally an ‘owner’ with a sense of responsibility for the cause. Sean Carasso of Falling Whistles, a movement to end the war in the Congo, says they can turn someone who knows nothing about the war to being an advocate to end it in about a month.

So how does this approach work for raising funds? The process isn’t always clear-cut, and young organisations admit they puzzle over the best way to convert advocates into donors. The advantage is energy, momentum and buzz – enough to take Invisible Children from zero to winning President Obama’s support in just a few short years. And the money does follow. For example, Invisible Children raised over seven million last year.

So what are the lessons for older organisations? By no means give up the tools you have in place for donor acquisition and cultivation. But make sure you don’t simply view your donors as records in a database. Give them the information and tools they need to connect emotionally to your cause and then share it with others.

In part two, we’ll discuss three more principles that innovative new charities follow to build momentum and raise funds for their causes.

About the author: James Read

James Read

James Read, believes the best days of fundraising are ahead of us. A creative director at Grizzard in the USA, he focuses on understanding how rapid changes in technology and culture apply to strategy, messaging and copywriting in nonprofit fundraising.

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Lessons from young charities - part 2

You can read principles three, four and five here

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