We can do better at doing good

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Charity fundraising risks being left behind in the shift to online activity. But taking inspiration from the COVID-19 pandemic trends, and new payment technology, could open doors.

Change comes whether you’re ready or not, but being ready means you can seize the opportunity. The past year has accelerated the pace of digital transformation dramatically — sure, personal contact was already moving online, and contactless payments were slowly replacing cash, but the pandemic did not so much push as shove the world faster and farther than anyone expected. This creates specific challenges for the nonprofit sector — and with those, some exciting possibilities.

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Bring the message home

Charity events and street fundraising — two major traditional revenue streams — have been sharply curtailed by the pandemic. However, lockdown has unlocked some inspirational creative thinking, such as the 2.6 Challenge, in which sports and fundraising agencies asked the public to come up with their own private challenges to fill the gap left by the London Marathon. The brilliance of such personal fundraising efforts is that, well, they’re personal.

Consider how Captain Tom Moore raised over 32 million euros ($44 million) by walking around his garden! This shows rather dramatically how an individual effort can drive far stronger engagement than might be achieved by, say, a marathon team: When supporters can see the motivation behind each challenge, they are inspired. It’s all about storytelling and authenticity. To stand out among a host of issues vying for public attention, and to restore the path to the positive feelings of giving, it’s important to reinforce the “why” — keep it personal, keep it relatable.

But while big moments like this capture the imagination and attract a flood of impulse contributions, charities need repeat donations and peer-to-peer fundraising for their financial health. It is crucial that organizations convert one-time donors into engaged supporters who are committed to sharing their message.

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Online fundraising can be particularly effective at this task, thanks to the power of storytelling. According to research, 57% of the people who watch a fundraising video go on to make a donation, but think about how much more could be done. A charity or activist website can become a place for helpers and the helped alike to share their experiences, their motivations and the impact of their actions. How can individual online actions translate into greater change? How can online social tools build community? And how can we mobilize a demographic that no longer trusts established groups to do the right thing once the donations have been made, or accepts that the agenda should be set only by the biggest donors?

Transparency and accountability are in increasing demand in all aspects of life. So it is with social causes: Young people want to know they make a difference. Show them a track record of effective action coupled with responsible stewardship, and they will spread the word for you. Explain what resources are needed, and how they will and have been put to use. Groups who make use of social networks and universal tools that are easy to access and understand will be best placed to win the trust and loyalty of the generations that are coming of age now.

Embedded payments open new doors

Let’s talk about the nuts and bolts of payments. The actual process of making a donation online can be a significant hurdle. Donors usually need to complete a detailed form, providing their name and several methods of contact, even before going into the details of payment. A moment of generosity and a true desire to participate might sour as more and more demands are made of people who imagine that their personal details are being stockpiled in a database.

Blockchain technology could simplify this step dramatically. If a charity website implemented a micropayment layer that allowed donors to give any amount with the click of a button — no forms to fill, no personal data to give up — wouldn’t you expect that to unlock goodwill, not to mention giving? This is a real possibility. Once the tech has gained widespread acceptance, it won’t just make online donations easier, it will pave the way for exciting new forms of fundraising.

Remember the Ice Bucket Challenge? Donations from that social media phenomenon reached $115 million, enabling the beneficiary, the ALS Association, to nearly double its funding for research into the disease. During lockdown, TikTok and Instagram challenges spread like wildfire, although few were linked to a cause. Imagine what might be achieved if you could craft a viral social media challenge that harnessed that energy, tied it to an action that held meaning — and embedded the donation mechanism directly in the posts created. If viewers were asked to donate a few pennies to watch the video, and a few pennies more to upload their own, viral campaigns could achieve more than just spreading awareness.

The trivia game Freerice has raised around $1.4 million (through advertising) for the United Nations World Food Program — it works because players are motivated partly by the addictiveness of the simple game but also by the sense of doing good. Making giving easy through an embedded, decentralized micropayment system could be deployed to combine small donations to fund any manner of positive, transparent, effective efforts. One could even imagine a free marketplace of information that drives funds toward the most valued causes.

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What can you offer?

Fundraisers need to employ some sharp marketing thinking to broaden their revenue base. Asking for donations, in many ways across multiple platforms, is a must. But apply the bake sale principle: What can you give, in order to get?

Any nonprofit is likely to have specialist knowledge. If it can leverage that to create an online course or e-book, or offer expert lectures, that’s a valuable product. Online donors typically give less, so fundraisers need to work harder on cultivating them and providing different channels for donation. Online or hybrid events are another option, less risky than traditional fundraising events (which are vulnerable to weather and other unpredictable factors) and with greater reach. Embedded payments make it possible to offer this extra value in a frictionless way, without compromising data protection or investing any overhead in payment processing contracts.

Target the next generation

Remember that, above all, younger donors are likely to engage with online content and offerings — and younger donors can deliver a full lifetime of support. So, fundraisers need to pay attention to young people’s online behavior. We know that Generation Z is active online, especially on mobile devices, and is turned off by out-of-date websites. Social media is a big part of their lives, so online community building is crucial. And they rarely use cash.

As cash payments become a rarity, small change donations have gone the way of the dinosaur, arguably leaving more than just a financial gap. Dropping a few coins in the charity jar by the till, or in the “take a penny, leave a penny” plate familiar in some United States regions, generated a sense of solidarity. Could micropayments offer a way to recapture the social and economic benefits that came from the anonymous circulation of small amounts of money? And could they help to engage young people at a level that works for them, opening the door to increasing levels of support in the future?

The leap forward in remote networking in 2020 could combine with emerging payment technologies to bring transformative possibilities for charities. We can see now that far from being a poor substitute for in-person activities, online engagement can be hugely powerful in its own right. New digital payments could prove to be a similarly great step-up on cash. Now, it’s over to fundraisers to apply the lessons learned and build new models for the future.

The views, thoughts and opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.

Stephanie So is an economist, policy analyst and co-founder of Geeq, a blockchain security company. Throughout her career, she has applied technology within her specialist disciplines. In 2001, she was the first to use machine learning on social science data at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. More recently, she researched the use of distributed networking processes in healthcare and patient safety in her role as a senior lecturer at Vanderbilt University. Stephanie is a graduate of Princeton University and the University of Rochester.