This month’s Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly column: Connections help determine the causes people will support

Connections help determine the causes people will support

In a blog post written late last year, nonprofit development and marketing expert Clare Axelrad said this about the changing face of fundraising: “According to a recent survey by Georgetown University Center for Social Impact Communication, 39 percent of Americans are motivated to get involved with causes that have affected someone they know, and 36 percent are motivated by it being an important cause to family and friends. These reasons for involvement far outweighed having time or money, or feeling an urgency to help people in need.”

To sum up Axelrad’s point in a phrase, in today’s interconnected world, “who” is more than “what.” The “importance” of a given cause — if such a thing can be judged objectively — matters much less than the people connected to the cause. Understanding this is not only critical to an organization’s successful use of social media. It’s critical to the overall success of the organization.

In my work with nonprofits, I’ve found that this shift isn’t always well understood. There’s still a sense that if people should care — again, in the subjective eye of the beholder — then they will care. Right or wrong, however, this simply isn’t the case. The truth is people care most only when those they are connected to care at all.

A good example of this is the Movember campaign, which is designed to raise awareness and funds for a variety of men’s health causes, including prostate cancer, testicular cancer and mental health. Movember is built upon a simple premise: throughout November, men are encouraged to grow facial hair to demonstrate their support for the cause, and fundraising events help bring people together to celebrate these efforts, and, of course, show off those fancy new mustaches.

Movember has been criticized for being trivial and too broad in its focus, often by those who are somewhat bewildered by the campaign’s success. “It shouldn’t work,” they argue, “because it’s just not substantive!” While Movember’s shortcomings certainly merit some debate, it’s hard to argue with the campaign’s success: in just over a decade Movember has raised $174 million worldwide.

So, why has the Movember campaign succeeded? A few interrelated factors are especially important and suggest a similar path for other nonprofits:

• It harnesses the power of its supporters’ networks. Movember works because the campaign doesn’t rely on itself to spread the word. It’s all about understanding that the audience’s collective ability to tell the story far outweighs even the most successful organization’s ability to do so on its own.

• The audience is the star of the show. The people behind Movember understand that when you make people part of the story, it becomes their story, too. Pessimists might say this is because Movember’s supporters are narcissistic, but this distinction really doesn’t matter, however, if the goal is to elicit broad, enthusiastic support. When the audience is the center of attention, it will want to share the story over and over again.

• It’s visual. Movember gets its momentum primarily from photos, and in today’s communication environment, photos get more attention than words.

• The story is easy to share. The Movember campaign leverages social-media tools like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, taking the campaign to the audience and allowing for the sharing of photos and other content at a single click.

• It leverages the power of gamification. Movember also incorporates some competition, with “leaderboards” that show how much money is raised at different events and in communities around the world. Our natural desire to play — and win — makes it much more likely that raising money for Movember will be a top priority for those who get involved.

Nonprofits looking to succeed have two choices: They can deride campaigns like Movember and talk about why they shouldn’t work compared to “more serious” efforts like their own, or they can learn from them and adapt the campaign’s tactics to fit their audiences, missions and resources. In today’s environment, taking the latter course begins by understanding that who is more important than what — regardless of what we’d like to be true or how we think people should feel.

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