Advancement and Fundraising Higher Education Marketing and Advertising

The Reality of Advancement in the Post-COVID Age

By Sean Carton \ May 26, 2021

Recently my colleague Peter Toran weighed in on the sujet du moment: did our collective suffering during the pandemic teach us anything new? Like I’m going to do in this post, Peter focused on fundraising and concluded — courageously, and rightly I believe — that if we’re honest the answer is “no.” Sure, fundraising was up overall (although some sectors like 4-year colleges and universities saw a decline in giving), but just because there was a slight bump doesn’t mean that everyone in the fundraising world should collectively high-five each other and chalk up this smidgen of success to any grand insights gained as we marinated…errrr….meditated in our quarantine cocoons.

I suppose if he were feeling particularly snarky the day he wrote that post he could have just ended the post there, but he’s a bigger man than that. Instead, Peter went on to reiterate three of the main tenets of fundraising and why they’re still relevant:

  1. Make it urgent.
  2. Make it personal.
  3. Make it simple.

Awesome advice. But because I’m a bit more prone to flights of fancy and reckless predictions than Peter (that’s a compliment, @PT !), I’m going to push it one step further: not only are these three principles the right ones to focus on, but as we joyfully enter the post-COVID promised land, they’re even more important and more relevant than they were before the pandemic shut down the world. In fact, there’s one big change that COVID wrought that could change the fundraising game forever.

The Big Shift

A lot of folks have talked about the pandemic as a tipping point for digital adoption, but I disagree: we were inexorably headed towards a much more digital future before the pandemic hit. After all, before the pandemic hit the internet had become more-or-less ubiquitous in the US, with 90% of US adults online as of 2019, according to the Pew Research Center. Today we’re at 93%, and a lot of that growth has been bolstered by the explosion of mobile technology over the past decade

But I don’t think that it’s a stretch to assume that if you’re reading this on the idfive website you probably agree that yes, we’re pretty much at a point where, even before the pandemic hit and forced so many to go virtual with work and school, it was more or less impossible to get by without having internet access. And that’s even more true here in May of 2021.

“So what’s the big deal,” you might ask, “Internet usage went up three whole percent since 2019. Duh!”

Ok. I’ll try not to take that question personally. Frankly, that “duh” at the end was unnecessary. But that’s beside the point.

And yes, you’re right: Internet usage measured on a “how many adults use the Internet” basis didn’t jump up very much during the pandemic. However, how we use it changed. A lot. And that is a big deal.

Before the pandemic, the “real world” and the “virtual world” were still fairly separated. Sure, social media had been steadily chipping away at the wall between the two worlds for a while, creating real-world implications for what went on in cyberspace on a massive scale: just look at the impact it had on the 2016 presidential election. And sure, more and more people had been switching their media consumption habits away from linear broadcast and cable-based media to on-demand formats in the form of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, podcasts, and streaming music services. And yes, the boundaries between the analog and the digital worlds were being increasingly and routinely crossed with the growth of e-commerce, the rise of “gig economy” services driven by mobile technology, and the gradual adoption of online food-ordering services, real-life rating sites, and even mobile-based navigation apps.

We’d been headed in the direction of our lives becoming more digital, but most of us who weren’t fervent early adopters and technophiles were probably content to take an Uber once in a while, order a few things online, and go online to order carryout or maybe even some groceries if we were pressed for time. But we didn’t have to.

Until we did.

In what seemed like an instant we went from more or less living in the “real world” with impunity to having to live in cyberspace if we didn’t want to risk catching a potentially deadly virus. While in most places it still was possible to go to the grocery store if appropriately masked-up and slathered in sanitizer, it wasn’t pleasant to shop with the very real fear of death hanging over our heads and the prospect of scrubbing our groceries when we got home looming in our immediate futures. For many activities deemed “non-essential” — eating out in restaurants, meeting up with friends at a local bar, going to the movies, etc. — we didn’t have a choice. Work and school went virtual. Game over. Lockdown.

So we retreated to our homes and limited our interactions with other people to our families and, eventually, our carefully-screened “covid bubbles” of others we could trust to not infect us. The “real world” was very much off-limits beyond the reach of our front doors. So where could we go? The virtual world, of course.

Throughout much of the pandemic, our screens became our windows to the world. If we wanted something we ordered it online, with online food delivery apps seeing their business double almost overnight and e-commerce spending jumping an amazing 44% during 2020. Videoconferencing as a way to go to work or school went from being (for most) an occasional event to a new daily routine, with services such as Zoom experiencing beyond-meteoric growth. Unable to go to the movies or gather with friends, 82% of consumers turned to on-demand video, 78% played video games (at least occasionally), and 62% listened to music via streaming services. There were certainly even more areas of our lives that went “virtual,” but you probably don’t need the statistics to get the point: you lived it or are likely still living it.

This is the Big Shift. It’s not like we weren’t headed in this direction anyway –most of the digital services we turned to already existed in one form or another before 2020 — but there have been few times in human history where humanity was forced to change how we live so quickly, so drastically, and so universally. 

Given the global nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, there may never have been a time when so many were forced into so much change so quickly. And while many of us are certainly going to return to the “real world” in one form or another as the world gets closer to “herd immunity” and it’s safe to do so, I would argue (as many others a lot smarter than me do) that many of the changes are here to stay. As we emerge from the global pandemic we’re going to emerge into a “new normal” where the “real world” and the “virtual world” are a lot more intertwined than they were before 2020.

From Atoms to Bits

In his 1995 book Being Digital, MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte characterized the move from the real to the virtual as the shift “from atoms to bits.” Atoms make up the real world and are limited by physics, bound by the rules of time and space. On the other hand, he argued, the bits that make up the digital world are free of most of those constraints. They’re infinitely fungible, able to move at the speed of light and are programmable. They’re also, for all practical purposes, in infinite supply. If the “real world” is limited by scarcity, distance, the linear, one-way arrow of time, and relative immutability, the virtual world has none of these constraints.

So before you think I’m suggesting that we all are now about to fly off into the Utopia of cyberspace, I should say that I recognize that all of us reading this are most likely human beings living in real-world physical bodies that, as the pandemic made all too clear, are bound by the physical constraints of the real world. No matter what changes COVID-19 may have thrust upon us, we all still need food and shelter and a way to acquire what’s necessary to meet these needs. We’re still going to be subject to our environments, have to interact with our environment through the real world, and are going to continue to be bound by the laws of physics when it comes to interacting with and traveling through the real world. When it comes to physical needs, wants, and the impact of our environments, atoms are going to rule for the foreseeable future. 

But attending to our physical needs and wants while inhabiting the world of atoms isn’t everything we do. We also have to interact with the world, and most of those interactions take place either through the consumption of information as our senses perceive the world and through the communication of information (either synchronously or asynchronously) with others. Whether we’re looking at a bird sitting in a tree, discussing vacation plans with our significant other, writing a report for school or work, or listening to music,  much of what we do in the real world involves receiving, sending, storing, and retrieving information. As we denizens of the Digital Age know, information can be encoded into bits…and once that happens we’re in a whole new world.

The fundamental characteristic of the Big Shift we’re currently experiencing is that we all increasingly interact with bits rather than atoms. “Reality” is increasingly mediated through devices that encode information from the “real world” into the bits that make up the virtual one. Whenever we sit on a video call, watch a video on our phone, text with a friend, attend an online class, look up how to do something on Google, or shop online we’re entering a world where experience and communication are coming to us encoded as bits and then decoded by our eyes, ears, and our other senses. And when we reach out or respond, our words and images are undergoing the same transformation.

The move to digital has profound implications for how we experience the world as human beings, and not just because we can speak face-to-face with a coworker in another state or because now we can decide we want something and have Amazon deliver it to us in a few hours (depending, of course, on physical restraints such as our own proximity to a distribution center and whether or not what we want is warehoused there). These are just events: the most important implication is that when reality becomes digital, it becomes controllable.

Whether we’ve realized it or not, we’ve gotten a lot more control over our own individual realities during the past year or so. And this goes far beyond just being able to mute our coworkers or digitally change our video call backgrounds: when we can decide when we want to listen to something, watch something, or read something on our own schedules instead of having a schedule imposed on us, our experience with media changes profoundly. When we can change how we appear to others with a filter or maybe just a flattering camera angle, we not only change how the world experiences us, but how we experience the world through others. 

That’s the upside. The downside is that it’s now a lot easier for others to control how we experience reality. Social media algorithms that select what we see in our feeds create “echo chambers” where opinions become unbreakably entrenched. Search engines that tailor what we see when we search create “filter bubbles” that reinforce our own biases. Digitally manipulated photographs or programmatically-generated “deep fake” videos can deceive. Websites displaying the signifiers of what we learned to interpret as “credibility” can sow disinformation. Robot callers can fool us into answering phone calls we’d never pick up if we knew who they were from. Suggestion engines on streaming media or e-commerce sites can manipulate our tastes or influence us to purchase products we never would have bought if they hadn’t been thrust to the front of our searches or suggested as “popular” additions. Unscrupulous people who manage to get our login credentials, social security numbers, or credit card information can ruin our lives with just a few strings of letters or numbers.

Reality sure ain’t what it used to be.

Advancement in the Digital Age

As I pointed out a lot earlier in this post, the move from atoms to bits has been in the works for a while now, but the pandemic forced the issue, dragging nearly everyone into the new reality of the digital world. And while some might yearn for what was before, there’s no going back. Like it or not, the Big Shift has happened. 

Peter Toran made a good case for why the “fundamentals” of fundraising haven’t changed and, in some sense, they haven’t. Urgency still drives action. Personalization creates connections. Simplicity creates clarity and clarity reduces friction. If people feel that an imminent need to help an organization they feel connected to and are given an easy-to-understand path to provide help and an easy-to-understand reason why they should help, they’ll give. 

However, if we pull back and are honest with how these elements are expressed in appeals to donors, we have to admit that what they’re really all about is creating a reality that compels a donor to give. But don’t get me wrong: “creating a reality” doesn’t mean being dishonest. It can mean lying if the urgency is artificial, the personalized appeal untrue, and if the clarity of the appeal is a result of eliding or dishonest and selective disclosure. All those things may work, but, especially in these days of supercharged word of mouth driven by social media, they’re ultimately self-defeating if your goal is to build relationships for the long term. If that’s your goal — and I’m sure that it is– the truth is the best way to go.

These core elements still make a lot of sense, the changes that have occurred as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have changed the definitions of these core principles and the practicalities of how they need to be addressed in your post-COVID fundraising efforts. But the good news is that the changes present new opportunities, too. Here are some principles to keep in mind as you move your practice into the “new normal.”

  • The “I” in “individual” is more important than ever.  One of the main side effects of our newfound abilities to have so much control over how we experience reality is that we get used to it. The reason that jokes about only having to worry about what you’re wearing above the waist when on a video call is because it’s true: we might be in pajama bottoms, but on top, we can be all business and nobody will ever know. After a year and a half of physical isolation coupled with being the gatekeepers of our own reality to an extent many of us have never experienced before has created an inward focus that isn’t likely to go away soon. In this atmosphere, “personalization” can’t come from a mail merge. Your donors are going to expect that you understand them and their individual needs and preferences far more intimately than in the past. 
  • Experience enhances evidence. Today, people have unprecedented access to information. But, as we’ve seen so starkly in the political arena, just because people have access to the “facts” doesn’t mean that they’re going to pay any attention to them. In fact, if anything, information overload has shortened attention spans more than ever (and made people more suspicious). If you want your donors to understand, think of ways to turn the evidence of your impact into experiences. Give them tools to visualize your data. Use the internet to connect them with who their donations will benefit. Let them experience what their donation could do through videos, images, and social network connections. “Reality” might not be what it was, but making it real has never been more important.
  • Activate, nurture, and empower your networks. Guess what? Your donors are online. All of them! And they’re talking to each other…or wish they were. Yes, this can mean taking a new look at  “crowdfunding” platforms, but it can also mean working to connect donors and prospects together using social media or through your website and then working with those groups to facilitate their natural urge to advocate for organizations they care about…like yours. Provide them with digital materials they can send to interested friends who may not know your organization and maybe even make yourself (or someone from your staff) available to answer questions or interact with the group at online events or even a “ask me anything” thread. Reaching out to communities of interest with a connection to your organization, encourage them to help, and give them the tools to do so can be a major force multiplier.
  • Facilitate focus. While you have to think about your organization as a whole, chances are your donors and potential donors don’t. Instead, they think about the part that they relate to first, with the organization as a whole as sometimes a vague afterthought. Donors want to feel that they’re having an impact, and what they most want to impact is the part of the organization they care about the most. While this kind of focus is difficult to support in the “real world” where putting on an event for donors interested in one small part of your organization can be a logistical (and financial) nightmare, hosting a chat with a curator who focuses on one specific area, a department chair, or a highly-specialized researcher online is relatively easy to pull off. Similarly, while creating print publications or mailers for one small interest group is rarely financially prudent, modifying an electronic brochure or fact sheet to address donors with a specific interest isn’t very expensive (or hard).
  • Expect access. The Big Shift to digital has made time and spaceless important to people than ever. This doesn’t mean that they’re going to think they can travel back in time, but when Presidents communicate via tweets and major celebrities show us intimate details of their lives through their Instagram stories expectations about access are bound to change. You don’t have to give out your Executive Director’s cellphone number, but people expect that they’re going to be heard when they reach out online. Providing access through “donors-only” Q&A sessions, Twitter feeds, or even live events can help satisfy that need (and expectation) for access.
  • Transparency is mandatory. Just as people now expect more access than ever before, they expect transparency, too. This applies to everything from prompt and informative updates during crisis situations to major announcements. Besides, if you don’t craft the official story, these days you can be pretty sure that someone out there is crafting the unofficial one.
  • Let go. This might be one of the most important things you need to do…and one of the hardest. In a connected world, thinking that it’s possible to “control the message” or have complete control over your brand is foolish. You can’t: people who care about you (and people who oppose your organization) are already talking to each other online. Collaborating with your constituents who care is going to be a lot more effective than trying to “police” your brand.

As we inch closer to “herd immunity” and an end to the pandemic, it’s tempting to think that we will go back to the way things were. Here’s a tip: we won’t. The world has changed, and while someday soon people will be going back to their offices and children will once again be heading off to school in the morning, none of us will ever be the same. But while nobody knows what the “new normal” will look like, it’s safe to say that much of what we all knew and loved will remain but also that much will change. In many ways no major historical transition is ever “over” but rather adds yet another layer to what we call “reality.”

This time reality’s just a bit more slippery than what it was in the past.

Sean Carton
VP of Growth + Innovation
Sean Carton
VP of Growth + Innovation

Sean leads our Discover360 engagements, gathering data and research to develop the insights necessary for crafting effective strategies for our clients. He has a perfectly varied background for our higher education and nonprofit partners: He’s served as everything from a dean to an adjunct professor to the co-director of a high school cybersecurity summer camp to the leader of a university 3D printing lab. Sean also has an uncanny talent for creating the perfect meme faster than you can search for one.