How we could radically transform ‘charity’ by leveraging digital technology, design-led product development and modern marketing techniques.
The world we live in is changing at an ever-increasing pace.
Many legacy companies are now being shaken by the incredible rate of change and the opportunities being unlocked every day. As a result, we see them investing vast resources on what they call: a ‘digital transformation’; an attempt to draw inspiration from tech companies and re-engineer themselves for the 21st century.
Companies have realised that in order not only to succeed, but indeed to survive, you have to continuously reinvent yourself.
In the same way, I strongly believe that non-profit organisations(NGOs) have A LOT to learn from modern day tech companies. Tech companies are, by definition, at the zenith of progress in most aspects of business: growth optimisation, digital marketing, technological innovation, business development, utilisation of data; the list goes on and on.
Below, we list some parallels that can be drawn between tech startups and non-profits along with some examples and ideas of how those could be practically implemented in NGOs. Those are separated into 5 main sections, each split down to tactics:
Capitalism, in essence, is a loop of finding human needs, satisfying them and using money as the means of exchange of that value. You should be able to observe that capitalism started by catering to the lower-level human needs. Food, goods, shelter, safety, transportation, communication etc. As society progresses, those ‘basic’ needs become more more commoditised. So capitalism is having to progressively start catering to our higher needs.
In my opinion, in a long enough timeframe, when everybody will have access to the basics, consumers will start looking for ways to satisfy those needs and catering to those needs (+ creating artificial ones) is exactly what capitalism is all about.
Service to a meaningful cause is at the peak of those needs. Charity can hence fill-up a void that very few ‘products’ out there can.
I believe that if done ‘right’ and given enough time, charity could go from an afterthought to one of the core things we do as humans. And by charity, we don’t just mean money donations but any type of activity that focuses on giving to other human beings. That could be anything from mentoring young people and teaching computer skills to seniors to baking a chocolate cake for the local bake sale.
People talk the language of emotions much better than they speak the language of numbers. In tech, the common way of pitching a product to a potential customer is to make them visualise the future state.
People are moved by the difference they are making to a real human being much more than how much they moved the needle on a metric and as an extend, how this will make them feel. Instead of pitching how many wells one can build with $1000, we need to talk the human language of how many young will now be able to attend school, how many collective hours is the hour saving that they can spend with their families and so on.
Instead of thinking of NGOs as ‘good banks’, we should rethink them as emotional inductors. The providers of the connection between the person that wants to help and the person that could be helped.
If you pull apart modern tech products, you will find that at the core of their design and marketing are some or all of R. Cialdini’s 6 principles of persuasion:
- Authority → I do this because somebody I respect or admire is doing so or advices me to do so.
- Liking → I do this because I love the brand, the people or the cause.
- Reciprocity → You did something for me, I would love to do something for you.
- Scarcity → This is a rare opportunity, I should take advantage of it while it lasts.
- Consistency → I do this because I committed to this or I have been doing this for so long that I don’t want to break the chain.
- Consensus → If most people do it, then it should be good, I want to be part of the movement.
In the same way, NGOs could unpack these one-by-one and seek to examine how they could make their message resonate with more with people.
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Motivating people by pitching how beautiful giving feels might work on the mature of us but most definitely not the majority. If the objective is to open up charity to the majority and not isolate it to the emotionally mature and wealthy, then NGOs need to consider catering to the needs(motivations) of that majority. This is a major rebranding effort as well a product-driven effort.
A sense of belonging is one of man’s biggest needs. We have communities built around hobbies, common interests, careers, religion etc. Why not have communities built around service? We could enforce a sense of community in many ways, some ideas inspired by common practices in tech might be:
- Engagement and interaction with the brand through social media.
- Facebook/Reddit/Slack/Telegram Groups.
- Physical meet-ups and other PR events.
- Email Newsletter.
- Impact/Influence: Active Participation in the governance.
Words such as: ‘charity’, ‘NGO’ and ‘donation’ tend to trigger a negative emotion in people. This is caused, I believe, due to years of forceful marketing tactics that emphasised suffering over the joy of contribution and guilt over the exciting futures that charity could enable.
In a similar fashion, the tech world went through a ‘spam’ epidemic where short-sighted companies did not appreciate the value of the interaction whether that was an email or an ad. They later understood how motivation and persuasion works and altered their ways; and with that, the perception of the public of marketing being an interaction instead of a transaction.
Although through the work of great non-profit organisations, the pendulum started swinging the other way, we need to enforce this effort of rebranding charity. Donations should be warm fuzzy interactions filling us with hope, joy and excitement; not pushy transactions. It will take time, but it is paramount.
In a world of abundance of content and noise, attention has become one of the most precious resources for companies. The reward of content-marketing done well is a powerful recognisable brand with a clear voice and values.
Tech companies started using content marketing more and more as it is one of the most effective (yet hard to measure) and authentic marketing strategies out there. They do so by producing valuable content such as: useful blogs, mini-tools, videos, podcasts and so on.
Trust & Transparency
The most common reason most of my friends cannot be bothered to give to charity is trust.
Transparency would be a tactic used to start (re)building that trust. Making data widely available, opening up the accounting books to reveal costs and how donations are used cent by cent.
Organisations such as charity: water as well as Pencils of Promise donate 100% of proceeds to the cause. 0% is allocated to overheads*. Instead those are covered by separate donors. Such a promise allows for 0 space for donors to doubt if their donations are making a difference or going in somebody else’s pocket. *sometimes payment processing fees.
Charities have traditionally utilised mediums such as physical letters, street volunteers, TV advertisements and physical events. Though there definitely is a place for such initiatives, leveraging the digital world like tech startups do, can be as and potentially many times more impactful. A single Tweet could reach more people in 10 minutes than a team of 10 volunteers could reach in a month in the streets of London.
Digital communication can happen over 3 mediums. Static text + images, audio & video. Leveraging the richer forms of communication can make a world of a difference. What one could relay with a 30-second clip, you would need a 30 page essay to convey. That is why we see Kickstarter campaigns requiring a video pitch, why there is an increased CTR for video content and well as increased engagement.
This is especially true for non-profits. whose value proposition relies heavily on emotion. Quality photography & videography are an important part of the mix. Put the right audio track over the right video footage and boom; you have something that can move people and change the lives of thousands.
Social Media platforms can become the means of distributing the powerful content we discussed above.
People often underestimate the nuance of every platform. The posts, interactions and norms of Reddit have nothing to do with the code of conduct at Twitter nor the kind of people that hang out in Facebook Groups. It takes a skilled social media marketing manager to be able to pick the ‘right’ content and post it on the ‘right’ platform. Such people are highly prized talent in Silicon Valley and so should they be in the non-profit world.
Some people don’t like the word ‘influencer’ but it is undeniable that it is effective. The way I think about it is that: word of mouth is extremely effective in getting people interested in a product/service/cause. If that word of mouth comes from somebody you admire or respect, then that recommendation has a multiplier attached to it.
Making ‘Charity’ cool
Buying a good car is borderline showoff nowadays but saying you have donated money is undeniably considered show off.
If nobody knows people are doing it, how are they supposed to mimic them. If they don't know it is a cool, hip thing to do, they would probably not do it on their own.
Influencer Marketing, I believe, is word of mouth on steroids.
Influencers don’t have to be individuals. They can be newsletters, podcast shows, YouTube channels and so on…
Many modern brands have built empires by utilising this strategy of leveraging social media influencers with some only relying on that + paid social media advertising.
NGOs doing that with influencers can be powerful since supporting a cause can reflect in a positive way on the influencer whilst sponsored ads, is by definition, not good. Collaborations of this nature are not a one-way transaction. If the NGO itself has a large enough audience, they can indeed be mutually-beneficial since not only the NGO gets some attention but also the influencer gets as much attention by the NGO‘s audience.
There can be many creative ideas to leverage influencers. A ‘sponsored’ post or shoutout is just one of them. NGOs can simply ask them to add a sticker on their laptop, they could invite them to humanitarian trips that the influencers can record and share with their audience, they can create shared campaigns in which the influencer matches whatever the audience donates, a collaboration video, a social account takeover, a ‘charity awareness’ week… The possibilities are endless and extremely exciting!
The Power of Storytelling
The value of storytelling has become obvious in the last years. Tech brands utilise the power of storytelling in every marketing domain to transform words into engaging narratives and stimulate emotions.
Storytelling not only creates resonance with the organisation’s mission but makes the interaction with the brand engaging. Create a narrative and invite the audience to share and become part of the story.
Tech companies are known to be using numerous dark patterns in order to pump growth up and up in the hopes of a higher and higher valuation under the pressure of investors. Growth often happens in the sacrifice of profit. This is evident by simply observing all the tech companies that are ready to IPO at the moment: UBER, Airbnb, Lyft.. Millions in losses; as they use every last penny to pull those growth levers to the max in search of monopoly.
Nevertheless, this never-ending discussion of growth vs profits that exists in modern-day startup circles does not apply on non-profits by definition. Growth IS the objective. It is a healthy indication of impact.
Non-profits are hence the only way to do ‘ethical growth hacking’.
The ‘Growth Hacker’ way
How do startups optimise for growth? Well; it depends on how one describes growth of course. Is it the number of visits, the number of sign-ups, the number of paid customers? But essentially optimising growth, is to optimise conversion from one step of the marketing funnel to the other. There is no deterministic way of doing that. The only way is through controlled experimentation with what is referred to as ‘growth levers’.
Essentially what that means is that:
1. A strategic choice is made as to which % conversion we are trying to increase. For example we want more people to click on our CTA (ex. the ‘DONATE’ button).
2. An educated assumption is taken in the form of: “We believe that if we move the button above-the-fold and increase its size by 50%, this would increase the % conversion”
3. Using a method such as A/B Testing this version(variant) of the homepage is tested against the previous version of the site. For both scenarios, we record data such as the CTR (click-through-rate) which is then used to calculate the % conversion for each variant.
4. When the test was done on a sample size of enough size and variety for a long-enough period of testing, the results are compared and the version which yields the best results goes live.
Of course this is a simplified approach. This is repeated for many stages along the funnel on different user segments (demographics, source, browsing history etc.) on different geographies. So essentially depending on where you are and who you are, you would be served a page that is optimised to make sure you click the DONATE button.
Why does the tech world keep so much data about us; our browsing history, cookies, purchasing history, social posts, location history? Because the more they know about us and our spending patterns the more they can cater to our specific needs, biases and situation through hyper-personalisation. Spotify recommends us new music, Facebook shows us relevant ads, Amazon suggests us new products before we even know we need them, eComm websites send us tailored promotions and so on.
I am not suggesting that NGOs should start playing this exact game, but I would like to emphasize that tech has recognised that if they want to optimise for growth, they need to personalise their offering per user segment and there is definite value of that. It is foolish to think that every donor is the same.
Everything in the tech world is a subscription today. I have counted and have 17 active monthly subscriptions to various products or services. Netflix, Spotify, Amazon Prime, Wine, Airtable, iCloud, Medium… Even my frequent tech stock and crypto investments are automated. Subscriptions are a revenue model that offers a reliable income-stream that allows companies to focus on the future instead of the present.
I believe that NGOs should double down on subscription-based donations.
This of course won’t replace one-off donations. It also is not a new model. But I believe that it is something that NGOs should focus on nailing because they should have the ability to focus more on the people/cause they are serving and less on worrying if they will have enough $ to pay the bills next month.
3rd Party Integrations
While the idea of building an app for a charitable foundation to enable supporters to donate and interact with the NGO is not impossible, the effectiveness of an integration with other products that people engage with daily already would be much more effective I believe.
Imagine: instead of an uphill battle of finding people and making them subscribe for monthly donations through the organisation’s website, NGOs could piggy-back on existing subscriptions…
Here are some examples:
Revolut: The fintech startup has a functionality called Vaults. Every transaction done through a Revolut card gets rounded up and the difference gets put in a Vault as savings. Imagine if that amount went straight into a Donation Vault instead. This can be a vault dedicated to a single or a a certain breakdown to a combinations of NGOs.
In the same way; one can automate standing orders in seconds through apps like Revolut, Monzo & N26. An integration could make it extremely easy to search and setup a monthly donation with any supported partner-NGO.
Robin Hood/Vanguard: In the same way NGOs could collaborate with investment apps. The users of these apps are people that by definition have money to spare and are putting them aside in investments. The platforms could enable users to automate a donation per month, give a % of every transaction to charity or allocate dividend payouts to charity.
Netflix/Hulu/Amazon Prime Video/YouTube Premium: NGOs have a wealth of video content. What if they utilised that to create original documentary content and make it available through these subscription video services. If you watch it; you add 1$ to that months subscription OR you can subscribe to monthly documentaries by adding 5$ to your monthly sub.
Utility Providers: What if we could partner with utility providers to spend X% of the electricity bill to installing generators in Ethiopia or Y% of the water bill for providing clean water in a district in Ghana.
We talked about Trust being the #1 factor, in my experience of talking with friends, that stops people from participating in charitable work. The #2 obstacle in participating is convenience. Convenience can be improved by using a design-led approach. Methods like user journey mapping and JTBD, typically used in UX, could significantly enhance the experience of giving.
Without wanting to reduce the magic of the word; ‘charity’ could be packaged and productised in such a way that it becomes frictionless to do and a core part of our lives and our wellbeing. Some other product ideas:
The most successful for-profit companies out there are companies who don’t only capture ephemeral demand but lifetime loyal customers. They do so by creating a brand that resonates with the personal brand of the consumers.
I believe that corporate social responsibility initiatives(CSR) will become an increasingly important part of brand identity for non-profits. Patagonia is an outstanding example of a company that not only does their bit to make this world a better place but have positioned this fact at the very core of their brand identity.
While indeed most companies can and should run those initiatives internally, there is space for NGOs to come in as collaborators to help brands enforce that -softer- part of their brand. Some examples of brands x NGO collaboration could be running common marketing campaigns, cross-promotion, product integration and so on.
Talking with a couple of my 20 something year old friends, the most attractive ways they would like to be involved in, always have some other value-prop wrapped with charity:
- Charity x Career. Enable them to use their expertise (data analysis, design etc) via mini projects that serve a cause. Open up design, engineering, business development internships, enable them to tech the skills they have to others. This expands their abilities while at the same time advances their career.
- Charity x Experience. Younger people are all about experiences and less and less about goods. Imagine a Kickstarter-like version of charity donations where above a certain point, you get little rewards for your donation. Not necessarily materialistic ones like the usual pens and calendars but maybe you could get a chance to travel to see the family you have been supporting for the past X years, or above a donation of X you could get your name in a draw that would fly you to Ghana to meet the local community you just funded or if you have been a donor for the past X years, you are invited to fundraising or brainstorming events only available for the most loyal donors of the cause.
- Charity x Personal Brand. We are status-seeking-monkeys. Not due to our modern culture necessarily but indeed through evolution. Even if a tiny subset of us has managed to transcend that, the majority still bare about recognition and being seen and appreciated. Charity work is a strong signal of character. Whilst NGOs would not and arguable should not want to participate in these status games, it is important to identify that it is a powerful lever in moving people.
Data Driven Decision Making
You know what they say: If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.
Tech Startups are notorious for their usage of data. Decisions are increasingly taken on the basis of data analysis instead of human intuition. From micro-copy changes to tiny changes in a shade of blue.
No matter how many experience product managers and industry experts an organisation has at its disposal, it is foolish to think that they can predict how the market is going to react to every action of the organisation.
While we need to be able to have a good judgement, data-informed decisions are arguably the fuel that catapulted all the major tech companies to where they are today. It is important for NGOs to make sure that they capture all this data even if they cannot take advantage of it at the moment.
Products in tech are shipped iteratively. Product development is essentially a cycle of identifying value that can be added or a customer struggle to be solved → adding a minimum viable version of a solution to that → capturing quantitative(metrics) and qualitative(customer feedback) data as to how ‘successful’ that feature addition is → optimise → repeat.
This iterative approach has yielded every single big tech company of the last decade. Today’s world is changing at a rapid pace so making rigid plans instead of being agile can kill a company. This experimental, data-driven mindset is something NGOs should start adopting. Take an assumption → test it out → evaluate → tweak → repeat.
The Charity App
Everybody has an app nowadays. What if there was a single decentralised app that one could use to manage their donations and charitable activities for every NGO around the world. An aggregator just like booking.com is for hotels or Skyscanner is for flights. This could be a collective effort between NGOs. Such an app could have functionality such as:
- Discovering new causes and NGOs to contribute to.
- Setting up frequent donations for your favourite NGOs.
- Visualise the impact of donations.
- Removing the choice paralysis caused by the unlimited choice of NGOs out there by instead prompting donors to pick the causes (animal welfare, education, women’s rights etc.) that are closest to their heart and the allocation is done automatically.
- Enabling users to participate in decision making for the allocation of funds potentially through a gamified experience.
- Allowing users to interact with one another and the NGOs to create a sense of community.
- Monitoring the progress of the impact of your donation through frequent updates.
- Getting rewards for contribution.
- Receiving notifications of events and volunteering opportunities.
It is undeniable that the world of charity has a lot to learn from the tech world. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, we should stand on the shoulders of giants and with that, maximise the possible impact we can have on this planet.🌍
📝Why Non-Profits need influencers to Grow | Kristi Porter
📖Tipping Point | Malcom Gladwell
🏢Patagonia, charity: water, Pencils of Promise, Hot Bread Kitchen, Wishbone, Braven
🎙️Scott Harrison x Rich Ross Podcast
📹Helping others makes us happier; but it matters how| Elizabeth Dunn
📝Status as a Service | Eugene Wei