New Rules of Engagement | npENGAGE

New Rules of Engagement

By on Dec 27, 2011


We are, each and every one of us, consumers. We buy things – products, services, insurance, etc. And every time we make a purchase, we compare our experience to other similar experiences in our life – both consciously and subconsciously. Was my experience at the bank better than my experience at the grocery store? I really like the way my insurance agent lets me know what’s going on with my policy; I sure wish my credit card company would do something similar. We have a myriad of interaction channels to choose from when engaging with company x, y or z – online, direct mail, email, text, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Every interaction a company has with us – good and bad — can be publicly scrutinized and publicly broadcast, creating whole new levels of accountability in a new digital world. But are the rules any different for nonprofits?

To put it simply, no. As a matter of fact the evolution of the digital world and the growth in multi-channel engagement requires nonprofits to be even more focused on the experience than ever before (and likely even more than their for-profit counterparts). Behavior drives response. When people donate to a cause, volunteer for a charity or advocate on a nonprofit’s behalf, they do so because the mission and the story resonate with a part of their soul. It’s personal. It goes beyond buying a widget or paying a monthly electric bill. People want to feel connected to a cause in which they believe, they want to feel a part of something bigger than themselves, which creates an entirely different set of expectations when simply buying a new TV set (although we all still want to be made to feel like we are human beings even when filling the tank with gas).

So, what should I focus on if I’m a nonprofit?

For the most part, what holds true in the for-profit sector carries over to the nonprofit sector as well – a seamless, integrated engagement experience that feels as though it has been personalized for me. Organizations that do this well are:, Hilton Hotels and Southwest Airlines. Nonprofits could learn quite a bit from these organizations in terms of these new rules of engagement that boil down to:

  • Know Thy Constituent. You know me. You know my preferences and make the experience feel unique to me.
  • Value. Value is critical. Where is my money going? How is it being used? What are some of the projects that are taking place that might be of importance to me?
  • Integrated Interaction. Call it integrated. Call it multi-channel. The premise is all the same. In the nonprofit sector, direct mail has been the “tried and true” approach to fundraising for the past umpteen years. Direct mail is still the fundraising bread and butter for the nonprofit world. But online is now the fastest growing fundraising channel, growing at approximately 40 percent year-over-year. Mobile and social media are starting to get their sea legs as well. It’s absolutely essential that nonprofits adopt an integrated strategy to engage with their constituents and be able to consistently tell their story across multiple channels. And recognize that not everyone wants a piece of mail (or an email or a text message).

That’s all well and good, but how do I get there from a practical perspective? Glad you asked. Nonprofits that have any degree of success in creating a unique and memorable experience for the constituent base they engage have spent time, energy and money implementing the right technologies and understanding the right processes that pay significant dividends at the end of the day.

  • Database. The database is such a key/core component for any nonprofit. And there is a piece of it that is unique to the nonprofit sector. For-profit companies know their customers, track their customers and sell to their customers – by and large, a single constituency they serve. For nonprofits, there are two constituent bases with differing needs – those who donate money, volunteer and advocate on behalf of the organization, and those who receive the benefits of the services being offered by the nonprofit (for example, AIDS victims). Two very different sets of “customers” that need to be engaged differently. To be most successful, having a single database that can track ALL interactions – online, offline, etc., will remove internal silos and help create a unique experience for people that engage with an organization.
  • Business Intelligence Tools and Processes. Ok, we have this great database, now what do we do with all this information? Analytics and the ability to “view” and report on the data in your database is essential. Does this individual donor live in a household with a spouse? What is their preferred method of contact? Have they both contributed individually to the organization? Knowing this type of information and showing the donor you care enough about them to recognize their personal preferences creates a unique and authentic connection that engenders trust.
  • Lifetime Value. The ultimate goal for any nonprofit is to be able to extend or improve the lifetime value of any donor, volunteer or advocate. Receiving a one-off donation is certainly welcome and appreciated, but creating a lasting relationship with a donor can lead to a rewarding and fulfilling experience for both donor and organization.

That’s a tremendous amount to absorb in very short article, but the reality is the world has changed for nonprofits. There is a greater need to create a unique and personal interaction in a world in which there are multiple distractions and multiple communication channels. We are all seeking a positive experience we can remember, and the more nonprofits embrace this brave, new world – the more successful they will be.

This post originally appeared as an article in 1:1 Magazine.


Dennis McCarthy, Director of Enterprise Sales at Target Analytics a Blackbaud company, has been serving nonprofits for more than 30 years in the design and implementation of integrated marketing solutions; and building and managing technology solutions for some of America’s largest and most complex nonprofit organizations. Prior to joining the Blackbaud team, Dennis managed Convio’s strategic services practice, comprised of consultants in business analytics, design and information architecture, Deployment Services and Agency Services. Prior to Convio, he worked at Epsilon as a general manager and deployed a successful custom CRM solution for a national health care organization with over 50 affiliates. He is married and has a great son who is a senior in college.

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