During our recent Signals workshop—an interactive learning session centering around the future of leadership and learning—one participant spent an unusually long time playtesting the Microsoft HoloLens.
Five minutes went by. Then 10 minutes. Even after 15 minutes he continued to pace the room, murmuring voice commands, gesturing with his fingers, as if to explore every nuance of the mixed reality experience.
When he was done, he took off the headset.
“Well,” he said, “that is a game changer.”
The participant is the founder of an owner’s representation organization that has a nonprofit practice. When we asked him to say more, he described a typical scenario:
“Imagine that you’re a major donor to a school, and the head of school has just pitched you on a new building project. Maybe the idea sounds great. Maybe the architect’s sketches are beautiful. But what if you could put on a device like this and walk inside and around the space in its earliest design phase? This can totally change the way donors imagine their impact.”
The philanthropic landscape is evolving faster than ever. Exponential technologies, like virtual reality, are poised to disrupt old patterns of giving. While many of fundraising’s golden rules still apply, new paradigms of philanthropic engagement are emerging. As exponential technologies accelerate those changes, how should chief executives and fundraisers think of philanthropic innovations?
Paradoxically, we believe that nonprofit leaders must slow down to ask the right questions, as Warren Berger counsels in the essential business book “A More Beautiful Question.” For example:
• How might we understand innovation through the lens of mission – our organization’s deep purpose for existence?
• How might exponential technologies play a role in those innovation efforts?
Today’s donors, sophisticated and conversant with technology, will want to know that you are asking big and bold questions about how to catalyze greater impact through exponential technologies.
Note how different this is from saying that donors expect you to have the right answers to those questions.
In fact, as evidence of another paradigm shift in philanthropy, we are witnessing fewer donors making “gifts” in response to an organization’s answers, and more donors making “investments” because of an opportunity to help answer questions about mission-driven innovation.
The participant was reacting to that kind of opportunity when he playtested the HoloLens. He wasn’t thinking about asking donors to experience the final product; he was imagining that they could enter a first draft simulation. Then, through that immersive experience, they could help to co-create the next iterations of the project.
It is easy to understand why the participant sees mixed reality as a game changer: technology allows today’s donor access to new information and new experiences.
But what has not changed? The “golden rules” of fundraising.
First, philanthropy remains both personal and interpersonal. It still involves individual engagement with a cause, and connections between individuals and institutions. Second, asking the right questions and leaning on mission and vision must inform how we build a case for support and how we communicate urgent priorities.
Third, the most influential cases for support use storytelling to convey a unique philanthropic value proposition.
Exponential technology can help nonprofits to augment (rather than replace) these classical philanthropic strategies – but only if nonprofit leaders ask the right questions, such as:
• How might exponential technologies more deeply engage donors with our cause?
• How might exponential technologies help to amplify our case for support?
• How might exponential technologies allow a donor to “co-dream” a story with us about an optimistic future?
In an age of accelerating change, when exponential technologies can be “game changers,” it you may be tempted to rush to purchase the latest device or to copy a competitor.
We would counsel you to embrace the paradox of slowing down to ask the right questions about how your organization’s mission informs innovation. We guarantee that you will find that you are far better equipped to play this new game of philanthropic impact than you might think.
This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Business Journal.
About the Authors
Christian Talbot founded Basecamp after completing five years as Head of School at Malvern Prep (PA), preceded by fourteen years as an English teacher at Regis High School (NY). He has shared his experiences in change management, strategic planning, and social entrepreneurship at conferences such as NAIS, CASE-NAIS, TABS-NAIS, Tempus, and Traverse.
Greg Hagin is a CCS Partner who provides executive leadership, strategic thinking, and philanthropic advice to the nonprofit sector and social impact space. He has designed, advised, and directed more than 100 capital campaigns and resource development initiatives that have collectively raised over $10 billion, positively impacting tens of millions of lives.