NEW IDEAS: Never ending story – postmodern storytelling for postmodern donors

Common wisdom in fundraising is that you need to use ‘storytelling’ to connect donors to causes. But, asks Ashley Scott, are fundraisers talking in the right language to a generation that is fluent in postmodern storytelling techniques?

Did you, two summers ago, pour an iced bucket of water over your head for charity because someone you know on social media dared you to? Did you then go on to make a donation to the charity behind the challenge? Whether you did or did not, did you feel like you were supporting the charity by uploading your video? Did you feel that you were contributing to the success of the campaign?

In his September 2016 Rogare blog, Rogare’s director Ian MacQuillin makes the compelling case that donors are not consumers in a conventional sense. Philanthropic giving is such a qualitatively different transaction that the regulatory framers of non-profit fundraising should not take their lead from commercial vending and customer service statutory frameworks. Voluntary gifts are not bi-lateral transactions where the donor acquires a product. Rather, a gift effects a transfer that goes three ways – with the agency acting to make the transfer meaningful to the donor by interpreting the beneficiary impact of the gift into a warm glow or sense of achievement.

This resonates with another corpus of work out of the Rogare research partnership stable on relationship fundraising that adds substance to what actually makes for a warm glow. The focus on social psychology provides vital insights into how values of satisfaction, commitment and emotional (and financial) investment inhere in the transfer model, and how they are conducive in meeting donors’ need for relationship.

From the perspective of social psychology, ‘transaction’ and ‘transfer’ describe quite different categories for understanding how people make meaning.

About mid-way through the blog, referring to the ALS ice-bucket challenge, MacQuillin throws in a parenthetical question that provides an entry point for thinking about donor motivation and meaning making:

‘Did those people who took part in the Ice Bucket Challenge and then donated (so excluding those who took part but made no donation)(my emphasis) really “acquire, use and dispose” of the commodified experience of doing so?’

Did those taking part in the Ice Bucket Challenge consume meaning from it, or did they produce their own meaning?

So, what is happening when people take part but make no donation?

Digital provides an abundance of analytics to demonstrate post-hoc analysis of donor behaviour. However, there is scant research that would help us begin to properly answer the question. A paper out of John Hopkins University in the States is a notable exception. The research tracks peer-to-peer interaction and the incidence of on-line giving. In concluding that viral campaigns are more correlated with homophily (‘people like us’) than social contagion, the key statistic shows only 30 gifts generated from reaching 6.4 million people.

Performance and psychological risk

When I did my marketing training (just before the advent of the internet), we were taught that a decision to consume was based on the estimate of two kinds of risk:

  • performance risk – will the product function as promoted and solve my problem
  • psychological risk – how will this product make me look in respect to my peers or social.

And there are plenty of examples of how the psychological risk has changed over the years. There was a day when being seen smoking the right brand was the epitome of cool, whereas today even electronic cigarette smokers look furtive.

Because consumerism is the dominant narrative in our culture, I am arguing that whether under transaction or transfer, analogue or digital, people seek to mitigate performance and psychological risk when they make a purchase or a donation. For now I am asserting that through measurement and evaluations (M&E) and impact reporting, charities have got performance risk covered in the transfer model.

I want to say that those who took part or shared on-line and made no donation did consume the Ice Bucket Challenge because they satisfied their psychological risk. And amid all the debate, there is some UK data about the fractions that actually donated.

Extrapolate from the exemplary Ice Bucket Challenge to ubiquitous peer-to-peer social media fundraising activity and you have a context where psychological transfer can be made but unaccompanied by regularly giving. The Hopkins research suggests the facility to give anonymously online further reduces the psychological risk, because who is going to know among your peers whether you gave or not?

The postmodern context

Postmodernity is the predominant cultural form in the global North and growing everywhere with the mega-trends of urbanisation and the internet. Postmodernity is not a theory, but filters that people draw on to make sense of an ever more complex and pluralistic world.

Philosophically grounded in the early 20th century, postmodernity takes root in the liberal arts academy as a critique of a failed modernity and the scientific method – it exposes the myth of human progress. Postmodernity does away with big stories and truth claims – everything is relative; institutions are mistrusted and no longer seen as sources of authority. Today postmodernism is the hallmark of all marketing disciplines and focussed on personalised, consumer choices. Postmodern relativism and consumerism has the effect of recalibrating ‘who controls’ to the extent that peer-to-peer and virtual relationships are genuinely empowered.

I want to propose four features of this postmodern, digital context that help explain why the ‘taking part but not giving’ phenomenon exists and why fundraisers should think it through.

1. The death of narrative

Fundraisers love to tell a good story. A story about the beneficiary and about the need and about how their agency is uniquely positioned to solve the problem. And it’s normally a story that takes time.

But postmodern people are not interested in time – especially a long time. US media theorist Douglas Rushkoff in his excellent commentary on digital culture – Present Shock: Why Everything Happens Now – charts the evolution of now-ism in postmodernity that calls people to live perpetually in the present; to experience the moment and not be concerned for the consequences.

He coins the term Digiphrenia – the condition where you feel you can be almost in two places at once, or at least on several screens simultaneously. It signifies ‘not so much that digital technology changes us but how we change ourselves and one another as we live … digitally’.

In sum, postmodern people are pre-occupied with the lateral journey now – measured in terms of the virality and reach of digital comms – rather than the longitudinal journey over time.

The challenge to the fundraiser, as Rushkoff puts it, is how to create a “narrative sense without the luxury of narrative time?”.

2. The rise of the ‘prodonor’

We live in the day of the prosumera concatenation of the words ‘professional’ and ‘consumer’, or ‘producer’ and ‘consumer’ – and its non-profit counterpart the prodonor.

The Super Bowl advertisement, the high altar of consumerism, epitomises the cultural shift. On one hand a 30-second, $5m ad tells a traditional, linear story catering for both performance and psychological risk. The viewer is introduced to a character and there is a problem that needs solving; a crisis creates a tension; the resolution is the purchase of a good or service, and for the viewer catharsis.

But in postmodern storytelling the prosumer/prodonor has licence to find their own way out of the story; not just an alternate ending but any solution you want that is not a purchase. Indeed, a Super Bowl ad these days is more significant for the volume of social media engagement it generates. The ad is deconstructed to within a digit of its life by millions of prosumers who know precisely what the brand is doing. And the brands don’t mind because there is no such thing as ‘bad deconstruction’.

The prodonor exhibits the same kind of cynical knowingness about charity communications tempered, perhaps, by realism about the kinds of content that has to transmit down a channel to get a message across.

Incidentally, one of the current features of the code of conduct debate is to not make someone feel guilty which is, of course, sound. But the postmodern prodonor already has all the options at their disposal to allay any guilt anxiety – put the mailshot in the bin, pause the video, click off the page. Add in a soupçon of narcissism and any sense of shame about rejecting your offer is even more muted.

Prodonors know they can take part and make a gift or not before you ever get to the ask.

3. Post-truth

Brexit and Trump analysis has brought the terms post-factual and post-truth into the foreground. But these terms are inherent in the postmodern critique of relativism. What counts as truth is what I genuinely believe and, importantly, who believes with me and is prepared to act on that basis.

By behaving in ways that are supportive of a charity by liking and sharing and commenting and getting my peers to do the same, you could feel very much like a donor feels. And, because fundraisers are not about to lay a guilt trip on people who engage but don’t give, when you get the e-newsletter saying ‘thanks to supporters like you we have been able to …’ (performance risk solved) the ‘truth’ of your support is confirmed.

4. Inbound marketing

The term ‘inbound’ – in contrast to what is now called traditional or analogue marketing – appears in the commercial sector lexicon around 2006 and is now mainstream and adopted by non-profits.

Graphically represented by a funnel, inbound is about attracting people into the top of the funnel with the intent of converting leads into customers and then ‘delighting’ them. Importantly, it takes the focus away from selling towards earning the permission of the audience to connect with them. Opt-in comes to mind.

One of the many variants of the inbound marketing funnel to be found online.

But, as a digital antidote to broadcast media, the inbound funnel is a surprisingly linear model at a time when fundraisers have reconfigured the idea of the linear donor journey to better fit actual donor behaviour. Much charity social media effort is expended generating engagement metrics in the top and middle of the funnel with videos to watch and calls to action to respond to. And, naturally, there is the mandatory donate button. But it is possible to experience a meaningful involvement with the content of the organisation in the funnel without ever clicking on a payment method at the bottom.

Storytelling and meaning making

So what is the antidote to ‘taking part but making no donation’? How to satisfy the psychological risk and increase the chance that meaning derived from engagement motivates a gift?

I am not here questioning the altruism of the postmodern donor. But I am suggesting that the social and the media have disrupted traditional storytelling to the point that story needs to be recovered by mass-market fundraisers. How many of the millions who did the Ice Bucket Challenge also got to know the ALS story?

Anyway, here’s a hypothesis.

Linear story is an innate human sensibility and now-ist digital doesn’t change that. Even the cynical prodonors who see through the agency process are suckers for the feel good story. Some brand analysts argue that some people are more narrative inclined than others but nonetheless we live story-filled lives. And we make and sustain our personal and social identities through them.

So this is not about the charity better telling its story or improving the syntax – but that will help. Fundraisers need to recover story for the postmodern donor in a way that fits their device-driven lives. This means taking seriously the values of satisfaction, commitment, and emotional and financial investment in building meaningful relationships.

The subtle but significant shift we need to make is to design narratives that allow prospective donors to make their support of a charity part of their own social identity and the stories they share about themselves; to produce their own meaning from that relationship, and not simply consume the meaning we try to give them. Meaning is made for the postmodern donor when the charity belongs to them, not vice versa.

How to recover story for the postmodern donor is another matter.

One idea is to take the theoretical insights offered by Rogare’s review of the social psychology of human relationship and devise story experiments to test which values are most meaningful for the postmodern donor.

Another compatible idea is to design contexts where postmodern donors can collaborate and co-author stories for ‘their’ charities. There are innovative designs such as hackathons, crowd-sourcing, fan-fiction and unconference labs that fundraisers can adapt to engage postmodern audiences – and become more fluent in postmodern storytelling in the process.

AM logos May 2016

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