Three aspects of the digital age: It’s very easy to find information, and it’s ridiculously easy to disseminate information, but it’s no easier to assimilate information than it was a hundred years ago.

Think about it. With one push of the button, you can send a picture or article to 30 or 300 or 3,000 Facebook friends. You can do the same thing through dozens of other social media sites. I am sending a link to this blog post to a few hundred of my followers, and I am pushing it out, as well, on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Of course, as I go through this exercise in digital dissemination, so do millions of other people and causes. And hundreds of these links, blasts, and tweets end up in your lap – or at least on your laptop – every day. (By comparison, when I was a young executive director nearly thirty years ago, over the course of the day I might have received a total of 15 phone calls or letters.)

And, of course, the tweets and blasts find you wherever you are, thanks to the insistent reminders of your smartphone. Mine flashes a blue light when I have a new message. I can no more ignore that flash than a mother can pretend not to hear the cry of her newborn.

The problem is that we as individuals still don’t have the ability to focus on more than one thing at a time. We talk about multi-tasking, and some people can fool themselves into thinking they can juggle many tasks at once, but what it really means is that our attention is divided. Instead of losing ourselves in one activity, we are somewhat aware of many. We are scattered, overwhelmed. We can’t even pretend to absorb everything that’s thrown at us.

One way people deal with the information overload is to skim, to presume, to jump to conclusions after a quick glance. This was exemplified by my high school friend Tom, who a few months ago sent me this email: “I didn’t finish reading your last blog post, Al – but I couldn’t disagree more!” (He said this without irony.) Tom had apparently read a few buzz words in my piece (“government,” “capitalism,” “banks,” “charity”) and, without digging for nuance, rearranged those words like a magnetic poetry set on a refrigerator door into the argument he thought I was making. And then he strenuously dissented.

Most of us are not as direct about the way we skim over information as Tom. Instead, we rely on trusted guides to interpret and understand the huge volume of information we don’t have the time or the inclination to absorb. Some of these guides are very helpful, like when we have a friend who enjoys analyzing information about cars and can then tell us whether to buy a Camry or an Accord. Some guides are not helpful, such as demagogic politicians or the media outlets that broadcast their views.

So what does this have to do with nonprofits?

Well, first, if you work for a nonprofit, you need to keep your information clear and brief. Figure out what you absolutely need to say, and then edit it down from there. Repeat your key messages over and over: you may get bored doing this, but it’s not about you. It’s about your listener. And your listener… isn’t listening.

But here’s the part that’s critical: you need to build close personal relationships with your supporters. And you do that in person – not on line. If donors come to know and trust you, you and your organization can break through the noise. Essentially, you will be their guide – a trustworthy source of information. And when you then ask for help, whether during a visit or by letter or, yes, electronically, they will respond.

Certainly, you should have a Facebook page for your organization. You need to play the social media game. But social media for the most part will not win you genuine friends or build you new relationships – it will mostly serve to reinforce your established relationships. If donors know and trust you, they’ll respond to your posts and tweets. If not, they won’t.

I find that people have a craving for genuine one-on-one interaction. People want to belong. They want to be heard by other human beings. This explains in part why book clubs are booming: information is available everywhere, all the time, but people want the chance to analyze that information in the company of people they know, like, and trust. They want to sit and talk and interact and think together (and, yes, eat and drink together) without distraction. They want to share an experience. And they can’t get that from their smartphones.

So in this era of information overload, the old rules of fundraising still apply – in fact, now more than ever. People give to people. You get to know those people face-to-face. And if you allow the many distractions of the digital age to prevent you from getting out to meet your donors, you won’t be successful, no matter how many re-tweets and “likes” you rack up.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2014. All rights reserved.

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