Home > Articles > Into The Vortex: A Support Model for Activating Your Cause Champions Online

Into The Vortex: A Support Model for Activating Your Cause Champions Online

Two years ago, at the inaugural Greater Washington Give to the Max Day, a one-day online giving competition similar to GCN’s upcoming Georgia Gives Day, the two most successful nonprofits, in terms of dollars raised and won, had one thing in common: they not only asked their supporters to give—they asked their supporters to share. By equipping their supporters with messages and encouraging them to share with their own networks, they were able to increase their reach exponentially. And because those messages came not from the organization directly, but from the individuals who support it, they were more authentic, more personal, and—no coinci­dence here—more influential.

Contrast that with the idea of “slacktiv­ists,” a term that conjures images of lazy, ineffective supporters who prefer idling online, clicking “Like” or Retweeting a nonprofit’s call-to-action rather than putting forth any legitimate effort or resources. But as recent research has shown, more often than not your organization’s digital supporters don’t fit the common stereo­type of the slacktivist. Rather, they are savvy connectors who, when properly nurtured, can translate their most valuable resource—their influence—into myriad contributions for your organization. These so-called slacktivists can, in fact, become your new cause champions—the key is in recognizing the potential of these individ­uals, rethinking how your organization defines “contributions,” and reframing what you ultimately ask your supporters to give.

So-called “slacktivists” can, in fact, become your new cause champions. Recognize their potential, rethink how your organization defines “contributions,” and reframe what you ultimately ask your supporters to give.

Perhaps one reason the stigma of the slacktivist persists is that organizations don’t know where online supporters fit in traditional, linear fundraising models like the “ladder” or the “pyramid.” The temp­tation is to lump them at the very bottom, and in some ways, this makes sense—they most likely hear about the nonprofit through social media, and they maintain relatively loose, sometimes transient ties to the organization. However, our own research at Georgetown’s Center for Social Impact Communication has shown that, contrary to popular belief, individuals today don’t become involved with organizations in the same linear ways that they used to. In fact, many of the individuals supporting your organization on social media have actually done so af­ter donating, volunteering, or otherwise investing in a more substan­tial way.

Earlier this year, we proposed an alternative to thinking about donor engagement in linear, one-way terms. That alterna­tive model is the Vortex, illustrating in its form the fact that individuals can become engaged in multiple ways at the same time, and that these ways may not correspond to “steps,” or a neat progression over time. Gone are the days when you steward someone in a straight path from learning about your organization all the way up to becoming a legacy donor—today, there will likely be some regression, some gaps, or some other unexpected moves along the way.

The New Rules of Donor Engagement
Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication sought to find out how social media has changed the way people engage with causes. The results provide a snapshot of the donor online, and the reasons why their “currency of influence” is making them the cause champions of the new century.
Read their findings.

The Vortex model also incorporates the need to tailor the endpoint or goal of a donor’s engagement. Linear models like ladders emphasize a large financial gift as the be-all, end-all of an individual contri­bution and, as a result, supporters tend to think that way too. Unfortunately, this can discourage the types of activities—many of which are easily accomplished on social media—that utilize an individual’s influence to attract other supporters to your organi­zation.

Perhaps most importantly, the Vortex takes into consideration the fact that an indi­vidual is influenced by many factors outside an organization’s control when choosing to engage with a cause. Linear models assume that everything is one-way: an orga­nization communicates to an individual, and that individual progresses another step up the ladder as a result. But in our recent re­search, we’ve seen that individuals are very much influenced by, among other things, their friends and family on social media—and the nonprofits they choose to become involved with are, indeed, a reflection of this influence.

Linear models (like a ladder or pyramid) assume that everything is one way; with the Vortex takes into consideration the fact that an individual is influenced by many factors outside an organization’s control when choosing to engage with a cause.

We chose a vortex to visualize this new way of thinking because it describes a cycle of continuous engagement with no real fixed endpoint, it places the individual and his or her needs at the very center, and it represents a kind of radiant energy field that can expand or contract over time with a vary­ing but constant ability to attract others. It’s a more tailored approach to think­ing about your donors, one that allows you to offer a customized portfolio of engagement opportunities matching the unique com­bination of resources and skills possessed by each of your supporters.

When you begin to think more broadly about how you define—and value—an individual’s contributions, then it becomes harder to write off our so-called “slacktivist” friends. We’re just beginning to understand the potential within individ­uals’ networks and how best to unlock it, but few can argue that the importance of “influence” will continue to grow as more organizations and individuals forge connec­tions on social media.

Asking your supporters to share their own stories on social media as a way of influencing others to support you can feel like a tremendously risky endeavor. But what you give up in control, you gain in authenticity, transparency, and—as we’ve seen in our research and in numerous online giving competitions—dollars.

Julie Dixon is deputy director at Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communi­cation, and recently pre­sented her work at GCN’s September 2013 member expert series event, Power Up Your Giving Campaign.

Subscribe to GCN Articles RSS