"Preparing for the eventual extinction of its DVD-by-mail rental service..." is how the article I read about a service I love-Netflix-today on the Washington Post online started. Netflix, a firm that had figured out how to make millions of people (including those elusive Millennials) joyously run to their mailboxes and look forward to seeing the mail man, while living free from the fear of movie-rental late fees, had predicted its own demise and figured out a way around it--a DVR-like device that can stream traditional Netflix DVD content like movies and TV shows straight to your TV.
(A note from Miriam to the charity I was going to give to this month-unfortunately, I think I will have to spend my planned donation on this nifty little device...how Gen Y of me)
An avid Netflix user, I am still amazed at the ingenuity and simplicity of the Netflix business model. At the time it first came out, I thought Netflix was the most genius thing anyone had ever thought of-movies delivered straight to your door, up to three at a time, no late fees, you don't have to pay to return them, and you can keep them as long as you'd like (I once kept a movie for 5 months). At the time, people scoffed-who would get their movies through the mail when you can just drive on over to Blockbuster?
And now, the company that brought down Hollywood Video and left Blockbuster scrambling in less than a decade is taking the initiative to redefine itself.
What does any of this have to do with nonprofit fundraising and Gen Y? To me, the article illustrated a divide between "for-profit" and "non-profit" companies that I have noticed in the years I have spent ying-yanging between jobs (also very Gen Y of me): for-profit companies (and yes I am generalizing) seem to inherently understand the need to innovate or die; charities need to come to the brink of extinction to kick them into high gear.
Let me give you an example. My very first job out of college was at AmericaOnline, back when it was still doing well and people actually thought I was cool for working there. My job was to keep track of user feedback from a feedback form on one of its sites and figure out ways to streamline tracking. This involved a "how-to" book on Microsoft Access query writing and reporting and hours trying to glean something useful from all those people talking back to us and screaming at the computer. I did not realized I was on the technological "front line" of feedback tracking until my next job, at a non-profit, where it turned out "user feedback" meant a donor calling up the secretary and registering a complaint.
Next, I was off to help manage an IT project for a start-up that was being developed on three continents based on futurist concepts. The pace of technological innovation was breathtaking. I still can't really explain what we were doing, but it seemed really neat! Then back to a very large non-profit media-intensive organization, where it took weeks to coordinate what seemed like dozens of people in at least 3 different departments to make one landing page for a URL we included in a direct mail piece so we could try to track how many people actually responded via the URL.
I felt like I was switching between the Jetsons and the Flintstones. Why, I wondered to myself, was the pace so different? Why were we embracing technology at a for-profit media company, and dragging our feet at a non-profit one?
My hypothesis is that part of it has to do with the feeling that those of us who work for or with non-profits have that we are somehow the "guardians" of donors' money and have been entrusted to make very "life-impacting" decisions with it, and so we must be very careful with how we chose to spend it. Sure, if AOL wants to pay two people to read a book to figure out how to develop a database and they don't figure it out, some investor loses a few bucks. If a non-profit does the same, some lifesaving medicine may not be delivered!
But inevitably, where technology and the for-profit sector go, so non-profits seem to eventually follow. For every Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook, there is eventually a Care2 and Razoo. For every Amazon, there is eventually a Kiva. For every YouTube, a DoGooderTV springs up....eventually, and even more eventually the fundraising world seems to embrace it.
When was the last time, I wonder, we fundraisers predicted our own demise and re-invented the way we would approach our donors? How many of us are waiting until we come to the brink of literal extinction (what's the average age of your DM donor file?), before we re-invent ourselves?