Moving Beyond Donor Recency-Frequency-Monetary to Capability

Isn’t there something even a little bit sad about the little old lady in your donor file who has been giving to your nonprofit every month for thirty years…but who is no more skilled at impacting the cause now than she was when she first started giving?

Some might say no. After all, said little old lady scores well on the R/F/M (Recency-Frequency-Monetary) scale traditionally used to segment donors:

  • Recency: She gave this month.
  • Frequency: She gives every month.
  • Monetary: She’s not giving a lot. But there’s always the hope of scoring big in her will.

But there’s something deeper at issue here than whether such a classification scheme is sad (and, uh, morally reprehensible). There’s a question of whether such a classification will be sufficient or even relevant in the near future.

In a lengthy post that’s well worth the read, John Seely Brown and Richard Adler discuss Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0. (Thanks to Weblogg-ed for the tip.)

Fundraising was probably the furthest thing from Seely Brown and Adler’s minds when they wrote the piece. Properly speaking, it’s about social learning and the future of education in the broadest possible terms. As you read, though, you’ll see how it’s virtually impossible to conceive of the future of fundraising without taking into serious account what the authors have to say.

First, the authors detail the seismic shift in thinking about how people learn. A cornerstone of the system that is passing away is the idea that teachers and learners differ by kind, not degree. That is, we’ve always assumed that in any given setting, one person teaches, the others learn, and crossover in roles is, at most, serendipitous.

This “Cartesian” (Descartes-inspired) way of thinking has a clear carryover to the way we think about fundraising. We think of some folks are “supporters” and some as “supported”–some as doers of the work, so to speak, and some as givers to the work. Or in Facebook terms, you’re either a Cause or a Fan but not both.

But that way of thinking is passing away, if not already dead:

In a traditional Cartesian educational system, students may spend years learning about a subject; only after amassing sufficient (explicit) knowledge are they expected to start acquiring the (tacit) knowledge or practice of how to be an active practitioner/professional in a field. But viewing learning as the process of joining a community of practice reverses this pattern and allows new students to engage in “learning to be” even as they are mastering the content of a field. This encourages the practice of what John Dewey called “productive inquiry”—that is, the process of seeking the knowledge when it is needed in order to carry out a particular situated task.

Did you catch that phrase “learning to be”? It contrasts with “learning about”, as in “Are you newsletters helping your donors learn to be the cause, or do they only help your donors learn about it?”

Mastering a field of knowledge involves not only “learning about” the subject matter but also “learning to be” a full participant in the field. This involves acquiring the practices and the norms of established practitioners in that field or acculturating into a community of practice. Historically, apprenticeship programs and supervised graduate research have provided students with opportunities to observe and then to emulate how experts function. Apprentices traditionally begin learning by taking on simple tasks, under the watchful eye of a master, through a process that has been described as “legitimate peripheral participation”; they then progress to more demanding tasks as their skills improve.

Instead of supporter/supported, in other words, the future bodes best for nonprofits who think in terms of apprentice/master, where the nonprofit is a community of practice where donors engage in what is called “limited peripheral participation”–in other words, they learn to be the cause by getting to do real, actual work that impacts the cause, though initially at a much simpler level than you do it. But the point of “donor cultivation” in this model is to help the donor grow to be the cause at the same level of skill that you are currently at:

Open source communities have developed a well-established path by which newcomers can “learn the ropes” and become trusted members of the community through a process of legitimate peripheral participation. New members typically begin participating in an open source community by working on relatively simple, noncritical development projects such as building or improving software drivers (e.g., print drivers). As they demonstrate their ability to make useful contributions and to work in the distinctive style and sensibilities/taste of that community, they are invited to take on more central projects. Those who become the most proficient may be asked to join the inner circle of people working on the critical kernel code of the system. Today, there are about one million people engaged in developing and refining open source products, and nearly all are improving their skills by participating in and contributing to these networked communities of practice

Writing computer software is one example. For purposes of nonprofit work, the more applicable example given by the authors may be the way people participate in Wikipedia:

Since the open source movement is based on the development of computer software, participation is effectively limited to people with programming skills. But its principles have been adopted by communities dedicated to the creation of other, more widely accessible types of resources. Perhaps the best known example is Wikipedia, the online “open source” encyclopedia that has challenged the supremacy of commercial encyclopedias. Becoming a trusted contributor to Wikipedia involves a process of legitimate peripheral participation that is similar to the process in open source software communities. Any reader can modify the text of an entry or contribute new entries. But only more experienced and more trusted individuals are invited to become “administrators” who have access to higher-level editing tools.

Follow this line of thinking to its logical fundraising conclusion and you have a sea change in the kinds of materials we need to be including in our newsletters, posting on our websites and blogs, and featuring in our banquets and volunteer events:

The openness of Wikipedia is instructive in another way: by clicking on tabs that appear on every page, a user can easily review the history of any article as well as contributors’ ongoing discussion of and sometimes fierce debates around its content, which offer useful insights into the practices and standards of the community that is responsible for creating that entry in Wikipedia. (In some cases, Wikipedia articles start with initial contributions by passionate amateurs, followed by contributions from professional scholars/researchers who weigh in on the “final” versions. Here is where the contested part of the material becomes most usefully evident.) In this open environment, both the content and the process by which it is created are equally visible, thereby enabling a new kind of critical reading—almost a new form of literacy—that invites the reader to join in the consideration of what information is reliable and/or important.

Sum it up and say:

If the involvement of the little old lady in your donor file differs from you in kind rather than in degree–if, that is, you categorize her by RFM rather than by Capacity–your nonprofit may not be around to train the next generation of little old ladies in the future.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is the former International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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