The Message in the Cryptex

Different venues, different audiences, but the same query: Six times in as many months, I stood in front of a group asking (perhaps demanding) that I answer the same question. Audiences can be scary — and the question pointed to the heart of the matter.

In each case, I had been invited —and cheerfully agreed — to talk about web 2.0 and online networks, these new fangled “social” technologies. But, the audiences wanted brass tacks — my academic musings and observations from on high were not enough. The crowd was hungry. They wanted the secret answer.

Folks listened patiently — but only up to a point. I, no doubt, had waxed idiotically on about social technologies being “messy, fast, and casual” — generally ill suited to any sort of organizational context. They are designed to be “personal.” They don’t adapt well to the organizational context, and I don’t think they ever will.

To that, well… I’ve always felt Marion Barry, the former Washington DC mayor, put it eloquently (in three little words): “Get over it.” The fact of the matter is, with social media, an organization no longer can speak with a single voice, or deliver a single message. We need to get over it. It’s all about one-to-one personal communications, only it’s one-to-one with thousands or hundreds of thousands, of people. Sounding silly, I’ve said that since the ‘net began and it’s truer today than ever.

But, such answers have not been enough for hungry audiences, waving netbooks, iPhones, torches and pitchforks.

Folks know there is a secret; what’s worse, they want the secret. They’re unabashed. After all, Obama’s campaign had proven it, right? The virtual cat was out of the digital bag, and it was time for me to come clean. (Pitchforks and torches not withstanding —obviously, I’ve a bit of a love-hate relationship with these presentation things.)

The question on the lips and placards of the angry villagers, the Question with a capital “Q”, is simple: “How can we raise money with these new social networking things?”

I suppose I could blame Election ’08 — specifically Barack Obama — for setting the stage. His campaign’s success was evident. They had raised money, apparently with online social networks. They had also rewritten the rules of politics, and perhaps changed the world forever.

Unfortunately, the answer is not so simple. Moreover, deep down inside, that question is tinged with an underlying belief, a belief that more “friends,” more “followers” equals $uccess. (That’s bull, by the way, pure and simple.)

Nevertheless, nonprofits are nonplussed; they want to raise money with Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever. In the end, it’s the ends. It’s dollars, not donuts, not even the euphemistic “constituent building.” It’s about money, filthy lucre— and deep down inside they know that they’re missing the boat. (So, it’s damn the Tweets, and full speed ahead.)

This belief persists, despite the facts. The facts are clear: social networks are much better “friend raisers” than they’ll ever be “fund raisers.” But, believe is difficult to fight, logically or otherwise. Social networks are the big thing, like direct mail, or telephones, or fax, or email before them. (And, like those that have come before, we are rapidly filling up web 2.0 with random streams of amazing stupidity – but that’s another discussion.)

The “Social Networks = $uccess” belief is ubiquitous. Recently, I reviewed more than 90 grant applications, proposals focused on the intersection of jazz and technology, a far cry from my typical business. However, the same threads were there — a remarkable and overwhelming percentage cited the same holy trinity: Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. I read it so often I started to refer to it by acronym (FYT — pronounced Pffufft).

‘Till now, I’ve had no ready answer for the Question. Nothing I say seems to satisfy — folks want the secret code.

Lean in a little closer. Today I’m going to tell you that answer.

Here it is: the secret decoder ring, the magic ingredient, the answer to the Question of how to raise money with online social networks. Ready?

Step One… First, you get yourself an Obama.

Wait… Don’t hit that big “X” …

I say this with all seriousness. First you get yourself an Obama. That’s the secret of the Obama campaign. It was Obama — not Facebook, not Twitter, and not the bevy of would-be Dick “Bite-me” Morrises or the myriad of MoveOn’s anxious to fill up your inbox, dance across your Facebook page, or displace Ashton Kutcher in the Twitterstream of useless things in 140 characters.

The real secret is this: It’s never the tools, it’s the content. It’s never the medium, it’s the message.

The tools can make it easier to deliver the “ask,” and they can surely smooth the logistics of it all, but it’s still all about the message; it’s the content, stupid. More followers does not equal $uccess, unless you’re Ashton Kutcher. And that only works because Ashton Kutcher is selling Ashton Kutchers. (Or maybe he’s selling Demi Moores? I’m never sure.)

There you have it, the message in the cryptex, the answer to the Question. Tools only streamline the process. Today’s fancy network tools, social or otherwise, can move mountains, remove the barriers, streamline the donation, facilitate the transaction, and instantaneously validate the act of giving, relaying thanks, community, appreciation, and a receipt.

But, fundraising is about content; it’s about the Obama-factor. Facebook? YouTube? Twitter? Pffufft… Tools don’t create community. Get over it.

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6 comments to The Message in the Cryptex

  • Thanks for saying what needs to be said, Gavin, and much more elegantly than I’ve been able to.

    Something I’ve been pondering is: what role have we, the “nptech” consultant tribe, played in fanning these flames? And why?

    I think these questions point way towards a deeper dysfunction in the sector, whereby shiny-chasing and snake oil gradually squeeze out substance and clear thinking.

  • phil klein

    to Jon’s points, i think nptechsters have alas been easily excitable. excitability has been rewarded in tech consultants for years, because the win for the tech consultant is more closely tied to being awarded a contract (which rewards the setting of highly attractive expectations) rather than on having a robust end result or product (which involves demonstrating competence, execution, meeting real and measurable targets and objectives). There’s also the fact that client expectations and vendor ability to deliver rise and fall out of cycle. A new tech increases ability to deliver, then client expectations rise, but a further increase in ability to deliver may not arrive in time to fill the hype cycle of continuous improvement.

    Gavin, I agree with your points. Furthermore, I see a real disconnect between the way that social media is both personal and social, and the way that most organizations are really NOT social or personal; but are rather organizational or institutional in their approach to communications, with is a fundamental barrier to their success in adopting social networking approaches to communication, which is well, kind of altogether a different language than what orgs know and use. I cringe when i get messages on facebook from organizations (oddly, even from orgs I love), and i think this is because I expect familiarity from friends, and when orgs assume they are on ‘friends’ terms with me, it strikes me as instrusive and off-pitch, even when in other contexts their messages may really resonate.

  • The organization I work for is a network of philanthropists, so our work definitely involves more *friendraising* than fundraising. Even so, the social media piece is complex–face to face networking is at the heart of what we do, and creating online opportunities that don’t feel canned, cold, or crass requires more than just creating a Facebook fan page or starting a Twitter feed.

    Yes, the content is key. But there’s also the type of the relationship your audience wants from you, and you from them. That’s really the heart of communications, and whatever tools one chooses need to be deployed with all that in mind.

  • Hey Gavin – So now how do we get this post burned into the consciousness of all those volunteers, Executive Directors, NPTechsters and brothers-in-laws of board members from the corporate sector who are selling Web 2.0?

  • Gavin:

    I agree with your perspective, as I hear the same pleas for “the answer.” There’s another dimension here, as well: the tools themselves change to reflect adoption of new technologies.

    In the 1980s, we collected fax numbers. In the mid-1990s, we asked if people had email and a website. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, we gathered mobile phone numbers. More recently, we’ve begun gathering “fans” and “followers” on Facebook and Twitter.

    Take a look the system we use to manage our address book or contact list. I’d bet it has fields for “fax number”, “email”, “website”, and “mobile/cell phone number”. All of those fields weren’t there twenty years ago, because the technologies didn’t exist. Or the technologies existed, but, to butcher William Gibson’s famous phrase, they weren’t yet “evenly distributed.”

    Over time, we changed our address books to include this information because so many people adopted these new tools.

    The same thing happened in our organizations: we changed our databases to include fax and mobile numbers and email addresses so we could systematically communicate with our constituents.

    Email was especially challenging to figure out. As websites emerged, we started collecting email addresses on our websites. More often than not, our “email list” remained separate from our organizations’ main database. When someone’s email address changed, we had to change it in at least two different places. Many times, people were only in one list; or worse, in both lists, but with slightly different information.

    By now, we’ve figured out that connecting our organization’s database (in fancier terms, “integrate”) with our website makes everyone’s life a bit simpler. Database vendors and website developers combined efforts, to make it relatively common and easy for members/donors/constituents to update their own records over the Internet.

    The latest trend, though, is to talk about “Social CRM”, with the CRM standing for constituent/client relationship management.

    The simplest way to think of this is to take a look at your address book or contact list. If you use Microsoft Outlook or Google Mail, “Social CRM” tools can display information from a person’s Facebook or Twitter account alongside their address, fax number and email address. If you were a consultant, you’d call this “integrating a person’s ‘social graph’ with email.” Tools that do this today include (with Microsoft Outlook) and (with Google Mail). Tools such as promote their ability to “turn an email address into a social profile.”

    Only recently have software vendors begun to connect (“integrate”) database systems to social media sites (e.g., Salesforce is promoting Chatter,, which connects relevant Facebook and Twitter info with contact records in Salesforce).

    Eventually, a development director will be able to look up an individual’s record and also see their latest Facebook or Twitter status update, along with any recent news articles. That’s the essence of “Social CRM”: connecting your database to social media and information from the Internet.

    Will it be helpful? For organizations whose constituents participate in social media, Social CRM will be a big “win.” In the long run, every major nonprofit donor database system will likely have these capabilities. And, yes, it will make life much easier for many people.

    The tools are changing rapidly; and new tools cause other tools to change, as well.

    For those interested in the exciting new world of social media, that’s great. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that we’ve changed our databases to include new information before!

    – Andy Wolber

  • [...] it’s with enormous gratitude that I read The Message in the Cryptex by Gavin Clabaugh. With his trademark eloquence, he tackles this very same frustration. And believe [...]

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