Like Scrooge, Nonprofits Need to Change––Or Else

Picture via Kevin Dooley on Flickr

One of my favorite scenes from Charles Dicken A Christmas Carol is the one after Scrooge has been visited by the three ghosts. Much to his surprise, he awakes in his bed to discover he’s been given another chance. Relieved, Scrooge pledges to “Live in the past, the present and the future.”

It’s a lesson we could all learn from. Yes, each and everyone.

While it seems like many nonprofits are stuck in the past, they’re there with good reason. The past has glories, predictability and comfortable models for success. It’s not that what we learned in the past is no longer useful to us. It is. But we can’t succeed with just history lessons. We need a more detailed road map.

Despite a wonderful veneer of innovation on most fundraising promotions, the field is still very dominated by traditional tactics. In my area of cause marketing—nonprofit and for-profit partnerships—these include point-of-sale and purchase or action triggered donations. If you’ve ever been asked at the register to donate a dollar to a cause or purchased a cause product (e. g. pink toaster), you know what I’m talking about.

These tactics, which have been around for over 40 years, have served nonprofits well. Larger nonprofits such as Komen for the Cure, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and Product Red have raised tens of millions with these battle-tested programs.

But the marketplace is changing. These programs are looking outdated and worn, and the present offers new ideas and opportunities. Our supporters want us to be more present.

But we can’t just meet their expectations. We have to reach out ahead of them. In cause marketing, this means embracing smartphones and beacon technology, which promise to reinvent the field by connecting company and cause by conviction, not commerce. Mobile takes cause marketing out of the big box stores and brings it to where the donor is, where he or she is engaged and moved.

“Are these the shadows of the things that will be, or are they shadows of things that may be, only? . . . If the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me.”

Past, present, future. Like Scrooge, nonprofits need to change their ways, or else.

Joe Waters blogs at