Too Much Information

Three aspects of the digital age: It’s very easy to find information, and it’s ridiculously easy to disseminate information, but it’s no easier to assimilate information than it was a hundred years ago.

Think about it. With one push of the button, you can send a picture or article to 30 or 300 or 3,000 Facebook friends. You can do the same thing through dozens of other social media sites. I am sending a link to this blog post to a few hundred of my followers, and I am pushing it out, as well, on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Of course, as I go through this exercise in digital dissemination, so do millions of other people and causes. And hundreds of these links, blasts, and tweets end up in your lap – or at least on your laptop – every day. (By comparison, when I was a young executive director nearly thirty years ago, over the course of the day I might have received a total of 15 phone calls or letters.)

And, of course, the tweets and blasts find you wherever you are, thanks to the insistent reminders of your smartphone. Mine flashes a blue light when I have a new message. I can no more ignore that flash than a mother can pretend not to hear the cry of her newborn.

The problem is that we as individuals still don’t have the ability to focus on more than one thing at a time. We talk about multi-tasking, and some people can fool themselves into thinking they can juggle many tasks at once, but what it really means is that our attention is divided. Instead of losing ourselves in one activity, we are somewhat aware of many. We are scattered, overwhelmed. We can’t even pretend to absorb everything that’s thrown at us.

One way people deal with the information overload is to skim, to presume, to jump to conclusions after a quick glance. This was exemplified by my high school friend Tom, who a few months ago sent me this email: “I didn’t finish reading your last blog post, Al – but I couldn’t disagree more!” (He said this without irony.) Tom had apparently read a few buzz words in my piece (“government,” “capitalism,” “banks,” “charity”) and, without digging for nuance, rearranged those words like a magnetic poetry set on a refrigerator door into the argument he thought I was making. And then he strenuously dissented.

Most of us are not as direct about the way we skim over information as Tom. Instead, we rely on trusted guides to interpret and understand the huge volume of information we don’t have the time or the inclination to absorb. Some of these guides are very helpful, like when we have a friend who enjoys analyzing information about cars and can then tell us whether to buy a Camry or an Accord. Some guides are not helpful, such as demagogic politicians or the media outlets that broadcast their views.

So what does this have to do with nonprofits?

Well, first, if you work for a nonprofit, you need to keep your information clear and brief. Figure out what you absolutely need to say, and then edit it down from there. Repeat your key messages over and over: you may get bored doing this, but it’s not about you. It’s about your listener. And your listener… isn’t listening.

But here’s the part that’s critical: you need to build close personal relationships with your supporters. And you do that in person – not on line. If donors come to know and trust you, you and your organization can break through the noise. Essentially, you will be their guide – a trustworthy source of information. And when you then ask for help, whether during a visit or by letter or, yes, electronically, they will respond.

Certainly, you should have a Facebook page for your organization. You need to play the social media game. But social media for the most part will not win you genuine friends or build you new relationships – it will mostly serve to reinforce your established relationships. If donors know and trust you, they’ll respond to your posts and tweets. If not, they won’t.

I find that people have a craving for genuine one-on-one interaction. People want to belong. They want to be heard by other human beings. This explains in part why book clubs are booming: information is available everywhere, all the time, but people want the chance to analyze that information in the company of people they know, like, and trust. They want to sit and talk and interact and think together (and, yes, eat and drink together) without distraction. They want to share an experience. And they can’t get that from their smartphones.

So in this era of information overload, the old rules of fundraising still apply – in fact, now more than ever. People give to people. You get to know those people face-to-face. And if you allow the many distractions of the digital age to prevent you from getting out to meet your donors, you won’t be successful, no matter how many re-tweets and “likes” you rack up.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2014. All rights reserved.

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6 Comments. Leave new

  • “People give to people”. Al…this is the prime, principal, cardinal, first and last, reason people give…especially to people they know and respect. An extraordinarily important point. Thanks for making it. My best, Woolsey Conover

  • Al, Your blog rocks! Thanks for staying committed to communicating with us. Much appreciated, Doreen

  • Martha Macomber
    January 14, 2014 3:08 pm

    Good reminders, Al!

  • Hear, hear! I did finish reading your last blog post, Al – and I couldn’t agree more! : )

  • Hi Al – just catching up on your last few posts. Personally, I’ve found Facebook very effective for securing small gifts from personal contacts tied to a specific event or call to action. E.g., an effective post might be, “Hey, Susie and I are going to be doing the annual Big Steps walk to end Fibrotic Dystensia [I made malady this up]. As many of you know, our niece suffers from this awful affliction. Please consider helping us find a cure for FD by helping sponsor us..etc.” Of course, most donating would sympathize with our having a sick family member and wish to make a gift – likely $10-$25. I’d liken such a gesture as akin to “Super Liking” a post.

    While a useful tool, it still feels to me…well, sorta transactional. I’d be curious to know how many major gifts result from FB, tweets, tumblrs, etc.

    Your passage, “People have a craving for genuine one-on-one interaction. People want to belong,” made me reflect upon how I secured my first five-figure gift. It was unsolicited – and came out of left field.

    At the time I was the brand new director of a WWII museum in the Lakes Region of NH. I had been invited by the NH Veterans Home to mount and staff a booth-type exhibit for one night at their annual fundraiser – a big band dance. Pulling together a few artifacts, brochures, and past newsletters was an easy lift, and it seemed like a win-win to soft promote my institution while adding value to a good cause. Plus, also, one of my beloved volunteers had been talking up the event that she and her husband had tickets for…so it had been on my radar.

    This couple had been regular donors – significant, but not top tier. Since meeting them a few months earlier, I’d expressed genuine interest in their connection to the mission…they were both teenagers during WWII, which had major personal impacts on them. So when they saw me “off-campus,” so to speak, representing a cause they loved at another venue which also was an extension of their values…well it was powerful for them. Moreso than I could have ever imagined until they made it plain to me in word (paraphrase: you reflect our values) and deed (by leapfrogging 2 donor tiers with a single gesture).

    Keep blogging, Al, so we can keep reading, reflecting, and doin’ our best to translate word into deed.

  • Mary Ellen Jackson
    January 26, 2014 10:45 am

    Once again , your message resonates. I think, perhaps, we all need to find a good way to let our e-mail correspondents know that their communications deserve not to be skimmed over…thus, please be patient. There is no way to replace the value and the true connection that comes with sitting down over coffee or tea and really talking.


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