A prescient vision of the future of nonprofit technology and online fundraising
As a pioneer of online fundraising tools and technologies, digital strategist and writer Michael Stein has had a profound impact on nonprofits. MissionBox co-founder and CEO Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk talks to Michael about his experiences helping nonprofits expand their online fundraising efforts and challenges that arise as technology continues to evolve.
This is a pre-pandemic interview, but Michael's story and advice can help in these stressful fundraising times.
How did you first come to be involved with nonprofits?
At the beginning of my professional life in 1986, I was fascinated by the idea that the newly emerging electronic frontier could help further the causes of activist organizations. I was publishing a national magazine for an environmental group based in Boston and it became instantly clear to me that online bulletin board technology (invented around the same time I graduated college) and electronic communications were going to play a role for nonprofits.
I envisioned the fundraising potential for these technology tools and expanded my interests to labor organizations, peace groups and human rights groups in the U.S. and abroad. I also had the opportunity to work with some influential NGOs; from Planned Parenthood Federation of America to the Clinton Foundation to several large international unions and the Rainforest Action Network.
During a project with Greenpeace and several other grassroots environmental organizations, we started using digital networks to connect activists together around the U.S., sharing environmental data on polluting companies. That project developed into a national network of activists that started to collaborate and eventually led to a network called EcoNet, part of the Institute for Global Communications.
How did you get involved with online fundraising?
Early on in the ‘90s, I met Mal Warwick who was a pioneer in direct mail fundraising, and also Nick Allen who was experimenting with digital fundraising, and we developed a shared vision to grow the digital fundraising movement. Nobody had raised money online yet, and companies like Netscape, Yahoo and others were just emerging. Google hadn’t been invented yet.
Mal Warwick, Nick Allen a I co-authored a book called Fundraising on the Internet: Recruiting and renewing donors online, and we traveled the country to pitch it. Our ultimate aim was convince big nonprofits in the U.S. to try out this new communications channel as a method for fundraising.
Just trying to create the methodologies, the technology, even some of the language that we thought would go into a donation page made for an interesting experience. It was an exciting time to envision how all these things would be interconnected in the future.
What excites you about the world of nonprofit fundraising today?
The whole digital state has gotten more complex; it requires more and more technology. The emergence of social media and digital advertising, as well as hacking, security and identity issues requires nonprofits and the tech firms that serve them to step up their game. I have an ongoing interest in tech companies that are offering tools such as crowdfunding, payment systems, mobile responsive pages, web hosting platforms or advertising.
I started out working with mid-size nonprofits, moved on to work for some very large organizations, and now I find myself doing a mix of both. It’s interesting to see the challenges that smaller nonprofits face when trying to use some of the same technologies and techniques. There's been an emergence in technology service companies and consulting companies that offer services for smaller organizations in order to create more of an even fundraising playing field.
I also enjoy being able to write and reflect on the growth of digital technology and strategy. I try to attend the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network’s annual conference every year to get the lay of the land and to see how that evolution is continuing.
What advice would you give to anyone with a deep interest in social causes?
I would give people two pieces of advice: The first is to keep developing the skill sets that are interesting to you, whether it’s design, development, writing or strategy. Those are things that you sometimes have to learn on your own, either with webinars or in a classroom setting. There's a constant need to develop skills. Second, it's important in the social sector to allow your passions to drive you, whether you want to volunteer, work as a contractor or take a job in an organization you admire.
It is so important to develop both skills and passion and bring the two together to guide your career advancement.
Know another visionary leader or organization working for social good? Let us know! Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Stein has been a writer and digital strategist to progressive social causes for over two decades. He is the author of three books and numerous articles chronicling the rise of digital marketing, mobile and online fundraising. Michael works as a consultant and coach to nonprofits, foundations and educators with a focus on marketing and fundraising in a multi-channel and multi-screen world. Follow him on Twitter at @mstein63