How Technology Has Made a Major Impact on the Nonprofit Membership Model

Nonprofit organizations are only as valuable as the value they provide to their members (customers), period. The rise of technology and the shift in generations has made it difficult to sustain a traditional nonprofit model. It may not be so bad as it forces a change in nonprofits that is focused squarely around relevance. 

One day, I observed my son Noah, who is 11 years old, seeking information in order to write some code for a Website he was working on. I wanted to probe a little bit as to how he found the information, how he knew it was reputable and the sources he used. In my “interview” with him, I learned the following, which I believe applies to nonprofit organizations:

  • Information Sources – Information that he finds is on the Web and on various listservs that have actual coders posting their methods and tutorials. There is no specific organization that these coders belong to other than a network where they share key data and information on a Website that is funded through sponsored advertising. This network is built upon a common interest, very much like nonprofit organizations.
  • Information Credibility – The sites where this information is found is credible due to the credibility of the individuals posting information and responding to issues who then, in turn, are rated by those that find their information valuable. The more credible information they post and it is valued, the higher the level they are provided (i.e. beginner vs. expert vs. master).  Credibility and prestige is then bestowed upon the individual, which then bestows supercredibility on the site where this information is posted. The brilliance of this model is that the more credible the individuals posting are, the more credible the site is and the more visible it is in search engines. 
  • Transient Nature – Another key aspect is the transient nature of how my son will seek information and how Millennials seek information as well. Loyalty to one Website is not efficient but bookmarking multiple sites that meet a specific need are most important. This is not saying that a sense of belonging does not exist; it is saying that there is a sense of belonging based upon a varying set of needs. Think of your smartphone and the apps that you have downloaded that serve a specific need and serve it well. Just as my son’s bookmarks change over time, so do the apps that are no longer providing value. As per, the number one reason an app fails is that it is a) poorly researched and/or b) poorly executed. Can we also translate this to our products, benefits and services?
  • Varying and Specific Needs – As we all know, our customers, which I define as anyone that may have an interest in your nonprofit organization’s products, benefits and services, are seeking immediate gratification. This can be members, prospects or anyone that stumbles upon or are directed to your organization. The Websites my son has bookmarked are ones that he can find information at any time of the day and post questions and typically receive answers within hours if not minutes. This network is critical to him and if he finds that it is not responsive enough, he then deletes the bookmark and moves on. Oftentimes, he will post the same question to multiple Websites as well in order to shorten the time he receives a response. 
  • Information Chunking – Another interesting observation was the way in which he would chunk out and find information that was very, very specific. It provided me with an appreciation for more granular information that an association can provide that has good depth and doesn’t just scratch the surface.  As nonprofit organizations, have you defined these information chunks? If not, then it would be recommended to profile each “customer” type and develop their specific inventory of needs and how they consume your organization’s products benefits and services. This goes to the basic notion of a value proposition but not just one but also many and for each constituent. 

Technology has truly changed the way that our future members or customers will interact with us. I say future as most associations still have a generation of Boomers that are still interested in joining and engaging and are not as technologically savvy as the Millennials (born after 1980) or my son’s generation. In a Pew Research report, there is a striking statement that says,

Millennials’ technological exceptionalism is chronicled throughout the survey. It’s not just their gadgets — it’s the way they’ve fused their social lives into them. For example, three-quarters of Millennials have created a profile on a social networking site, compared with half of Xers, 30% of Boomers and 6% of Silents. There are big generation gaps, as well, in using wireless technology, playing video games and posting self-created videos online. Millennials are also more likely than older adults to say technology makes life easier and brings family and friends closer together.

In the same survey, there are two distinct differences that I gleaned from the data and the use of technology. One is that both the Millennials and Gen X (born between 1965-1980) believe the use of technology is #1 and it makes them distinctive.  Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and the Silent (born between 1928 and 1945) generations find their distinctions through work ethic and World War II and the Great Depression.  So, what we are seeing is that our current members are still those that are Boomers and Gen X or the notorious joiners. The Millennials and future generations are the ones that are in the market for your information chunks and mine your organization for information they need right now.

There are four observations and recommendations that are a starting point for relevance to all generations:

  1. Relevance – Creating relevance within the organization to provide what is needed to your industry and not to just your members. Think globally and beyond the “box” of membership and determine who your customers are and what their needs are.
  • Customer Profiles – As mentioned earlier, customers can be defined as anyone that has an interest in our products, benefits and services. This means that anyone that has a need can look to your nonprofit organization as a resource. Building customer profiles is critical in understanding the many facets of your membership generationally, geographically, professionally, etc. In this exercise, don’t rely on just the leadership and staff to build these, find the diversity in your membership or customer base and have them help to define and refine these profiles.
  • Information Source – Your organization should still serve as the credible information source but remember, you can’t be the only credible information source. Rather than competition, cooperation is the best way to increase value to everyone in your industry or profession. Ask your members and customers where else they “shop” and find information and develop a plan to cooperate, merge or acquire these other resources.  The key thing here is that you can’t control where your members and customers will go for information but if you can control the messaging in other sources through some form of collaboration or more, then you are increasing the chances of funneling customers to your organization. Also, find out where they are by following their social media, as that will provide you information around their posts and the sources of that information.
  • Supercredibility & Information – Utilize your customer and member base to help you build your organization’s credibility and access to real-time information while aggregating other sources of information. It has been the standard of nonprofit organizations to only provide information that has been produced by itand not to reference other sources for fear of potentially losing members. This is changing and the aggregation of information is becoming more prevalent. Your industry or professional association should consider becoming the aggregator of quality information.  When we look to the for-profit sector, Apple Inc. is launching its upcoming News appin iOS9 on the iPhone where news will be curated by humans to deliver topical information to the actual user for a fee. This is the targeted, chunked information, we have discussed earlier and is in cooperation with major partners. Nonprofit organizations should not feel as though they need to create and build every information network and benefit but should be focused on how to get this information to its members and customers by breaking down some of the walls we have created. 

We are no longer saying that nonprofit organizations should be prepared for the way this generation interacts as the oldest of the Millennials is now 35 and has already possibly paid your organization a “virtual visit”. In the quote earlier from the Pew Research report, Millennials’ technological exceptionalism is chronicled throughout the survey. It’s not just their gadgets — it’s the way they’ve fused their social lives into them.Fusion is the key word here and it goes beyond a trend or fad that will fade away. Technology is no longer a “thing” for Millennials and beyond but an extension of their persona. It is not too late to be a part of this fusion and ensure that your organization will be relevant from generation to generation.