Sasha Dichter and I share an appreciation of the relevancy of marketing guru Seth Godin’s writing to philanthropy. Seth’s books, such as Tribes and The Dip should be required reading for anyone interested in philanthropy. While most of Seth’s writing is geared towards the marketing of for-profit businesses, his core ideas are centered around the concept of “spreading ideas.” Spreading ideas is a rather good way of describing many philanthropic goals.
Earlier today, Sasha wrote about the intersection between Renata Rafferty’s recent comments on this blog about engaging wealthy “Dinosaur Philanthropists” – her affectionate term for major donors who don’t track the inside baseball conversations about SROI, venture philanthropy and measuring outcomes – and a recent post from Seth titled “The rational marketer (and the irrational customer).”
(Seth is talking about when you, the marketer, know your product is worth buying but your customer doesn’t):
You know that your car is more aerodynamic. You know that your insulation is more effective. You know that your insurance has a higher ROI.
…The problem is that your prospect doesn’t care about any of those things. He cares about his boss or the story you’re telling or the risk or the hassle of making a change. He cares about who you know and what other people will think when he tells them what he’s done after he buys from you.
The opportunity, then, is not to insist that your customers get more rational, but instead to embrace just how irrational they are. Give them what they need. Help them satisfy their needs at the same time they get the measurable, rational results your product can give them in the long run.
Sasha goes on to say that as important as the conversations about measurement are, we need to have them where the real givers are; namely the “Dinosaur Philanthropists” who give more than 80% of charitable dollars each year.
I agree with Sasha. But let’s also carefully look at what Seth is saying. He is not saying that good products are not important. He’s not saying to sell a pretty story (but weak results) to your customers. He’s saying that customers (and by extension donors) don’t make decisions based on quantitative metrics. In fact, I’d point out that for-profit investors don’t even make decisions based on quantitative metrics (they might pretend they do, but mostly they are looking for a great story based on solid fundamentals).
The discussions we’re having on the constructs of philanthropy is important. This is a field in flux and a battle of ideas is playing out around what philanthropy should be. It is a discussion well worth having. But let’s remember that none of this is important if the end result is an academic set of “best practices”. Everything that we’re talking about only matters if we can “spread the ideas” that we’re talking about.
Charity Navigator once successfully spread the idea that overhead expense ratios were the end all and be all of charity evaluation. Even if that wasn’t their intent, that idea was spread so that even “Dinosaur Philanthropists” bought into the concept. The “overhead expense ratio idea” is probably the most successful meme in the history of charity evaluation. It is what Seth Godin would call an IdeaVirus. Charity Navigator is now busy working on spreading a new idea. The idea that “outcomes” are what matters when picking a nonprofit to fund.
The key to an idea that spreads is not that it is a “good idea”, but that it is well packaged. Let’s make sure we work out great ideas on how to practice philanthropy and then package them up even better.