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Thoughts from the Road: University of Richmond

I spent nearly two days on the campus of the University of Richmond this past week, thanks to an invitation from Kathy Panoff, executive director of the Modlin Center for the Arts giving two classroom lectures, a public speech and meeting lots of interesting people. It was demanding, but loads of fun and I learned a lot about the nonprofit sector from talking to students and faculty.
I left the campus with three questions on my mind:

  • Are we entering a new era where public service is once again held in high public esteem?
  • How can we make it easier for people to understand the size and complexity of the nonprofit sector?
  • How is the internet changing donor expectations and what do these changes mean for fundraising

Esteem for public service?
I met scores of students hard at work pursuing studies and considering potential careers in the nonprofit sector. Every one of the students in my first class used GuideStar regularly to study nonprofit organizations. And this was without taking advantage of our EDU program which nearly 150 institutions are using to get access to GuideStar free of charge for their classroom activities.
This class was particularly interested in fundraising strategies, how the internet was changing their world, and what it takes to build and run a nonprofit. A combination of public disgust over the financial crisis, an economic downturn which presents fewer job possibilities and the inspiration of Barack Obama, is making students excited about the potential of careers that can help make a difference to improve our society.

Roots of skepticism
In my other class, students were more skeptical of the nonprofit sector. They held more traditional views about what it means to be a nonprofit, — a charity in their minds — and therefore were more confused about the bewildering complexity of budget sizes and activities. A few wanted to test my belief that measuring success is possible. Others were even unsure that demanding performance was necessary or a good thing because these were after all “charities” doing nice work.

What’s next for fundraising?
In my public lecture (The Collegian) I devoted much of my talk to how the internet is changing donor expectations and behavior. In a lively question and answer session afterwards, a question from a veteran fundraiser in the audience reminded us that most major fundraising is still based on developing relationships and the internet is often a very poor substitute due to its impersonal nature. The challenge for nonprofits is to find out how to use internet communications techniques and social networking for involving new donors and keeping old ones connected without losing sight of the fact that most donors will always need to feel a sense of connection — and act because of their passions — as well make use of the facts and figures we frequently talk about.

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Topics: Fundraising Travel