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When fundraising appeals become indistinguishable from other forms of entertainment, we risk undermining the role that civic mindedness and virtue can and should play in motivating philanthropy.

Midway through Amusing Ourselves to Death, a book about technology’s influence on the way we relate to one another, Neil Postman describes something he calls the “Now…this” mode of discourse:

"Now . . . this" is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see [….] There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly—for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening—that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, "Now...this.”

He goes on to say that, during a broadcast of the evening news, “We are presented not only with fragmented news but news without context, without consequences, without value, and therefore without essential seriousness; that is to say, news as pure entertainment.”

He wrote these words about television more than 30 years ago. He might have written them about social media just last week. It’s difficult to think of a better example of the “Now…this” discourse than a Facebook feed, where “content” careens wildly from political ads to photos of your cousin’s baby to a video of someone famous doing something stupid.

There is no coherency, no continuity.

Postman’s observations about the “Now…this” discourse opens up a line of inquiry that’s particularly relevant to the work of fundraising. As fundraising efforts migrate online, and as forms of philanthropy that are quintessentially digital—think crowdsourcing—continue to grow, it’s worth considering the implications for fundraisers.

Let’s say you’re scrolling through your Facebook feed. You see photos from a friend’s wedding. An ad for jeans. Your aunt’s take on #MeToo. A link to your coworker’s sister’s GoFundMe page.

Guided by Postman, we may wonder what the consequences are of consuming such disparate content in this way. When something ostensibly serious (like the need to pay for a bone marrow transplant) is juxtaposed with something frivolous or completely unrelated, there’s a flattening effect.

An appeal for a donation becomes just one more post in the newsfeed, and you’re likely to react to it in the same way you react to other posts. That is to say, you’re likely not to react at all. Not in any meaningful sense of the word. In fact, the environment is designed to make you unlikely to act. The architects of social media would greatly prefer that you continue consuming social media, not that you wander off to some other website to make a donation.

I witnessed the same principal at work during a Sunday Night Football broadcast a few months back. Following a commercial break, we were shown photos of Floridians standing amidst the rubble of Hurricane Michael. Al Michaels, the game’s broadcaster, said that donations could be made to the Red Cross. “Give what you can,” were his words. Then the game resumed. Human tragedy and environmental devastation were supplanted by third-and-long. Did NBC really want me to make a donation? Possibly—assuming I could do it from my phone, and quickly, so that I didn’t miss any of the game.

When you’re scrolling through a newsfeed, or watching a football game on TV, you’re not primarily a citizen, a neighbor, a mother, a Christian, a Jew, a teacher, a philanthropist, or any other category that captures some sense of your obligations to others. You’re a consumer.

This was Neil Postman’s complaint about newscasts. They transform us into consumers of decontextualized information. News of the Syrian civil war follows an advertisement for eczema medication. A celebrity divorce is reported in the same serious tones as the passage of legislation. Those of us watching are not meant to be informed. Not seriously, and certainly not to any clearly articulated end. Above all, we’re meant to be entertained.

When a fundraising appeal becomes indistinguishable from other forms of entertainment, or content, we risk undermining the role that civic mindedness, duty, and virtue can and should play in motivating philanthropy. We ought to be wary of asking people for money in the same setting and using the same media that we use to ask them to buy dog food. Or cars. Or anything else.

Some might object to this line of thinking on the grounds that, like it or not, digital media represent the future of fundraising. Nonprofits everywhere are trying to find creative ways to “get their message out” using online platforms. Facebook might be an imperfect place to ask for donations, some will say, but it’s the place where everyone happens to be, and so fundraisers need to show up as well.

But there are good reasons to be skeptical that digital fundraising will ever eclipse the work of sitting down with donors or talking to them on them on the phone.

Philanthropy is best practiced within the context of meaningful relationships which, by virtue of their being meaningful, must necessarily go beyond the digital. When, for example, a gift officer meets with a longtime donor and brings up the topic of a bequest, the conversation is situated within the context of that donor’s relationship to the organization. Philanthropy is a means of deepening the relationship (though it does not, and should not, define the limits of that relationship).

I’m aware that it’s impossible for gift officers to meet with every potential donor out there, and that fundraising, to reach broad audiences, may at times benefit from using online platforms. My point—and one of Postman’s points—is not that we shouldn’t make use of the communication tools at hand. It’s that we have a responsibility to understand how those tools shape both our messages and the ways in which those messages are received.

Countering the “Now…this” mode of discourse is pretty simple—you do it by having conversations. Thoughtful, meaningful conversations, mostly in person. No newsfeeds required.

3 thoughts on “The giver as consumer: are digital appeals undermining charity?”

  1. Frank Hickman II says:

    Nathan, Well spoken and great food for thought. Your article is not only relative to charitable giving, but goes beyond that to our media consumption in general!

    We are in the middle of fundraising event locally and I am sharing your article with my contemporaries.


  2. Tim says:

    Relationships take time, and do does the work to spend the resources raised on something worthy of the donors’ interest, generosity, and friendship. But this focus on donor relations is not a sustainable formula for making a difference. I like Howard’s emphasis on “due diligence”, but not only by the donor. Looking under the rocks (or the carpet!) contributes to effectiveness and injects trustworthiness into the relationship/transaction. Facebook can draw attention toward actions that are subject to due diligence or away. It is a tool that can be used well or inappropriately.

  3. Howard says:

    Before online fundraising, there was direct mail. It was just as outrageous. It always tried communicate the message that you didn’t have time to do “due diligence” and that the opportunity to solve the crisis had almost but not quite passed.

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