Joe Waters, blogging at Selfish Giving, warns nonprofits not to outlast their “welcome on the dance floor.”

We heartily agree with his observation:

“…as the line between philanthropy and marketing (and let's not forget entertainment) blurs, traditional forms of fundraising — and the nonprofits that use them — look more and more like relics.”

Joe recounts some of his own experience as a cause and event marketer, and urges us to intermingle the new with the old and to focus on the potential of any new idea, not the money (if you focus on the money, you'll never try anything new, he warns).

Finding the right balance — in terms of allocating mind share and resources — between the “tried and true” versus the experimental or innovative is one of the toughest challenges a nonprofit marketer faces. Maybe the toughest.

On the one hand, you face the immediate pressure to bring home the bacon, especially if you're a fundraiser. As a steward of precious resources (to say nothing of being an aspiring professional), you are loathe to make a mistake.

On the other hand, you see that certain of your tactics are getting tired … not quite producing their previous effect. You're not getting the donations or media interest or programmatic impact that you used to get. The data, or your gut, tells you that you need something new, fresh.

And unfortunately, it's when the old stuff isn't working so well any more that your confidence gets shaky … just when you need to take some risks.

So how do you strike the balance between old and new?

Do you “assign” a portion of your mind share and marketing capital to innovation and experimentation? If not, why not? What's stopping you?

If you read The Agitator regularly, we might appear schizophrenic on this issue.

We frequently point out that there are certain “constants” about human response that marketers simply can't ignore if they wish to be successful, even as marketing technologies and media change. But on the other hand, we champion breaking the mold and taking risks.

Yes, there's a tension, but it's resolved by conscious balancing and smart adaptation of old givens to new circumstances. It is possible to both bring home the bacon and be recognized as an innovator.

In fact, these days, we'd argue, if you're not spending at least a working day a week and 20% or so of your working capital on innovation (we'll accept more of your time than your capital), you and your organization are going to wear out your welcome on the dance floor.

Moreover, if you can meet your (i.e., this year's) bottomline obligations, whether in terms of fundraising or communications goals, focusing on the tried and true, and then manage to devote an even greater share of your mind and capital to innovation, then you, like Joe Waters, deserve a raise … because your organization will be far more likely to pull ahead of the pack.

As Joe says, “innovation isn't a luxury.”

Roger & Tom

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