Predicting the Future: How Should Nonprofits Plan for Change in 2017?

In 2005, Steve Jobs gave a moving speech to the graduating class of Stanford University about “connecting the dots.” “You can’t connect the dots looking forward,” Jobs told students. “You can only connect them looking backward.” It seems that no one has perfected the crystal ball.

Of course, this doesn’t stop us from trying. The brink of each new year beckons and so, from our limited vantage point, we try to see the future. This has become something of a tradition online, as well: People consider history, and then they try to connect the next dot.

Nonprofit and purpose-driven work requires that people be optimistic about the future, even if they can’t predict it. A few years ago, the Stanford Social Innovation Review published the predictions of a sociology professor, who wrote about what nonprofits might look like in 2025. Such organizations, the professor wrote, are uniquely dynamic: They are situated to promote engagement and advocacy, flexible enough to address emerging problems, and capable of partnering with numerous institutions. In all likelihood, they will do some version of all of the above. What will that look like? We’ll know in another eight years.

Change is inevitable as tomorrow. Rather than predict the future, we at Ignite took some time to look ahead and consider how best to prepare for the next year.

Find your storytelling strategy

Everyone, it seems, wants to be an author. We won’t weigh into the complicated debates that pit Instagram Stories against Snapchat (though Social Media Today has a handy infographic comparing the two). However, innovations at those companies and countless others underscore a point that many have made for years: People crave narrative. They want context, introductions and explanations; they want to move from Point A to Point B.

“Storytelling will become one of the most important marketing tools for us in 2017 because it provides a way to connect with the emotions that help drive donor engagement and ongoing support,” writes the founder of the nonprofit Open to Hope Foundation. “Our audience is then able to feel how they are assisting those that come to our nonprofit for help and that then drives them to continue providing financial support and time.”

Learning to tell your story is a critical way to show your audience (and potential supporters) how you steward their support. It encourages transparency and accountability, and helps people to feel part of the change your organization hopes to make. Storytelling may become one of the most important marketing tools next year, but it is also true that telling stories has always been important. If you haven’t tried your hand at narrative strategy, 2017 may be your year to do so.

Connect with the donation revolution

Last month, Apple announced that its Apple Pay system may now be used to support a number of prominent nonprofit organizations, from the American Red Cross to the Nature Conservancy to UNICEF. Others, like the American Cancer Society and PBS, plan to work with Apple Pay as well. Apple Pay’s vice president said in a press release, “We think offering such a simple and secure way to support the incredible work nonprofits do will have a significant impact on the communities they serve.”

Apple Pay’s announcement capped a big year for donor flexibility, one that also brought us direct donations through Facebook. Don’t expect gains in donor flexibility to stop there. “Twitter is working on $Cashtags. YouTube has donation cards. Snapchat has Snapcash,” according to Nonprofit Tech for Good. “Money and online giving as we’ve known it is on the precipice of radical change.” That radical change should benefit nonprofits and purpose-driven organizations in the years ahead.

It doesn’t take a crystal ball, then, to prepare. Apple Pay and Facebook both provide information on how to connect your organization to their online donations systems. And their posts are a good reminder of another tip for 2017: Read the development blogs and pressrooms of your social media platforms, search engines and browsers. They’re filled with tips and opportunities to improve your engagement with your audience.

Know your network

“Even a regional nonprofit is competing with everyone who has an Internet presence,” writes Pamela Barden for NonProfit Pro. “Google 'donate feed hungry people' and you’ll get 1.65 million results; other than two paid advertisements, none on the first page of results were for my local area.”

Distinguishing your good work means more than adding the name of your city to your profile or focusing your efforts on a specific local cause. Nonprofits and purpose-driven organizations need to tailor everything—social presence, narrative, mission and message, how they read metrics and what they take from them—to the network they hope to reach.

In all likelihood, you’ve had your audience in mind for years before you launch your organization and start to share your mission. But, every day, you’re tasked with evaluating how effectively you reach your network, and how you can improve that reach. Should you be more responsive? Should you tell more stories through different media, like video? Should you collaborate with nonprofits in your region to have a greater impact, or should you expand your organization to address a greater need?

“Measuring objective data about your nonprofit’s effectiveness—and translating that information to stakeholders—will continue to be emphasized going forward,” writes Carolyn Mappleton. Her wisdom is couched as a prediction; however, her advice is tried and true. How you translate your work and its success is determined, in part, by how well you know your network. If you know the people who support and benefit from your work, you can tailor your efforts to better meet their needs. That makes for a network that can thrive on transparency and mutual understanding, which encourages steady support.

Rather than competing with the million-plus websites who do work like yours, focus on how specific your work can be, and how you can meet a specific need. It’s an integral part of a digital strategy and, going forward, that sort of work will be timeless.