The Fundraiser - Practical advice and insight for the charity sector

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How RNLI is attracting younger donors

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Neil Thornburn and Russell Tarr explain how RNLI is thinking ahead in order to foster relationships with younger supporters.

Traditionally, RNLI’s supporter base has largely comprised of donors of the older generation - and thankfully, that supporter base is highly engaged, and very loyal. However, we know that we need to find ways to connect with the younger generation if we are going to protect our sustainable income stream into the future.


Different challenges

We want younger audiences to have as good an awareness and understanding of the work RNLI does as our older supporters do, but we’re facing a very different set of challenges today. To begin with, there are fewer people today for whom our work is immediately tangible; in the past many more people would have vacationed at the UK coastline and seen the pier and the lifeboat station in person. Now, easy access to air travel to international destinations means people are not coming into direct contact with RNLI so much.


With this in mind, we’ve done a lot of work over the last couple of years on understanding what the younger generation are looking for. During our research it quickly became clear to us that we needed to find new ways to connect. One important thing we’ve found is that younger supporters seek a value exchange much more than older ones; they want to get something back, whether it’s simply information that is easily shareable among their peers, or fun challenges they can undertake in order to get rewards and peer recognition. 



With this in mind, in the summer of 2014 we ran our ‘H2Only’ challenge, whereby participants were sponsored by their friends and family to give up every drink except for water for two weeks. Participants connected the perceived health benefits of this campaign as well as the competitive element - and these were key in drawing them in. We marketed the challenge event through contemporary channels; we set up our own app for the campaign, and we drove lots of digital and social communication. 


Just over 4,000 people took part and made donations through the sponsorship they’d received - around 80-90 per cent of whom hadn’t supported RNLI previously. Furthermore, nearly three-quarters of those new supporters were exactly the right profile fit in terms of the new audiences we want to attract. 


Long-term engagement

For many years, we have mailed out quarterly newsletters to our donors - and these are still very well received by our traditional supporter base. However, the way in which younger supporters interact with information is very different; taking a digital, multichannel approach is imperative in keeping them engaged. 

So, in addition to posting fresh, exciting and easily shareable content on a regular basis on our social media channels, we are also trialling a new web magazine. The tone of the web mag is much chattier than our traditional mail outs, and the content has lots of social engagement elements. While the new e-magazine is in its infancy, we’ve seen some very good statistics emerge in terms of how our articles are being shared across social media.


The givers of tomorrow

At RNLI, we think it’s important to ensure that we’re not only starting to engage with the young givers of today, but those of tomorrow too. In this regard, we want to start building connections with the purely digital generation - those currently in their early to mid-teens. They have an entirely different way of interacting with information, even compared with 20-year-olds. The way they use social media and the various channels available to them means that they are absorbing, filtering and discarding information in amounts far greater than any generation before them, and so, in order to be meaningful and to have impact, fundraising communications need to cater to that. 


We think that by starting to understand this generation now, by the time they become givers (early-20s), we will be ready to interact with them in the appropriate way.  

To this end, we’ve teamed up with Bournemouth University in a project around engaging younger generations. As part of their coursework, students undertaking digital courses at the university are challenged to come up with ideas for campaigns and activities that the charity could use to push information to these younger audiences. We will start to see some of this coursework coming in in the New Year and we’re excited to see the kind of ideas that will be presented.


Hidden treasure

There are other ways too in which we’re trying to stay ahead of the curve: Earlier in 2014 we became the first charity to start accepting Bitcoin donations. The idea to do this came from one of the guys in our social media team, Luke Williams, and it was he who then really drove the idea to fruition. It was very disruptive - it took our legal and finance guys right to the edge of their comfort zone, and it was a little while before senior leaders felt confident enough to get fully behind the concept. But we pushed it through - and we’re glad we did so, because we’ve found it to be a very positive experience. We are now receiving a relatively steady influx of donations through Bitcoin, and we hope and expect that this will gather momentum over time. 


Revisiting digital infrastructure 

We’re seeing a growing need across the organisation, and in every single campaign, to be more dynamic with digital and to have more integration across platforms, rather than having just a campaign page and then sending out the traditional mailers. And so we are now in the process of completely overhauling our digital infrastructure. We will be re-platforming our content so that it’s separated from the way in which we service it, in order that we can scale to any new media devices (such as wearables), that are likely to take off in 2015. 


In it for the long haul 

It’s easy, when you’re still seeing a good return on investment from your traditional activities, to just keep doing what you’ve always been doing and hope for the best. Diverting resources and expenditure away from these traditional channels and putting them into less immediately tangible/rewarding activities is daunting; but unless you make some of these longer-term investments - and allow your people to test new things, make mistakes, learn from them and try again - it will be very hard to stay ahead of the curve. With developments in social and digital communication growing exponentially, there will come a point where that curve is going to start to dip south very quickly and - especially for traditionally older people’s charities - that will be quite a steep fall to take if you don’t allow the teams to think differently and add new things. 


From the top down, charities need to try to create a more agile culture - and to keep it going. Whatever you do, try to maintain strong ties with your digital partners and keep your finger on the pulse. For inspiration, look outside of your own industry at what other industries are doing to engage people - particularly those industries that tend to be a little bit ahead of the curve, like the tech start-ups.


Neil Thornburn is digital transformation manager and Russell Tarr is strategic brand marketing manager at RNLI.


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