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Bridge23 recap: Let’s amplify being human

Van Gogh coffee-1OK, everyone. It’s my turn to go Van Gogh and give my impressionist take on the 2023 Bridge Conference. While "Amplified" was the phrase on stage, I think "Being Human" gets the standing ovation.

Because it’s people who connect via relationships. You know, "human" stuff. 

For those who don’t know, the top minds across the nonprofit marketing space gather each year at the Bridge Conference in Washington, D.C. This was the 18th year of the conference, and IMO, the best one yet.

I took the weekend to unpack and unwind—it’s been a month!—and I’ve come up with three takeaways from Bridge.

So. Much. Energy.

It was great to see old friends, make new friends and have so many face-to-face conversations!

From the opening keynote by pro wrestler Titus O’Neil to the final dinner with colleagues, I felt like Pac-Man after just eating a power dot—unstoppable and hungry for more. Ghosts, beware!

While remote work has its perks, nothing can replace that energy of being around a group of incredibly smart people. Being at Bridge felt like a Slack channel going viral and coming to life. Can I get a thumbs up on that?

I was especially thrilled to be part of the discussions in the Fundraising.AI group on Thursday morning. As artificial intelligence advances and moves into the nonprofit space, many of us are working to create a framework of responsible best practices to navigate this complicated landscape.

Special shoutout to Nathan Chappell, Meena Das, Mallory Erickson and Tim Sarrantonio (listing merely the four leadoff batters from a massive all-star lineup) for all the hard work they’ve put into this. If you want to learn more, you must sign up for the Fundraising.AI Virtual Global Summit in October.

We’re in a moment of transformation

My colleague Chris Weiland said it best in a video on LinkedIn: “I feel like we’re on a precipice as an industry.”

Declining trust. Low engagement. Aging donors. The list of challenges for nonprofits is loooooong.

Digital technology. Advanced modeling. Artificial intelligence. The list of opportunities for nonprofits, however, is equally long. In fact, I optimistically believe it’s LONGER.

How do organizations make the shift into a new age of fundraising? This was the topic of many discussions throughout the conference.

We can’t keep doing the same thing we’ve always done. It’s why RKD Group has started the movement to #QuitBadFundraising. Now is the time to invest in long-term strategies like connecting data and building the right tech stack.

Rhea Wong put it best in her closing keynote: “Are you playing to win—or just not to lose?” That lands with me still … I want to win!

It’s time to build better experiences

So what comes next?

We need to treat donors as human beings, not transactions. We need to change our focus from channel-first to audience-first.

Commercial retailers made the leap forward in technology during the pandemic, and donors now have higher expectations for communication. Nonprofits must use technology to create more personalized experiences and build stronger relationships with donors. (Note: person = human.)

These humans aren’t "digital donors" or "direct mail donors." They consume content across all channels, and we need to deliver that better experience to them. After all, the full name of this conference is the Bridge to Integrated Fundraising & Marketing.

In his keynote address on Wednesday, Tim Lockie reminded us that we must keep the human ahead of the tech: "Never underestimate the power of belonging." I don’t think we’re meant to live alone, hiding behind the avalanche of technology. Our humanity requires a different economy … one of "being with" each other.

So there it is. That’s my take: Being Human. We are people first, needing connections and valuing relationships.

In this age of technology, we’re all energized by engaging with our fellow humans and being a part of something bigger. The nonprofits who succeed in the coming years will be the ones who find a way to build these connections with their donors … I mean … with their humans.

Bart Lillie

Bart Lillie has three decades of experience in nonprofit storytelling, analytics, and partnerships. As Vice President of Strategic Engagement at RKD Group, Bart is a dynamic advocate for organizations who are solving the world's most important problems. His fundraising career began as a student telemarketer for the University of Michigan and continued with nonprofit and technology roles serving people and delivering results.

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