8 Secrets to Building Online Relationships With People Who Matter
“Stop treating your schmoozing like a business card collection contest. Start over with a new goal: Quality always trumps quantity.” —Minda Zetlin, president, American Society of Journalists and Authors
Collecting—whether business cards, followers on Twitter, "likes" on Facebook or first-time donors—is meaningless without a strategy to turn those relatively blank connections into meaningful, lasting relationships. If your marketing and/or fundraising strategy is based on collecting and counting, it’s time to rethink this strategy.
Collecting is merely the “on ramp to build new relationships.” So said author Andrew Sobel in his book, “Power Relationships,” where he described a better approach to networking and relationship building.
Quality trumps quantity
In order to get anything meaningful out of the process, you need to go deep, not shallow. Merely collecting LinkedIn and Google Plus connections won’t do you any good unless you reach out and dialogue personally with these folks. The same holds true for Facebook fans and Twitter followers. Sobel’s book is oriented toward personal networking, but I believe the principles apply equally well to connecting with prospective volunteers, donors, influencers and advocates.
You can learn more in Minda Zetlin’s "How to Network Like You Really Mean It," where she summarizes Sobel’s research and takeaways from interviewing hundreds of successful executives. While these folks might be in the 500-plus LinkedIn connections category, most could identify only 25 to 30 relationships that made any difference in their careers.
Think about that for a minute. I’m guessing the same holds true for your nonprofit. Out of all your social media connections, how many are truly valuable to you? Which connections make a difference to your bottom line?
In most organizations, the 80/20 Pareto Rule applies. The lion’s share of the value you receive comes from 20 percent or less of your constituents.
Are you identifying these high-impact folks and developing targeted plans to network with and build stronger relationships with these key influencers? Have you considered what types of constituent-centered interactions you might have with folks that would incline them more positively in your direction and drive desired actions?
Engaging with influencers and advocates is a two-way street
The first step is building trust. This is what kick-starts any strong relationship. In the nonprofit world, it surely begins with "thank you." It’s why, in donor-retention circles, we talk so much about the importance of developing a gratitude culture. One that begins with the first donor acknowledgment, and continues on with many, many more expressions of thanks.
Trust creates a satisfaction-based connection. If you want trustworthy folks to spread your message, they have to trust you too. Your donor, influencer or advocate must get from you what they expect in order to trust you moving forward.
Learn to become what Chris Brogan calls a “trust agent.” Be the person who networks from a human perspective, not an automated robotic stance. Listen. Learn. Respond. Care. Become a "human artist," and not the person Brogan calls "that guy":
You know who we mean: that person who shows up with a bullhorn to promote her projects, to blurt about her interests.
Instead, be the person who puts the horn aside and simply begins a conversation. Join the group. Become one of them. Slowly, share what you know and establish your credibility as a thought leader and actor. In this way, you begin to become a "builder of armies."
Here are eight ways to reframe your nonprofit marketing and fundraising stewardship objectives so you actually get something out of them—beyond counting. You want quality outcomes, don’t you?
8 Relationship-Building Secrets and Action Tips
1. Figure out who matters most—your "critical few." Make a list of your top 20 to 25 professional contacts. Who helps you identify new donors? Who helps you open doors and make valuable connections? Who helps you ask people for more support? This group is what Sobel calls the "critical few."
Action tip: Once you’ve identified your critical few, develop a plan to keep in regular contact with these folks. If you wish, you can develop separate top 20 lists for influencers and major donor prospects. There likely will be a lot of overlap. Note that influencers can be folks who open doors for you offline, as well as folks who make connections and share information on your behalf online. Make a calendar, and include things like sending a holiday card with a personal note, picking up the phone and/or sending a direct tweet to extend birthday greetings, and extending an invitation (or a Skype) to join you for coffee and a schmooze. Periodically call on these folks for feedback and advice. Treat these people like friends and stay in touch. If you see an article you know would interest them, send it along. Get to know them better and better.
2. Pick your next tier. This group might be 50 to 100 contacts. These are people who have helped you and/or have the potential to do more in the future.
Action tip: Make a separate relationship-building plan for these folks. You’ll follow up with less intensity than with your top tier, but you still will want to reach out and touch these folks more deliberately than you will with the bulk of your constituents (for some ideas, get "50 Ways to Move Your Donors: A Relationship-Building Solution Kit").
3. Find easy ways to engage everyone else. In Sobel’s case, "everyone else" is about 10,000 people. He sends them his monthly newsletter and an instructional video at the end of the year.
Action tip: I’m guessing you may already have an e-newsletter. I’d encourage you also to adopt a more inbound marketing strategy, expanding to a blog and judicious use of social media that offers your constituents opportunities to interact with you. I’m particularly partial to contests. They can be super simple, like "Tell us your favorite children’s book (relate this to your cause) and be entered in a raffle to win a branded T-shirt."
4. If you want to connect with someone, find a way to help that person. I often have told fundraisers that if you want gifts, you must give them. It’s important to adopt an attitude of gratitude. Philanthropy means "love of humankind." Show your philanthropists and philanthropy facilitators some love.
Action tip: Figure out what your constituents want and need; then give it to them. It doesn’t have to be expensive or tangible. It can simply be an article you’ve written with answers to frequently asked questions, a how-to guide, or "Top 10 tips to keep your aging parents safe," "go a little greener," "get your kids to finish their homework," "communicate your concerns to your legislator," etc. Share what you know and provide little gifts now to promote longer and more lasting interactions later.
5. Be intriguing. Don’t just do what people expect. If you want to make a connection with a new contact, especially a very busy one, the quickest way to arouse that person’s curiosity is with something unexpected. You can borrow a page from Disneyland when it comes to thinking about ways to wow your supporters.
Action tip: Brainstorm 10 things you might do to delight your supporters in the weeks ahead. They do say "it’s the thought that counts," so think about what you might do. Another way to frame this is by taking a page from customer experience guru John Goodman, author of "Strategic Customer Service," who talks about delivering "Psychic Pizza." What if someone showed up right now with an unexpected gift of pizza? Or, what if you did something really unexpected, like sending out a non-appeal headlined "Don’t send us money!" Then you could simply enclose a brief survey asking for feedback/advice on your programs. What a nice way to simultaneously demonstrate you care about folks for more than their wallets and also get them directly engaged.
6. Think people, not positions. "Everyone reading this knows people who are smart, ambitious, motivated and interesting," Sobel said. "Some of those people, in eight or 10 years, are going to be influencers. They may even be CEOs." Don’t just think about the obvious, established philanthropists and influencers in your community. Those folks are harder to reach and connect with than would have been the case 20 years earlier.
Action tip: Make a list of folks you know who seem to be up-and-comers. Make connections with them now, early in their careers, before others catch on to them. If you do, this will pay dividends down the road.
7. Give before you ask. Sobel tells the story of a business school classmate he hadn’t heard from in 30 years—until he received a long email asking him to invest in a new venture. He hadn’t invested first in building a relationship. Sobel ignored him.
Action tip: If you don’t want your donors and/or influencers to ignore your requests, develop and implement a relationship-building plan first. Call them up on the phone. Get to know them as people. Don’t keep everything at arm's length then expect a hands-on response to your request.
8. Be generous. This takes you back to channeling an organization-wide attitude of gratitude. Another way to think about this is simply as instilling a culture of customer service. “You can’t operate with the thought of reciprocity in mind,” Sobel cautioned. “You have to have a generous spirit. The greatest networkers I know genuinely like to help others. They’re always doing it. And if they ever do need anything, people will fall over themselves to help them.”
Action tip: Make engaging with your customers part of everyone’s jobs. Don’t silo relationship-building to development or marketing staff. Never underestimate the power of your constituents to make or break you. If you’re generous with them, just as a matter of course, they’ll be generous with you. In fact, this is one of Robert Cialdini’s six key principles of influence: reciprocity.
Always keep in mind that no one has to help you. You can’t make people do anything for you. The way to make your supporters count is to join them, not browbeat them. As John Haydon noted in "5 Mind Shifts That Boost Social Sharing":
Become one of them … Find the people who are already talking about your cause, and join their conversations. Quite naturally, on their own terms, they’ll accept you as one of their own.
How are you building your armies using online strategies? Ready to build your army of influencers and donors and make them count? What’s one thing you’ll do differently starting next week? Please share.
If you like craft fairs, baseball games, art openings, vocal and guitar, and political conversation, you’ll like to hang out with Claire Axelrad. Claire, J.D., CFRE, will inspire you through her philosophy of philanthropy, not fundraising. After a 30-year development career that earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award, Claire left the trenches to begin her coaching/teaching practice, Clairification. Claire is also a featured expert and chief fundraising coach for Bloomerang, She’ll be your guide, so you can be your donor’s guide on their philanthropic journey. A member of the California State Bar and graduate of Princeton University, Claire currently resides in San Francisco.