Build a Community of Cause Champions
Community is like the ocean. Always present and rippling with potential. When the current is flowing in your direction, sailing is easy but when the waves are crashing against you, the strongest of ships struggle.
Organizations that seek to find growth and success depend on a cause community to carry them. But building and harnessing the power of community can’t be achieved through a list of emails and neatly timed social media posts. Relying on those alone leaves us lost at sea.
Why Build a Community?
A community is a group of people bound together with shared experiences and passion, a common goal, and deep associations to our causes. They create networks of support, advocacy and volunteerism. Engaging our supporters, showing them appreciation, and empowering them to champion our causes significantly improves our fundraising efforts and expands the awareness of our programs. Here are four reasons why your nonprofit should build one.
1. It Creates a Sense of Belonging
When a strong community develops, fundraisers, donors and volunteers feel like they belong to a family that relies on them and needs them. Belonging to a strong community keeps people coming back to events and enables them to be ambassadors for your cause.
2. It Has Your Organization’s Back
Through pandemics, partisan politics and volatile economies, a strong and vibrant community will stand with us and carry our cause through challenges.
3. People Share Your Cause in Their Lives
When community members are actively connected to a nonprofit and especially to each other, it amplifies their cause-driven passion. They will brag to their friends, wear your organization’s hats and mention your staff members by name in conversations with their families. This behavior doesn’t live 9 to 5; it is persistent and ever-present.
4. People Feel Ownership
Communities are responsible for nonprofits’ shared successes. When goals are met, communities celebrate together. When a community of champions plays a vital role in the mission, others outside of the community feel the current and are magnetized toward becoming part of something bigger than themselves.
How to Build and Keep a Community
Earlier in my career at ZERO — The End of Prostate Cancer, we made the mistake of believing if we just reached at-risk wealthy men who had connections, we would be successful.
It wasn’t until we talked about prostate cancer as a family disease; eagerly and openly invited spouses, significant others and children into the cause; and celebrated their involvement in the cause that we made progress in creating a community.
Now, the most important endeavor we do is build our community members into cause champions. In short, our champions are defined as people who will do almost anything to end prostate cancer. A champion is a steady fundraiser, reliable volunteer, an ardent advocate and a proud ambassador.
Some organizations will follow the old-school habits of the for-profit world, treating donors like customers. They will give them a transactional, stuffy and business-like experience while staff will use buzz terms, like “the sales funnel.”
A donor who just made their first gift should be congratulated. Or, even better — build a relationship that creates repeat donors and fundraisers. Not only is it more efficient to retain current supporters than to acquire new ones — it’s essential to building a cause community.
At ZERO, we developed a tool called the ZERO Flywheel. Unlike a funnel, a flywheel is always in motion. It is highly efficient at capturing and storing energy. And it makes it easy to see where there’s friction. Here’s how we apply it.
1. Attract New People
There are two major ingredients to attract new people. First, we understand the types of people coming to our website, participating in our programs and signing up for our events by developing avatars. At ZERO, we found three main types:
- The determined patient who won’t get beat by cancer
- The couple that tackles life’s challenges together
- The child, spouse or loved one who has lost someone to the disease and is determined not to have it happen to others.
The second and the most important ingredient is empowering current champions. I’ll circle back to them in step No. 3.
2. Engage Participants
There are two parts to making participant engagement work, and I learned both from my friends over at Turnkey. First, we have to ask participants to come back. We don’t get recurring donors, event-goers or policy advocates if we don’t ask them to return.
We also have to be very clear in asking. For example, “I hope you donate to our spring campaign” is not a question. “Will you donate $100 today to enable more advocates to influence changes in access to care?” is a question.
Second, we discover how each of these supporters describe their identity related to the cause. For example, if a cause champion thinks of themselves as a “guardian” and an “advocate,” we use those words when we communicate with them. It’s incredibly effective in increasing the chances they increase their involvement in the cause.
3. Show the Love
Getting involved in a cause is an emotional action. It’s critical that our staff reach out with genuine open hearts to our ongoing constituents. It forges that sense of belonging, encourages them to invite the cause into their personal lives and accept the mantle of cause champion.
A participant who is taking repeated action and is given a specific title that lets them know they’re valued and appreciated will serve as an ardent ambassador. This is where the ingredient I mentioned in step No. 1 comes into play. By celebrating our champions and telling their stories to the public, people who have a connection to the cause but haven’t yet taken action will feel drawn to want to be part of a cause community and an extended family that shares their same priorities and values.
4. Diagnose What to Work on
Using a flywheel model helps us understand where there's friction, and enables us to address problems quickly and keep the process of building community spinning. Here are three examples of problems that could happen and what we can ask ourselves to keep the flywheel spinning.
- Not getting enough new people into the cause. “Are we telling enough stories of our champions who have things in common with those who are moved by the cause?”
- Struggling with getting participants to return. “Are we directly asking them to come back and are we using the right words or speaking their love language to encourage involvement?”
- Slow on building champions. “Are we making authentic connections and building real relationships with our supporters in a way that the cause is invited into their hearts and homes?”
The preceding blog was provided by an individual unaffiliated with NonProfit PRO. The views expressed within do not directly reflect the thoughts or opinions of NonProfit PRO.
Jamie Bearse is an award-winning nonprofit CEO and executive. Over the past 21 years, he’s helped lead and advance cancer causes through strategic planning, fundraising, retention and recruitment, and team and culture building. Currently, he’s the CEO and founder of Build a Better Nonprofit and lives outside of Boston with his family.