Does Your Nonprofit Have a Community of Constituents? Probably Not.
There is something wrong with the world that is infecting social good. Our social connections are weak. In some cases, broken altogether. There is little trust between people. This lack of trust extends to social good organizations. The result? Our society is in decline, along with its support of social good.
The solution is to rebuild communities. Creating positive connections between people solves many problems. With social connections, we get things done, and are happier and healthier. An engaged community solidifies the identity of the members as warriors for your mission. Engagement with a community creates trust — both in your mission and with your constituents.
Why does this matter? Jon Thompson, associate vice president of philanthropic strategy and technology at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) explains best:
“At CHOP, our data has confirmed what should have been expected: People are looking for a sense of belonging, a sense of community. In a world where we are more connected than ever, we are also more separated on the emotional connections that really matter. The kind that adds up to the greatest lifetime value and not the lowest cost-per-dollar raised.
“We work to leverage our events and donor relationships to try to give people that sense of participation in something bigger, but we never really know if that is adding up to true community versus masking symptoms of separation. In many ways, the gift of the increasing cost of acquisition is the latitude to explore advanced stewardship and how to deepen engagement for the sake of a true relationship.”
In answer to the lack-of-belonging problem everywhere, here are the strategic steps to building a constituent community.
1. Understand Community and Foster It Throughout the Organization
What does “community” mean? Social psychologists say, “A community shares a common idea or belief, and its members can communicate with each other.”
The latter is the tricky part. Four types of communication happen with an organization’s constituents:
- Organization to many constituents. All of our communications to our constituents.
- Constituents to the organization. Cool! Somebody answered.
- Constituents to outsiders. Social fundraising, board recruitment, mission outreach, advocacy, etc.
- Constituents to constituents. Hmm.
The latter is most effective at creating warriors for a cause because of a tricky mental thing called the “self-validation feedback loop.” In short, people are attracted to others who are like themselves in some way. Their identity as a “warrior for the cause” is strengthened when they engage with each other. That makes them want to engage more because having others validate your identity is very satisfying. And the wheel, the loop, goes round and round.
And yet, nonprofits now spend the least amount of time and money fostering communication between constituents. When they do, it’s by accident while trying to achieve something else, like raising money right now!
The American Cancer Society put leadership volunteers together in person for its Relay for Life leadership committees by event, state, region, division and nationally. However, the work done was indoctrination (for good) via the self-validation feedback loop these volunteers experienced:
- Boards. Together, form relationships with each other.
- Support groups. Together, talk, self-validate.
What is common here is these efforts were done for a different reason than building community for the sake of building community. Interestingly, most social fundraising practitioners recognize that they are successful when they foster constituent engagement with other constituents, so develop and articulate a culture that makes giving constituents exposure to one another part of your organization’s DNA. Everyone will be happier. The revenue will show up. Put this value into your strategic and operational planning.
2. Knock Down Walls
Community formation is road-blocked by departmental and data silos. If giving constituents exposure to each other isn’t part of a plan agreed upon at the highest levels, instituting it will be impossible. Departmental and interpersonal skirmishes will result, destroying organizational goodwill and failing to build a constituent community.
What kind of skirmishes?
Major gifts. Major gift officers typically carefully shepherd major donors to get the best view of the nonprofit’s work. Offering a major donor a view of a local walk, exposure to the local board members or entry into a support group without a tour guide is scary.
Events. If we invited our walk leadership committee en masse to a gala, would they start recruiting right there? Should we do that? The answer is usually, “No, let’s stick to people with high capacity.” But that precludes some major donors from strengthening their ties to our mission through the self-validation feedback loop. If retention and lifetime value is our goal, we should put these people with others with high affinity, not with high-capacity, low-affinity newbs.
We also exclude the walk leadership volunteers — some of whom will have capacity at some point down the road if they don’t already — from seeing a different way to give. We are counting on our brilliant gala production to create affinity instead of letting nature take its course, building it the way we have evolved psychologically to build affinity — through community membership.
Annual revenue. We set up annual revenue as the primary indicator of success. We must pay the bills, but only using annual revenue as a metric is like saying, “We can’t afford the water,” when the house is burning down.
Social media. We don’t pursue those who donate on social media since we can’t get their data, and their affinity is too low. Somebody gave something because of a community connection. But we are walking right by that gold coin.
Why do we walk on by? Organizationally, it’s hard, and personally, it’s psychologically hard. A flourishing community isn’t under our control. It’s a “if you love it, let it go” moment. To date, we haven’t loved it enough to let it go.
3. Evaluate Community Build-Out
Journey map using the definition of community:
- Do the constituents share the idea, the belief? Do we attract people with that idea?
- Do we give them the opportunity to activate the self-validation feedback loop? Do we put them together?
If you’ve achieved leadership buy-in, you can now do the work. Figure out where you are and where you want to go. At this stage, after training people on the “why are we doing this,” get help from everyone — leadership, staff at all levels, volunteers and your mission audience. Create a community of people who are dedicated to creating a community.
The primary metric for this is lifetime value, which measures affinity and membership in the community. Find naturally occurring benchmarks to measure over time. Your technology vendors and marketing department can help. Teach everyone what you are doing and why.
4. Don’t Mistake Community Activities for the Community Itself
Your community crosses all lines. To presume that one initiative is the community imposes our expectations on the community. They will self-sort into smaller groups, and some of those smaller groups may surprise you. Instead of sorting into “moms who have a child with a pediatric brain tumor who have a walk team,” they may sort into “moms who have a child with a pediatric brain tumor who live in Manchester and do your walk, online Facebook fundraising, act on legislative priorities, and various other activities over time.”
An activity may already have a sequestered community alive, a vibrant gala committee, for example. If so, learn from it and the nonprofit professionals who made it happen. Their experience can be deployed to build an encompassing community.
However, putting the poor information technology people in charge of standing up an online community platform is unfair. They aren’t empowered enough to make this happen. This is why most efforts to build online communities in social good die. Standing up a community crosses every boundary inside an organization. Somebody with a “chief” title must lead the charge across those trenches.
Is an online community platform a great idea? Heck yeah! And soon, it will be the norm as we seek safer spaces to engage with each other. But know that you are only giving the community just one more place to meet, like at board meetings, walks or galas. It is not the community.
5. Nourish the Community
The experience of online community-building affirms 20% of the people do 80% of the work and 80% of the engagement. That 20% will establish the DNA of your community. Don’t invite everyone in at first. Invite the top 5% of the passionate into your holistic community. Build situations that satisfy them — like retreats where you give deep dives into the organization’s strategic plan and ask them to workgroup certain ideas. Though it may be valuable, you are not after these workgroups’ work output. Your goal is the three hours they spent together. Learn. Tweak. Build more situations. Measure satisfaction.
Build your community. The money will follow.
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.
Related story: Community Building Is the Climate Change of Social Good
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.