How to Build Your Nonprofit Community
Although many in the nonprofit sector are loath to admit it, we lag behind our for-profit counterparts in some regards. Heresy alert: in most ways, “selling” our missions is no different than selling consumer goods. In both cases, what we’re after is a satisfied customer; people who are satisfied come back for more. Does it matter that the sources of satisfaction are very different? Not at all.
There is one area where for-profits are five to 10 years ahead of nonprofits, namely building communities around their brands and products. We need to catch up — and quickly.
First, full disclosure — I hate it when people who work at for-profits start comparing their companies to nonprofits. It makes me nuts, the condescension. My response is always the same: “I guess you’re talking about companies that survive, because 75% or so of for-profits aren’t around for the long haul.”
That’s different from what a lot of people in nonprofits say when responding to some smug, for-profit executive looking down their nose at them: “Nonprofits are fundamentally different from for-profits. We have to approach our supporters in a totally different way than you do with buyers.”
That answer isn’t true. Nonprofits and for-profits actually do provide their supporters with the same thing for-profits sell them — satisfaction.
Community Is Satisfying
Something that people find highly satisfying is participation in a community. Communities help us define who we are, and engagement with like-minded community members validates our sense of identity. For-profits routinely focus on building communities of customers that support their products and brands. Nonprofits — not so much.
If nonprofits are to improve on the poor retention rates of constituents, we must up our game regarding building community. A First Round Capital study found that 80% of startups today are already investing in community, and 28% consider it to be their “moat,” or protection against the competition, and critical to their success.” In another study of companies investing in community (opens as a pdf), 88% said that community is critical to their company's mission.
Community Is People With a Common Interest
What exactly do I mean when I say “community”? It’s more than “the 20,000 names on our email list,” which is how I often hear nonprofits describe their communities. Broadly defined, a community is a group of people with some common interest and a way to communicate with each other about it.
Here’s a good example of how one for-profit has built a community. I stumbled upon a Facebook group last year called Tieks Anonymous. Tieks is a brand of shoe that looks like ballet slippers; the shoes can cost $200 or more a pair. The 42,000 group members post photos of themselves in their Tieks. Here’s a typical post I pulled from the feed:
I saw these Chestnut on eBay today. Look how pretty. The toe box is deeper on these older ones. I've read some debate on here lately about the toe box. I wish they all looked like this on me. My feet are wide, and I have a bad bunion on one, so I have a hard time with shoes in general. Anyhoo... I won't stop buying them... ever... and if they look funny on my weird feet I don't care, lol. Just wish they were deeper like these.
The post got a combinations of 86 likes, loves and wows, as well as 54 comments. Here are a couple of typical comments:
- “The chestnut feet are perfect and straight, although I do see the big toe popping up in the front. They do look like they have longer toe box, but I don’t think they will look much diff than your TPs do. Are your TPs comfortable?”
- “Yep. I have 9 pairs purchased over the years... the older ones are def better!”
The Tieks community example illustrates how much people want engagement and interaction. I mean, these are shoes. If we are smart in building communities of people to feed the hungry, heal the sick, protect the climate, etc., people will respond in the same way.
How to Build a Minimum Viable Community
How people find your community will depend on the stage of your community, the kind of community you're building, and how established your existing audience is. Your nonprofit may already have a community of supporters that is more or less mature. If not, here’s how to start a Minimum Viable Community (MVC), which can be built to provide you with member feedback very quickly.
1. Choose a Platform
The initial platform choice is important. Hosting your community on any large social network, like Facebook, Slack or LinkedIn, will enable you to tap into their network effects and recommendation algorithms. Hosting your community on an existing social network comes with a big value-add. As with Facebook, your potential community members are already spending time there. But as we know, it comes at the cost of ownership of a lot of member data that could help you improve your community experience.
2. Recruit Members
Getting the first community members on board requires a good deal of work. But if you’ve got things like a list of recurring donors, volunteers, etc., that’s a big leg up. Carefully choose who you recruit because these first members then work to recruit new members and spread awareness. Forget the “if you build it, they will come” mindset. Just setting up the right circumstances, platform, etc., won’t guarantee success. It’s super unlikely that you’ll go viral.
3. Test Content
You’ll want to constantly test what kind of content your community responds to. This is easy to do, of course, with a virtual community. Often things that you bet would spur engagement will be received with crickets, and seemingly mundane topics will get lots of response. Test, test, test to see what your community responds to. The ways members participate to start can be as simple as reading a blog post, answering a questionnaire or subscribing to a newsletter. As people become more engaged with the community, they will be more likely to participate in greater ways.
4. Grow Your Community
Once you’ve stood up the community with solid membership, it can move into the growth stage. You’ll know you’ve reached this point because members will start inviting other members; people will start to come to your community organically. Make sure that your community is listed and promoted on your website. Your goal is to get to the point where word of mouth becomes the biggest driver of growth: “many talking to many.”
It’s real work and I’m only just scratching the surface here. But once it gets going, a community is like a fire; it's always going to be very difficult to put out a community.
To use an earlier analogy, the Tieks Anonymous group is a moat around their brand. Tieks has 17 or more cheaper brands of shoes that compete in their market. Competitors can copy the product, but not the community. And you’ll never see anyone in the Tieks Anonymous group wearing Naturalizers.
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.
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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 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.