The New Peer-to-Peer Landscape: A Shift From Hosting Events to Building Communities
“Tis but a scratch” is a popular line spoken by the Black Knight character in the 1975 film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” upon having his arms chopped off by King Arthur and refusing to give up their duel. The line has since become a popular catchphrase online, often used ironically to downplay a type of damage. As the duel continues and the Black Knight loses his other arm, he remarks it’s “Just a flesh wound.”
When we suffer a 75% loss of participants, we try to say, “Just a flesh wound.” That 75% hemorrhage of constituents is killing us. But there is a way to quit cutting off our arms and legs. It will be almost as uncomfortable. We’re going to have to learn a new trick.
We need to run communities instead of events.
Instead of getting great at running events, we should have been systematizing and improving methods that foster community. By community, I mean a group of people who identify around some defining characteristic, goal or mission, and interact with one another to share ideas. Note, providing them with a way to communicate with each other is key. We have been shouting at constituents instead of building ways for them to talk to each other.
I have spent a lifetime or two serving social good by focusing on events. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy considering things like:
- What are the best practices for events?
- What systems and processes help events produce more revenue?
- What’s the best kind of event?
All good questions – but I should have also been asking why do we need events?
Sadly, we apply systems and processes to a thing that is secondary to our success. We thought events were the point, and that the event’s success was our success. And that meant we had to acquire 75% of participants each year. The pandemic and the Facebook flood have created a world where our constituents will no longer tolerate our behavior.
Events will become necessary, but not sufficient, as the saying goes. We’ve taken the path of least resistance because event production is straightforward, and community-building is not. It’s time we learned how community works and how to systematize it. So here we go — community-building is about identity.
I’ve written before about the powerful way that a person’s identity shapes their behavior. As the marketing guru Seth Godin famously said, “People like us do things like this.”
There are many aspects to a person’s identity. I’m a mother, wife, gardener, composter extraordinaire, volleyball player, etc. At any given time, depending on what’s happening around me, certain aspects of my identity are more important than others, more “salient,” as psychologists say. One of the tricks of the trade in marketing is to activate — or prime — some part of a person’s identity right before you ask them to take some action, like buying something or donating. This priming makes that identity attribute salient in the moment.
I get primed by seed companies sending content about why planting indigenous species of plants helps pollinators. I read this content because I have bought into being a good global citizen; I want to save the natural world. My identity attribute of “global citizen/flora division” is salient in that moment. Then, they sell me seeds.
But in the nonprofit world, we eliminate most priming opportunities. We silo.
Most nonprofits have siloed interactions with constituents to the point that we are like a grocery store that only lets customers shop in the aisles it wants them to shop in, be damned why they came to the store.
“You’re here for social fundraising, right? Aisle seven. No, no, that’s major giving. Wrong aisle — keep moving.” Insert glare from major gift officer to social fundraising lead. Elbows thrown. Constituent stands there confused, unprimed.
We’ve always known it was wrong to silo in this way, but we didn’t internalize why. In this scenario, we just blocked a constituent from having an opportunity to express a salient identity attribute. The typical model — at least pre-pandemic — has been to wage war against whatever as part of an event. The event model has some strengths; namely, it builds to some culmination. But overall, it’s a weak vehicle for expressing one’s identity. It’s just not enough.
According to the U.K.’s Dr. Adrian Sargeant, the average donor sticks around a nonprofit for an average of 4.6 years. And these are the annual givers he’s describing; research shows that between 70% and 80% of first-time donors don’t give again.
I garden every day. I compost ridiculous things, like hair from haircuts, Amazon boxes, dryer lint and coffee grounds collected during vacation and transported home against my husband’s wishes. I yell at my husband to stop the car when I see a wildflower not currently growing in my yard because I need to collect the seeds. This is part of my lifestyle; these behaviors all feed my identity every day, not just once a year for an event. The lack of multiple opportunities to prime identity attributes is why it’s been so difficult for us to get people to adopt the “warrior against X” identity, which would produce warriors that stick around a lot longer than 4.6 years.
With an event experience, we offer a singular moment to express one’s identity. However, participation in a community allows expression of one’s identity in infinitely more ways over a much longer time.
How can we get to a place where engagement with our mission is a part of our supporters’ lifestyles? The events are necessary but not sufficient. The trick is to find more ways for supporters to create their own experiences to express their beliefs. That happens best in the context of being part of a community. And that happens when the organization at large has decided to systematize community-building.
Top 3 Ways To Systematize Building a Nonprofit Community
- Seek support for collaboration to build communities, not just run events. The event experience should always be woven into the larger picture. Everyone must help systematize community by reinforcing identity.
- Our peer-to-peer platforms must develop community-building opportunities. Building ways for participants to talk to each other like Facebook did would be the best way to support this effort.
- Constituent retention and the lifetime value of supporters are our focuses. Updating metrics and training all staff to create opportunities for people to express their identity is the best way to achieve this goal. When this becomes obvious to everyone, we won’t succeed by just doing events better.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the September/October 2021 print edition of NonProfit PRO as “The New Peer-to-Peer Landscape.” Click here to subscribe.
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 also regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” 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.