Here's a situation: A few hundred people, maybe more, start acting like they care about what you do, decide to follow you on social media, and/or sign up for your email list. But when it comes to needing them to actually take action for your cause, they pretty much disappear.
It's a scenario I hear a lot from frustrated fundraisers and nonprofit marketers who struggle to convert fans and followers of their organizations into supporters and champions. In part, that's because the idea of "doing good" has never been more popular. But actually doing something to make a difference is a different story.
What can you do you to change this dynamic?
First, let's take a step back and examine the way the average person engages with a cause he or she cares about.
Because humans are inherently empathetic, when we see suffering, injustice, or an opportunity to make a difference, our brain tells us to do something. That doesn't necessarily mean, however, that we're ready to go all in for the cause. Instead, most of us will opt for a lower-cost option like signing up for a newsletter, following an organization on social media, or signing a petition. These kinds of "actions" satisfy our impulse to do something without committing us to do more (like making a donation or volunteering our time).
When we opt for this kind of low-level, low-cost action, we are signaling to people or an organization working to address a cause that it's okay to communicate with us. As a result, the development and marketing folks at the organization will begin to send us information about the organization, fundraising solicitations, and even requests to volunteer or organize an event or activity.
But there's an unintended consequence to this approach: It eliminates a potential supporter's ability to follow a self-directed path of discovery, learning, and action on behalf of a cause, shifting his or her attention instead to the organization's own messaging and need to move us up a ladder of engagement. In other words, it becomes more about the organization than about us.
Such an approach rarely succeeds in converting interest into action.
How to avoid this? How can you turn people with a general interest in doing good and a passing interest in your cause or organization into enthusiastic supporters and champions? Here are five steps to consider:
1. Follow initial interest with personal outreach. After someone shows initial interest (e.g., signs a petition, registers for your newsletter, follows you on social media), make a point of reaching out to that person with an opportunity that enables him or her to do something more on behalf of the cause.
2. Let people tell you why they care. Because engagement starts with interest, people first want to be able express why it is they care. So when you first contact a person after she has expressed interest in your cause, give her an opportunity to tell you why she cares about the cause, what it means to her, and whether she is interested in doing more. This should be a chance for her to remind herself why the cause is important.
3. Help them share their interest with others. Once someone has expressed an interest in your cause and told you why he cares, create an opportunity for him to share his interest and reasons for caring with others. This can be done with social media share buttons but can also include things like a statement of support (with an option to sign), a photo wall, and/or a guestbook.
4. Invite them to take action. If a person has taken the time to express her interest on your site, your next step should be to invite her to take a more concrete action. By that I mean, invite her to do something for a person who is a beneficiary of your cause like donating her time, a skill, or a dollar or three. Such an action on behalf of someone begins the process of moving her beyond her personal interest in the cause and starting to think about what else she can do to help.
5. Ask them to reach out to others. If you succeed in getting someone to give time or money to your cause, your next step should be to ask him to reach out to someone he knows on your behalf. This kind of self-directed ask will help reinforce his own belief in the cause and give him confidence to act as a champion for your organization.
Follow these five steps as many times as needed as you start to move potential supporters from interest to action. I'm not saying that, taken together, they're the answer to your fundraising prayers, but I am confident you'll find that by focusing on turning interest into action and, ideally, self-directed outreach to others, you'll being taking a giant step toward building a community of supporters and champions who are ready to do more than just pay lip service to your cause.
Derrick Feldmann is the president of Achieve, a research and campaigns agency, and the author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change, now available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. In his last post for PhilanTopic, he wrote about the importance of "opportunity" when appealing to donors.