If you've followed my series of Sustainable Nonprofit articles, you're already familiar with my take on the need to move potential supporters from mere interest to deep engagement with your cause over time. There are lots of people out there who want to do good, who stand up for what is right, and who even devote most of their time to organizing others, but in general nonprofits are not doing all they could to tap into that interest and energy.
If you're a nonprofit executive, what can you do to get the public involved in your issue or cause? Are you talking to the right people, the people most likely to become an advocate for your organization?
I was asked this question recently by a reporter who wanted to know why why so many legacy nonprofits (that is, those that have been around a while) struggle to stay relevant and keep the interest of their donors and supporters. Her sense was that younger people don't really connect with legacy organizations because of the way those organizations raise money or talk about what they do, and that the public in general isn't interested in the work of these nonprofits because of a perception that they long ago stopped caring about the public and instead focus most of their efforts on high-net-worth donors.
While those assumptions may have some basis in reality, my answer wasn't what the reporter was expecting.
Really great nonprofit executives today, I said, those who succeed at getting the public engaged in their cause, tend to focus their time and energy on four key stakeholder groups: people who can tell their organization's story, people who are innovating in their organization's space/issue area, people who organize and bring others to their issue, and people who challenge the way their organization approaches an issue. In many cases, nonprofits that have lost the attention of John and Jane Q. Public may have focused on these groups in the past, but somewhere along the way they fell out of the habit or simply forgot why John and Jane are important. Does that sound like your nonprofit?
To truly get the public to move from interest to engagement to action, nonprofits need to create intentional conversations and, where possible, actual partnerships with these key stakeholder groups. Here's how:
People who can tell your organization's story. Nonprofit leaders need to know who is driving the narrative about their issue. Historically, nonprofit narratives were driven by the media — and in some cases, they still are. But there are powerful new storytellers on the scene. Whether it's in the form of blogs, YouTube video channels, or popular Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram feeds, social media has taken the world by storm — and nonprofits need to identify the "influentials" leading the charge in their space and educate them about their issue. Don't think of these relationships as a way to change someone's point of view; instead, think of it as an opportunity to work with that person to create content that appeal totheir followers and provides them with a perspective they may not have.
People who are innovating in your organization's space/issue area. Leaders of nonprofit organizations like to think their organizations are the only innovators working on an issue or cause. That's very rarely the case. Which is why nonprofits need to pay attention to who else is working on their issue and whether there are advantages to connecting with them and learning more about their thinking and approach. Organizations tend to outperform when challenged by new ways of thinking and doing, and so nonprofit executives should be spending time with people and leaders who have a vision and are as smart, or smarter, than they are. Don't let ego get in the way of a conversation, or series of conversations, that could turn into something remarkable. Now is the time for executives to embrace real innovation in their space and to figure out how the future of their issue and organization is likely change due to demographic shifts, rapid technological innovation, and disruptive change.
People who organize and bring others to your issue. Every nonprofit leader thinks his or her organization is the very best at bringing potential supporters and donors into the ongoing conversations generated by their issue. In reality, that honor more likely belongs to grassroots activists and community leaders who know the issue inside-out and have spent years on the frontlines of the issue. Take time to learn from these unsung heroes. Study their message and methods and what they are doing to bring people together around your issue or cause. Ask them why they have been successful and what kind of role your organization should be playing in terms of building a movement. Look for opportunities to collaborate and to introduce your organization's stakeholders to these movement builders.
People who challenge the way your organization approaches it issue. Somewhere out there, right now, a researcher, academic, or highly engaged individual is questioning the effectiveness and relevancy of your model. Don't panic. Your critics are your friends. And when they are critical of your organization, it's not because they're malicious and want to take you down; it's because, like you, they want what's best for your constituents. They want you to succeed and to more effectively engage donors and potential supporters in the issue. And they want you to forge ahead while being open to constructive feedback. Don't be defensive about your critics. Reach out to those who have challenged your organization and ask them what you could be doing better. Have a conversation with the researcher who says your model needs a refresh. Try to understand how you can use their criticisms to strengthen your work and get others to see you differently.
Beyond your actual donors and volunteers, these four stakeholder groups have a large and growing role in how the public perceives your organization and its work. True relevance happens when an executive and her management team intentionally and consistently work to engage all four groups, welcoming their views and their constructive criticism. To best serve its constituents, your organization needs to be at its best, and that means reaching out to, engaging with, and, yes, even working with others. The more the merrier!
Derrick Feldmann is the president of Achieve, a research and marketing agency for causes, and the author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change, now available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble