Philanthropy researchers have spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to understand the donor's point of view, and they've taken much of what they've learned and condensed it into a sector-specific typology: Donor. Volunteer. Activist. Advocate. Maybe it's time, however, for a more sophisticated approach to how we classify these types of constituent relationships — and how we structure our organizations around them.
In many nonprofits, departments and staff are organized according to the nature of their constituent involvement. You have volunteer coordinators, corporate donor managers, major gift directors, membership managers, and so on. What's more, many nonprofits still keep their development functions separate from their marketing and communications teams.
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, available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
The most effective nonprofits don't operate this way.
Ask yourself this: Do the labels we attach to people influence how we relate to them, or how they view their relationship to us?
What do we really mean when we say things like, "She's a key donor." "He's a great volunteer." "She's a real advocate."
Do the people we talk about in those terms see themselves in the same way? Does she see herself as a "donor," or a "volunteer," or an "advocate"? And does it matter if she doesn't?
From donor engagement studies and the research on millennials we have done, we know that most nonprofit supporters don't think of themselves in terms of their transactional relationship with the organizations they support. They don't give or volunteer out of loyalty to an organization. More often than not, their willingness to give or volunteer is rooted in the idea that their support for an organization or cause will improve the lives of others.
If our findings are accurate — and we think they are — nonprofits should be thinking about how they can reorganize their teams and functions around the way their supporters see themselves, rather than in transactional terms. Marketers, fundraisers, volunteer coordinators, and activism departments must work together on a consistent basis to ensure that supporters are seen and treated as believers in your organization and cause, while managers must encourage an environment of teamwork rather than competition for donors/members/subscribers.
On a practical level, staff in these departments should be tasked with creating a supporter involvement plan for the year that emphasizes constituent participation and action, as well as narratives and collateral that reinforce their passion for your issue or cause.
You might want to even consider adding a new role to your staff: Supporter engagement manager/director. The person in that role would coordinate the calls to actions from all the departments in your organization into a singular, sequential model of constituent engagement. If implemented thoughtfully and effectively, this kind of organized teamwork and focused communication almost guarantees future fundraising success, especially with millennials.
If your organization truly believes its donors and supporters are willing (and eager) to contribute in many ways to its success, this is how you should be aligning your work flows. It may be a little awkward at first, but if you keep at it — and give your supporter engagement manager/director enough authority to make sure that everyone is on the same page at all times — you will be pleased with the results.