Recently, after a conference panel discussion, a young woman approached me as I was leaving the stage with a request I hear often from nonprofit professionals:
"Derrick, it would be great if you could show your support by tweeting and liking what we're doing."
Now, I happened to know she was part of a good cause and genuinely cared about the people her organization was serving. But the request was a little unsettling. Did she want me to show my support for her organization? Or for the people the organization was trying to help?
Let's examine the distinction.
We can show support for a cause in any number of ways. We can quietly make a donation through Facebook or an organization's website, create a scholarship in honor of a favorite teacher, or go big and make a lead gift for a building that will have our name on it. We can sign a petition, write our representatives in Congress, share an image or post on social media, or boycott a company or product. We can even walk, run, or bike for a cause or grow a mustache for a month.
All of these are tangible displays of how we, as an individual, feel about an issue — or, more accurately, about the people affected by that issue.
What these actions are not are displays of how we feel about an organization.
Someone who wears a pink hat or shaves her head is not doing it to say, "OMG, this organization is so great!" By putting her beliefs and personal experience out there for others to see, she is standing up and proclaiming, unequivocally, "I care, and I want everyone to know I care. And I hope you'll care, too."
That's why the post-panel discussion request bothered me. As representatives of our organizations, we want people to appreciate the work our organizations do and keep it top-of-mind. But such a mindset runs counter to how people in real life actually engage with a cause.
Instead of asking me (and others) to and acknowledge our support for your organization's work, ask us to actually do something — preferably in the company of others — that shows our commitment to the cause and at the same time advances it.
#VoteTogether is an organization and campaign that encourages people to turn the act of voting into a fun group activity. The organization invites families, friends, and neighbors to "join" nonpartisan block parties, BBQs, and other neighborhood events during the early-voting period and on Election Day itself and encourages them to share their experiences — and celebrate their civic engagement — through their favorite social media sites. As the #VoteTogether website says: "We want to generate a positive shared experience around voting and can’t wait for you to get involved."
And you know what? It works. In two pilot programs, #VoteTogether celebrations helped increase voter turnout in the precincts where they happened by from one to four percentage points.
Or take 412 Food Rescue, a nonprofit in Pittsburgh that notifies individuals in the community who have downloaded its Food Rescue Hero app when a local restaurant has surplus food it plans to throw away. Individuals who receive an alert then have the option of volunteering to pick up the surplus food and delivering it to someone in the community who needs it — on their way home from work, for example, or while they're out shopping. According to 412 Food Rescue, the app has helped boost food security in the food-insecure populations it serves by some 88 percent while keeping perfectly good food out of landfills and enabling people who are passionate about the problem of hunger in America to see the impact of their efforts immediately.
That's what I mean when I tell you to turn your supporters into the heroes of your organization's story. Don't ask them to blow your organization's horn. Instead, ask them to join, with others just like them, in doing the work. Then, and only then, ask them to share their personal story of what that was like and what it meant to them.
At the end of the day, supporters don't know your board or your staff, or really care, one way or the other. What they do care about, deeply, is the issue you are working to address, and like you they are looking for things they can do to make their small part of the world a better place.
By pointing them to something concrete they can do, you'll be doing more than you know to advance your organization's work.
Happy Holidays, everyone.
Derrick Feldmann (@derrickfeldmann) is the author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change and the founder and lead researcher for the Millennial Impact Project.