Community First, Then Marketing

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I think it's safe to say that the vast majority of mission founders or directors are lacking marketing experience. It's just not a typical precursor to starting an organization to feed the hungry or distribute clean water. But we can all agree that sharing our message is paramount to fulfilling our mission. The more people who care about our cause, and associate us with the solution, the more donors, volunteers, and talented team members available to scale our impact. Marketing is a bit of an intimidating word. It's often associated with advertising, events, radio and television interviews, published articles, and slimy people who launch a lot at bad jokes and drive black BMWs.

It's also easy to pigeon-hole ourselves in comparison to bigger, well-funded players. When you're relying on word-of-mouth or a few hundred printed brochures from Vistaprint, those tear-jerking American Cancer Society ads can make anyone feel inadequate.

How do you stay grounded in what you do best, while effectively spreading your message, so that you can grow your impact?

You may be surprised to learn that many small nonprofits are making waves on social media. A Nonprofit Technology Network article by Susan Gordon highlighted a interesting comparison:

Following the major earthquake in Japan in 2011, quite a large number of diverse nonprofits put out fundraising campaigns. In looking at those on the crowdfunding platform, Causes, the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, a relatively small organization with just over a million in annual revenue, had raised more than $400,000. Comparatively, the American Red Cross, an organization with more than $3 Billion in annual revenue, pulled in $322,540.

The most successful mission-driven organizations have built loyal and motivated communities.

Social media and online platforms simply provide an efficient (and inexpensive) method to mobilize your community (and their community) around your cause, even if your cause doesn't have cute pictures of babies to post on Facebook.

Social media can seem intimidating and ineffective at first. Most companies have tasked low-level interns to post inspirational italicized quotes on backdrops of flowers every few days.

Unlike this giant waste of time, organizations who engage in activities that build their direct community and then connect regularly with that community online through stories and relevant information take advantage of social media as an amplifier. An example:

A 45-year old banker who regularly gives $20 to various charities loses his 19-year-old son to an accidental overdose. Having previously distanced himself from substance abuse, "those are bad kids whose parents weren't around", suddenly finds himself personally connected to how insidious even a little experimentation can be. He becomes heavily involved over the next year with a local organization that offers prevention, treatment, and support services to his community.

The banker and his wife are now donors and volunteers for the cause and the organization is doing a great job engaging them in their mission. The wife connects with the organization via social media and invites her local church group and a dozen of her friends to donate with a few clicks. They do because they know the family well and are equally horrified at the loss of their son, a young man the same age as many of their children.

A social media ask is a lot easier to swallow for many of us. There is social approval involved in being associated with a good cause and the visibility of our association online can attract others in our network without even an invite. Many stories are so compelling that they go viral, enlisting thousands of unknown supporters in spreading the message and contributing to the need.

You can't duplicate this effect with a direct mail appeal or an event. We don't share the postcard with the hungry kids on the front with our neighbors, coworkers, and family. We also don't often talk about our charitable contributions or affiliations.

While a case can certainly be made that the older members of our communities may prefer a traditional appeal, on a human level we are all more interested in being part of a community, rather than an address on a list. It's not about the ask, it's about whether you provide a compelling space to interact and connect. Even if you engage on social media with stories, if you lack a genuine community on the ground, the few strangers who retweet you or like your page are likely never going to get more involved than that.

If you're struggling with concept of social media:

Instead of looking for strangers in the dark recesses of the internet, step back and evaluate your genuine followers. You may have a list size in the thousands, but do those people have a real connection to your cause and are you providing opportunities to interact? A few small changes in this realm may make all the difference, with the bonus of social media evangelists praising your work to all of their friends online.