Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Who is in your Tribe?

by Andrew Lynn

How many people in the community (outside your board and staff) know your organization’s most urgent need right now? How many know the number of clients you served last month? How many people could articulate your organization’s mission and vision for change in the next decade?

How many people would you say are in your organization’s tribe*?

In 2008 75% of nonprofit income came from individuals (USA Giving Report). As corporate giving and foundations tighten their belts for the foreseeable future, it’s a critical time to think about how you’re engaging individuals in your mission.

Successful non-profits have found ways to build and lead their tribe of followers, groups from which they can draw donors, volunteers, and event attendees. The first step is overcoming outdated communication models that prevent your tribe from growing.

Most people are not a part of a nonprofit tribe, but they say they want to be. One survey shows 7 in 10 Americans say causes like health research, education, or the environment are personally important to them, but less than 2 in 10 donated their time to these causes last year (The Service Gap). That’s 152 million Americans (give or take a few million who just want to appear concerned) who report caring personally about a cause but failed to find an organization that will engage them. Some of that 152 million may give money to charity, but statistics would suggest their giving would be much greater if they had given their time to the organization as well.

Your tribe is out there waiting for a leader. Most people have a natural inclination to join a tribe and be part of something bigger than themselves. Look at the camaraderie that exists among Mac users, or the success the Obama campaign had in turning many $80 gifts (the average online contribution) into $500 million. Before Apple and Obama, these people were out there with the same passions and interests, but it took a leader to engage them. It's the same way with nonprofit tribes. There are people out there with passionate concern for education or poverty (just think how passionate people get about politics), but they've never found an organization that engages that passion.

Your tribe wants what you're offering. Many times nonprofits lose sight of the value of the product they're offering to people. Not only are people naturally inclined to join a tribe, they're also looking for ways that they can make the world a better place. Nonprofits (and churches) are the sole vendor of meaningful change in our society. Most people are waiting for a nonprofit to say, “Look at the change we want to make, now come join us!

Your tribe needs you to enter the 21st century. Many nonprofits haven't adapted the means to engage their tribes the way presidential campaigns and businesses have. I see many organizations that operate their development/marketing/outreach efforts around the realities of twenty years ago. At that time communication strategies were controlled by cost: printing expenses combined with postage expenses forced nonprofits to think in terms of monthly, quarterly, or even a yearly communication cycles. Maybe thousands of people were informed of your latest client breakthrough, but they were only told once or twice a year. The communication cycles of the past ruled that only a handful of donors could be regularly informed of an organization's successes and challenges.

Tribes are not built on the communication cycles of twenty years ago.

If you've ever updated a facebook or twitter status, you know the world has changed. One guy I know asked his "tribe" on facebook for an air purifier to borrow, and thirty minutes later he had one at his door. The communication cost was zero, his message reached over 1000 people, and he certainly didn't pay to have a newsletter laid out, printed up, and mailed out to people.

Tribes are ready to be engaged in the daily work of your organization, but they need you to lead and engage them.

This is where many nonprofits make a horrendous error. It is easy to confuse the tools of tribe-building with the end goal. Signing up for facebook is a 5-minute task a volunteer can do for you; it won't get you a tribe. Tribe-building is an organization-wide vision that requires a holistic vision of how to engage a large group of people with steady information and opportunities to be part of your mission. It goes back to the first questions of this post: how many people actually feel engaged by your organization? Could you invite some of your print newsletter recipients or annual appeal recipients to engage with you more regularly? Could you focus your next event on laying out a 10-year vision and telling people how they can play a part in it?

Constare can help you develop a plan that builds a tribe of people around your organization. As other funding sources dwindle, it may be a good time to look at how you're engaging individuals. We'd be happy to provide you a free consultation session on building a vision of doubling, tripling, or maybe even building from scratch a group of people engaged with your organization's mission.

To learn more please contact us.

*Tribe marketing is the brainchild of marketing guru Seth Godin, who you can read more about here.

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