How To Grow A Following


In the beginning, Our Beards of Hope relied on networking. No budget, no existing donor base, no newsletter list; just a guy working his network. But at the end of a five-month campaign, the social network was thriving. Beard growers, supporters, and people cheering them on were hitting the fundraising blog in droves. Everywhere the family went, people were asking them about their cause. How did they grow such an eager following? Simply by knowing how to speak to people, which can be harder than it sounds.

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When I joined the Our Beards for Hope fundraiser and began growing a beard to help Dave Obwald and his family bring their adopted, little girl home from China, I had hoped that my beard would give me a more regal appearance – that I might feel more kingly. I envisioned meeting bearded lawyers or doctors, with whom I could now identify, and we would embrace like brothers.

As it turns out, my beard is a little too scraggly to be considered kingly and the only people I meet on the street that I can identify with are the homeless men standing on street corners on my way to work.

Just this morning, I drove by a homeless gentleman, and while admiring his luxuriant beard, I leaned forward in my car so I could better read his sign, “Veteran, homeless, need food, family hungry, hard times.” And the ever-important closer, “God bless.”

The message highlighted a habit that we all, at times, fall into. A habit that limits our ability to connect with others and engage them in our cause.

His message was entirely “Me, me, me.”

Churches and nonprofits of all sorts who communicate with their audience often use this same approach.

This is the plight of this child.

We lost our grant.

We need volunteers.

Wanna help?

While these are all honest and legitimate needs, it is the method of communication that makes them ineffective.

Like this sign, often our donor communications are posed backwards – speaking at others about me instead of speaking to others about us. Like driving a nail in backwards, it doesn’t do the job it’s meant to do. Even if you muster enough force to drive it in, it certainly can’t hold anything together.

I suspect this happens because this is the simplest way for people to communicate. It is easiest to say things from “your” perspective and about “your” needs. It is harder to first consider the needs, position, and goals of others and then see how you fit into that framework. It takes intentionality, practice, and empathy.

Making donor relations a relationship

I recently heard about a social experiment someone did with a homeless woman about communicating effectively. This social scientist had met her on the street and found out that on a good day, in 8-10 hours of sign holding, she could make $20-$30 with a sign similar to the one I saw this morning: “Me, me, me.”

He asked this homeless woman if he could write her a new sign. She agreed and in the next two hours she made $40. She promptly left. If she had stayed the usual 8-10 hours she would have made about $160 that day.

So, what did the sign say?

“If you only give once a month, please think of me next time.”

What was the difference?

The new sign had nothing to do with her. This message was entirely focused on others – potential donors. It still asks for help but the message is geared toward the concerns of the reader.

He turned the message into, “I understand you can only give so much, but if you think of me a month from now, I will still be in need.”

Her new sign spoke to potential donors as real people and told them that she understood them. She changed the conversation to be two-sided, not just about “me.”

When Dave reached out to encourage his beard growers and attract new supporters for Our Beards of Hope, he focused on growing relationships with each Facebook post, text or e-mail. He spoke to me with content that was well-rounded, not one-dimensional. One day I would get a text thanking me for the growth I was putting in, or asking for a picture for the blog showing how my beard was coming along. The next day we’d get an update on how the adoption process was proceeding, Dave sharing specific needs or concerns about the next steps of adoption, and how he was dealing. He would invite us in to support, encourage, learn, celebrate, and to grow.

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I wasn’t treated like a donor, I was led into a friendship. Each new form of communication offered the opportunity to define who I would be for the cause. Even a bulk e-mail from Dave came across as a genuine message about something I shared a stake in.

Communicating through social media

So, how did Dave accomplish this? Facebook and Twitter can sometimes feel like a faceless void, so how do you speak to people in an inviting way when the act of posting something to a wall almost sets you up to talk at them?

In addition to focusing your communication outward, speaking inclusively to followers, a good rule to follow when posting or communicating in any social media setting is this: The characteristics of a good Facebook friend are the exact same qualities we look for in any friend.

We all want our friends to be well-rounded human beings. There’s a reason I describe my environmentalist friend from 4 years ago who only ever talked about the tragedy of deforestation as “my friend from 4 years ago,” instead of calling him “my friend Dennis.” It’s the same reason no one downloads albums of a solo trombone playing one note for 57 minutes.

That note gets old.

The kind of friend we keep close cares about us; they share. They don’t talk at us, they talk to us in a genuine, multi-faceted and inclusive way. Yes, they tell us about their thoughts. But they also share something funny now and then. They share something that bothers them not to simply vent, but because they believe you have something to offer. They ask questions because your input is valuable to them.

If you struggle with ways to change up your social media posting or monthly e-mail, try creating a list that includes everything you’d find valuable in a good friend, from a sense of humor to the way they encourage or challenge you. Take those characteristics and let them help you create a sort of menu of different kinds of posts or messages you can share. Each time you sit down to communicate, take out your menu and just pick one.

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The key is to change it up. Let it be from you, and then it will be new. Give them more to see.

If Dave had only ever used his opportunity to communicate with his followers to ask for donations, he might have received a few donations at the expense of losing relationships. If every day he had only posted adorable pictures of Aunna with no context for what was being accomplished for her, no sense of our progress as a team or with no reasons to keep moving forward, the opportunity that communication offers would have become an utterly bankrupt cuteness explosion. The goal is to create a well-rounded campaign that reaches your followers on every level that human beings can be reached.

Our goal in reaching out to potential donors is relationship, not salesmanship. You have created a relationship with a donor (or future donor) based on a vision of changing something in the world together. So, why would we distance them with presentation, instead of simply sharing? We are not marketing to blank faces outside our organization in hopes of scoring a donation. We are reaching out to a friend, even if they never give.

Building a following isn’t a “like” on a Facebook page or a view on a video, it is a two-way conversation, a relationship, a network. So be sure to make your conversation reflect that, even when it is in bulk, the same as if you were just talking to a friend.

With a background in theatre and video production, Brandon has an unnerving passion for telling stories and helping nonprofits to develop their own. He is the video producer, resident storyteller, and software designer for Aplos. Brandon is also an acting and improv teacher and has worked professionally in improv and sketch comedy writing. He loves volunteering these skills and passions at The Well Community Church in Fresno, CA. He also has an intense zeal for high-five contests and ice cold Dr. Pepper.

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