"You can be part of a well funded startup, have all new planes, a cool product, leather seats, live TV, cool snacks. But none of it matters. The people are the brand...you are the brand as a person."
- Dave Barger, President and Chief Operating Officer, jetBlueWhy do you go to Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts or Caribou Coffee every morning? (Don't answer unless this is something that you religiously do.)
Is it because you can make your own delicious blend of caffeinated juice? Is it because it's the closest coffee shop to work? Or is it because you like the other regulars and staff?
Chances are it's a little bit of each - product, place and people - that draws you to your favorite coffee bar. But I venture to guess that the PEOPLE there have a big influence on you. If you have a B or B- barista, you'll change shops, maybe even chains, one day. Conversely, if you know your barista by name, you're likely to become a true believer.
In his awesome book, The Culting of Brands: Turn Your Customers Into True Believers, Douglas Atkin, makes the very strong case that in this world of commodities, people buy the experience they have with other people - not the products/services alone.
"True and lasting commitment to brands...is effected through people. It's all about the "primacy of the person." What do I mean by primacy of the person? The conventional wisdom is that people buy ideas or things. The transaction is between the individual and the object or idea...But we will be handicapping our attempt to build a successful business if we settle for these answers or accept the perceived wisdom of our community. People buy people. Of course, they buy into belief systems, whether religious, political, or those devised for brands. It would be ridiculous to underestimate their importance...But for real commitment, the recruit and existing members need to feel that they have a relationship with "an other" or "others." The buy-in to the ideology and tangible benefits comes later."I use a Mac because it makes me feel like I am part of a community of other creative types who are using our brains and energy to create a better world.
I drink a grande, half-caff at Starbucks on weekend mornings because I like the taste (not the price!) of the $2.00 coffee AND I also like being part of my local community.
I shop at Trader Joe's because they stock some of my favorite snacks, but also because the store has such a great, upbeat, and quirky vibe. The store ambiance and the friendly staff make the dreaded grocery visit less of a chore.
When I think about the causes and charities I support, the same logic applies. One of the reasons that I give to some nonprofits vs. others is because of who works there and how I FEEL about the community of givers. In short, my philanthropy is driven by the experience I have with other people involved in the organization in addition to the work that the people in the organization do!
What this means for you
In addition to focusing on the "features and benefits" of your programs, you'd be wise to invest some time and energy thinking about how you are connecting to the constituents in your organization and how they are connecting to each other.
This means moving beyond a transactional approach to fundraising and marketing where you "sell" your programs to an individual to get an email sign-up, event registrant or check. Instead, this means being in relationship with your supporters and helping them to be in relationship with you!
You can and probably are creating a community of givers offline. Through events, walk/run/rides, and house parties you bring donors together and help them to get to know each other and you.
The great news is that in the Connected Age, you can also use online tools and channels to create rich and inexpensive experiences to bring people together and create long-lasting relationships.
Here are some nonprofits that are doing a good job of connecting people with each other online.
How are you using the Internet to build a community of believers?
The Nature Conservancy has created a community of nature photographers who share their love of the earth via sharing pictures of their favorite places. They run an annual photo contest to highlight and recognize the communities' work.
Charity: Water does a fantastic job of engaging its donors in the water crisis by encouraging them to share the work of the organization via peer-to-peer giving. In this way, the charity is not just raising more for the organization, it is actually creating greater meaning for and connection between donors.
On their blog, Autism Speaks does a great job of sharing the personal stories of the women, men and children who have been touched by this mysterious disease. Again, these stories, do more than connect you to the cause, they give you a glimpse into the people who comprise the Autism Community, which helps you to decide whether or not this is the right community for you.
In the nonprofit sector, we're getting better at telling the stories of the people we serve. We're also getting better at highlighting the impact of our programs and services. But if we want to create lasting institutions and movements where people feel a deep sense of loyalty and commitment to our causes, we also need to connect people to each other. We can do this online or offline - the channel doesn't matter. What does matters is that we never forget that humans are innately social beings. And in addition to focusing on how and where we spend our time, talent and treasure, we want to know WHO we are spending it with.
To become a consummate community builder and create intense loyalty toward your nonprofit, read The Culting of Brands: Turn Your Customers into True Believers by Dan Atkin.