Previously a nonprofit executive, I too suffered from the pandemic that is “list building”—the constant drive to accumulate as many email addresses, social media “likes” and followers as possible, and the ongoing crusade to “maintain” those lists once they’ve accrued. We constantly talked strategy for sending email without losing more people than we gained, and discussed ways to prevent people who didn’t really want to be on our list from unsubscribing. And, perhaps most disturbing, we tied our success to metrics like the number of “likes” we could garner on a given post. At the end of the day, the lists we generated weren’t at all valuable because building a list for the sake of having one that’s “big” isn’t a worthwhile effort.
Nonprofits have limited resources, limited staff time at their disposal, and missions that are crucial to the protection, advancement, and progress of our society. There should never be a day when we dedicate time to building a list, or earning a “friend” that doesn’t advance our mission. If the online engagement you’re doing feels shallow, it probably is. If it isn’t obvious how "likes" translate into social change, then they probably don’t. And if you’re just “maintaining” your database or “managing” your churn, you’re probably making the same mistakes that I was.
After taking a leave from my work in the nonprofit space I applied to Princeton’s Department of Politics, intent on studying the best strategies for catalyzing motivation and engagement among folks who aren’t otherwise likely to be politically attentive. I read about fancy efforts to stimulate engagement, studied the principles of psychology that seem to govern our motivation, and read experiments and research papers hoping to discover the secret to what is, in reality, what we’re all hoping this “list building” will someday accomplish.
What did I find? The thing that motivates people to engage substantively and for the long-term, with deeper investment over time, is a human conversation—a relationship.
Then it hit me. If your lists aren't helping you build relationships, they're pretty worthless. This isn’t just a semantic difference or a slight change in strategy. This changes everything. I’m not suggesting that you burn your email list or abandon social media. They are powerful tools—and once you start building relationships, you’ll find that you increase both the breadth of your engagement, as well as the depth of engagement, for each person who interacts with you. So, what does building relationships in the nonprofit space really look like?
Approach the communication you have with people in your community the same way you engage in the conversations you have with your friends—as one human being talking to another human being. It sounds obvious but it’s not. Allow me to share a few game-changers that will help you achieve a smooth transition into the world of relationship building:
- The means of communication you use to engage your supporters and the public have a memory. Just like your face-to-face relationships, you should reach out to people consciously aware of all the ways they’ve engaged with you in the past. If someone reads your website, is signed up for your email list, and is also a friend on Facebook, all those records should be aggregated so that you have one, comprehensive relationship with that individual. Otherwise communication won’t feel tailored or natural. And you can’t build a relationship with someone if you’re always forgetting the conversations that you have with them, right? Imagine what your spouse would say!
- The outreach mechanism you use—be it email, text, or social media—should be responsive to the preferences of the person that you’re talking to and the type of conversation you want to facilitate. Your friends might text you if they want to reach you quickly and make sure you see it. If you want to share something graphic, start a conversation, or engage a broader community, you’d probably reach out via social media, for example. One-size-fits-all doesn’t make many friends. You have different relationships and different conversations with different people.
- Your emails shouldn’t always be from “The XX Organization” or “The Such and Such Institute” because I don’t have any friends with those words in their name. Sharing your e-newsletter with your org’s greatest recruiters or social media influencers and asking them to push it out on your behalf moves them up the engagement ladder with you by validating your appreciation of that relationship…just wait to see how unbelievably far the communication will go.
- Coffee -> Lunch -> Cocktails and a Night Out -> Crying on my Shoulder with a Pint of Ice Cream. In other words, when someone signs up for your email list—a relatively passive form of engagement—they shouldn’t just receive it forever with no other outreach and a prayer that they don’t unsubscribe. They should be asked to engage more deeply—join a working group, volunteer, donate. And not once a year, but pretty early on. And as you learn more about them, you should tailor that ask. Because as you start getting close, you should be spending more time together.
Sure, you might need different tools to pull this off. And your staff might need to change their mindset. But we’re social animals—we inherently get this! Embrace the principles of community organizing that have served nonprofits so well for many years and scale them digitally to reach more people than you could’ve ever reached before. I’m confident you’ll advance your mission more broadly and quickly than you ever thought possible.
Stop building lists and start building relationships—you’ll create strong communities and movements in the process.