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Stop building lists. Start building relationships.

Post_graphic.pngPreviously 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.

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Showing 2 reactions


  • commented 2014-03-24 10:18:03 -0700 · Flag
    Hi Phillip,

    Great to hear from you again! And to a large extent, I think that we agree. While you’re right that people have a cognitive max re: the number of relationships they hold and maintain, I’m arguing that we should be thinking about our outreach with supporters the same way that we think about building relationships—conversations, with a memory of interactions from all the channels that we use, and with an emphasis on dividing the base of individuals that we engage with based on their interest, activities with us, and desired next level of engagement.

    Similarly, to your point about having to build those relationships with a small staff (which I really couldn’t be more sympathetic to!), I think that the key is to leverage existing relationships amongst your base (i.e. using peer to peer outreach and engagement, etc.). That way, it’s not as if you’re always building 1000s of relationships from scratch, or asking all of your supporters to have a deep relationship with you, but, rather, asking your friends to leverage the power of relationship to expand your network, making your cause a part of their relationship with one another. Over time, there is generally an ladder of participation: some large swath of folks that are aware of you, a smaller swath that are engaging with you in some small way, and a smaller set of really deeply engaged folks that have a substantive relationships between their families / friends and your organization. The key is not to miss the opportunity to build those by establishing silo’d systems, relying solely on organization-to-individual communication, or otherwise preventing opportunity for increasing the breath and depth of your relationships.

    All that being said, it sounds like we both agree strongly on one thing: the power of email! I definitely don’t mean to suggest that it is AT ALL diminished in its ability to deepen relationships, reach new folks, or otherwise increase the effectiveness of your organizations outreach efforts. In fact, even more than social media, etc., i think it is a cornerstone in your relationship-building efforts for any organization. It’s a great means for distributing targeted, tailored content, it’s an essential cornerstone of a dynamic database (like the one that I referenced in the article), email is a format for conveying information and storytelling, and a great resource for your supporters to leverage using peer to peer outreach. EMAIL IS NOT DEAD! :) I just want to encourage folks to use it as an essential component of their arsenal, with the goal being building relationships, leveraging the ones they have, and advancing their missions, as opposed to relying on the sheer size of an email list as the be all end all in achieving their goals.
  • commented 2014-03-20 07:32:26 -0700 · Flag
    Hey there Hilary,

    Great to read this post and here about the research you’ve done in this area. It’s funny, after we met in Chicago a few weeks ago, I published a post-event follow-up to the tune of “Build Big Lists (but using e-mail)!” here: http://phillipadsmith.com/2014/03/email-is-alive-and-well.html

    I think the difficulty I have with the idea of organizations building relationships — though it’s a noble peak to aim for — is that research has told us that it’s not, in fact, really possible, given the cognitive load that an individual can carry, i.e., most individual people can’t maintain relationships with more than something like 100 other people. I’ll try to dig up the link to that, but I’m sure you’ve heard similar.

    If that’s the case, how does an organizations — maybe with a communications staff of one, two, or three people — maintain “relationships” with 1,000s or 10s of 1000s, or even more supporters?

    Having great tools like NationBuilder is certainly one way of helpful to make it feel like there’s a real relationship there, but — let’s face it — it’s not a real-life relationship most of the time. More than that, I wonder if people really DO want a relationship with the organizations that they support? I mean, I know they want to feel like part of the movement and maybe have their voices heard on occasion … but do they really want to be on a first name basis with the Development Director if they can only afford to give $5/month?

    As you know, I’m a bit obsessed with e-mail and — in almost two decades of doing sender and subject line testing — I’ve not seen consistent or significant data to suggest that an e-mail from names like “Barack Obama” consistently outperform “Obama for America.” I think it’s a nice touch, and I believe that it’s good to mix things up a bit, but I haven’t personally seen data that ties the sender name exclusively to consistently better engagement. I think most have settled on something like Person Name – Organization Name as a good middle ground, as most recipients are likely going to understand that it’s not a personal message at the end of the day.

    All that to say: Yes, you’re absolutely right-on re: the ladder of engagement and getting connecting people with a range of ways to become part of the community in question, but I believe that most people already have their personal relationships in place (perhaps 1000s on social media!) and are probably not looking for a real-life, deep-rooted personal relationship with the political or non-profit organizations they connect to. I believe that giving them a sense of community is great, but trying to fake a relationship will come across as just that — not quite sincere.

    Three cents!

    Phillip.