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One of my first roles in the non-profit organizing and fundraising space was as a coordinator for a fundraising campaign that raised funding for cancer research, where the success of the campaign relied almost entirely on volunteer participation and peer-to-peer-fundraising. Each quarter had different events, which meant I had the opportunity to engage new volunteersand meet long-standing supportersevery few months.

As we started a new quarter, and I started reaching out to our alumni volunteers for the next event, there was one volunteer that leadership highlighted to me for her ongoing involvement. Jillian had been volunteering with the organization for almost ten years, raising thousands of dollars each year. She deeply valued the impact of their work and credited the organization's research with saving her life, so for her it was a non-negotiable that she would stay annually involved and continue to fundraise. Because she had volunteered for so many years, she had a lot of feedback to share with the staffand I saw that as a major opportunity. What if her feedback was not only informative, but helpful? Was there something she was sharing that could make the program more efficient or more enjoyable, and thus, allow us to grow and raise more funds?

Feedback from those in your universeyour constituents, volunteers, and supporters - can be both informative and incredibly helpful, and can provide valuable insight into your audience that is necessary for adaptation and growth. 

When folks share that feedback with you, it’s an opportunity to have a conversation. It builds trust, which increases engagement and retention, and gives your brand and mission more power.

Staying connected to your community is crucial to keep moving forward towards your goals. You just have to know where to spot it, how to build a relationship around it, and where it can really improve your strategy.

Who are you talking to - and why?
Knowing the individuals in your universe is crucial to building meaningful relationships. After all, they know about you - but what do you know about them? As you review your contacts, consider the following:

  • How did this person initially connect with us? Did they take an action on a page, like signing up for a newsletter? Started following us on Twitter? Were they recruited by someone else? (Once you have your NationBuilder infrastructure set up, a lot of this data is collected automatically!)
  • Have they given either their money - or their time? A monetary gift is a very clear sign of support, and someone giving their time and energy is just as valuable - it shows they’re connected to your organization and invested in your mission. Is this individual retweeting your tweets, sharing or tagging you in posts, or signing up for events?
  • Are they opening your emails? Are they opening only certain types of emails, depending on the broadcaster or the subject line?

Personalize and humanize

Let’s face it - we’re human, and want to be treated as individuals. Having an email addressed directly to us feels personal. Having an email come from a human feels even more personal. For the past eight or so years, I’ve participated in an annual event and fundraised for the same organization while doing so, yet, each year, I receive welcome emails that are written as if I’m new to the organization, or worse, don’t even address me by my first name. To be honest, it really gets under my skin, and if I wasn’t so committed to the mission, I would think twice about signing up again. 

Did you know that, by using a simple liquid field to insert a person's name into an email, your email open rate can increase by upwards of 18%? Did you also know that emails with personalized subject lines are 26% more likely to be opened?

In addition to using liquid to surface things like a first name, you can go even further by referencing the last time that person made a donation and thanking them (again!) for their support - or encourage them to take an additional next step, like signing up for an event. 

When it comes to sending emails, sending them from a ‘person’ as your broadcaster - instead of the organization - will make your supporters feel like they’re hearing from an individual, and using liquid to personalize them for each recipient will make them feel recognized and valued, like they’re having a real one to one conversation. Which brings us to…

Call to actions are necessary - but a call to connect can be transformative

We all get emails from companies asking us to share our feedback about their products or services. Have you ever taken the time to write that feedback, just to feel like it landed in an inbox, never to be read? Alternatively, have you ever, instead, actually received a response to that feedback? (I have, and it really changed how I felt about that company in a positive way!)

As a supporter, calls to action are expected. But a call to connect can be both a surprise - and an opportunity! Acknowledging that you’ve both read their feedback and want to discuss further opens up a line of communication that email cannot rival. 

This can be done a few different ways. To continue to build on the information you already have, you can use certain action pages and automated workflows to help begin this dialogue:

  • Use a survey to ask the questions you want to ask so you can receive the feedback you need to hear. You can create targeted surveys that go to specific groups of people, like event attendees or lapsed donors, or a more general survey that can inform the content you’re creating.
    • Go a step further and have certain survey questions trigger a workflow, so that the person completing the survey is connected to the right person in your organization automatically.

  • Ask for feedback. General feedback sections may not always get the attention of your community members, so it’s good to remind them that it exists. Include the feedback link in your next email newsletter, or as the next page a supporter lands on after they sign a petition.

This also provides the beginning of building a key relationship, where you can discover:

  • Why your mission is meaningful to them
  • How they feel about the work being done
  • If they feel that there are unaddressed gaps or opportunities missed

This connection can build a whole lot of valuable trust! Ask the questions, and show you’re listening to the answers.

Encouragement and empowerment = engagement

Now that you have the information and have begun building those relationships, you can begin to shift your strategy around what you’ve learned. This can be as simple as setting individuals on a particular path of engagement towards a goal you’ve identified, or asking them to participate in a more meaningful way, like becoming a public advocate for your mission. 

Providing the tools necessary for them to become more involved and connected, such as using their recruiter links or allowing them to submit their own content, can give individuals a real sense of ownership by allowing them to bring more folks into the conversation and enact change. This will help turn your supporters into leaders, and your leaders into champions.

You can never say thank you too much!

If someone is supporting your organization in any capacity, they are intentionally choosing you - that’s a big deal! Thanking them for their financial support and for volunteering is great and, honestly, expected – and you can take that a step further by thanking them in other ways, too. Acknowledge how long they’ve been volunteering with your organization; send them a note in the mail to say you’re just grateful for their continued support; thank them for continuing to share out your social media posts - whatever it may be, a small, authentic expression of gratitude, especially when it’s least expected, can go a long, long way.

And finally… What happened with Jillian?

Well, I followed my instincts with those initial questions. Were we missing something by not listening to her feedback more intently? Was there something in the reflection she shared that could not only benefit our collaboration, but also benefit the organization and its growth as a whole?

I sat down with Jillian a few weeks ahead of our event, and asked, based on her commitment and experience, what she felt could be immediately improved upon going into the event weekend. The feedback was straightforward and surprisingly simple: more intentional opportunities for the volunteers to connect with one another; a scheduled and shared space for folks to ask questions ahead of their events; and, for her personally, an offer to take any “task” off my plate.

This was incredibly helpful information and could immediately be acted upon. We scheduled the in-person get togethers and I asked Jillian to pass out important event information that needed to go to each person's hotel room. She was more than happy to do it - and it saved me hours of time!

This entire exchange happened 10 years ago, and I am very proud to say that Jillian continues to volunteer in the same capacity with the same organization annually. Maybe our conversation isn’t the only reason why she continued to be involved, but it has had its ripple effect in many positive ways. The changes might’ve been small, but over time, they created lots of growth - and many more dollars raised. And in the end, isn’t that what building relationships is all about?

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