Community Building Might Not Feel Like Your Core Work, But It Should Be

Deepen support by rethinking your perspective on your community. It isn’t just about donor engagement. It’s about community creation and curation instead.
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If you want to deepen support and grow sales, stop thinking about donor engagement and start thinking about community creation and curation.

If community building sounds secondary to your core work, we suggest that you reframe how you view yours. Chances are, you’re missing out on building valuable relationships that will generate support for your work today and for years to come.

Community is what happens between your supporters — your advocates, donors, investors, volunteers, members — when you’re not around. Whether you realize it or not, it’s already happening around your cause.

But, as sociologist Robert Putnam has pointed out in his books Bowling Alone and The Upswing, since the 1960’s we have seen a decline in membership and volunteers in chapter-based associations, religious groups, labor unions, fraternal organizations, and military veterans’ groups among other civic organizations. He also noted that mass-member activist groups — which we think of as social impact communities — have grown in that time.

Through our work with social impact organizations, we’ve seen that in our digital-first era, the very way we build community has changed. We're more online than ever, and the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed not only how we connect with others, but our desire to engage with each other through community.

We believe that social impact organizations like yours are in a position to provide people with a space of service, and the sense of belonging and purpose that they’re looking for.

As more people look for alternative communities to fill their needs, it’s time for nonprofits and social enterprises to move away from their backward (or nonexistent) approach to community.

Stop viewing your community as simply a source of donations, volunteers, and sales. Your supporters need the relationship to be a two-way street where everyone benefits.

You Serve Your Community — Not the Other Way Around

Community is a term frequently used among nonprofits, in the for-profit business sector, and in social enterprise circles. Unfortunately, many nonprofits and social enterprises only see the community that forms around their brand as a resource for sales, funding, and volunteers. Some even engage in community building specifically for this purpose.

We don’t know about you, but if we were invited to be part of a community just so that the organizers could extract money from us, we would walk away. A truly welcoming community is based on shared values and mutual interests. And people are often equally attracted to the social aspects of a community as well.

No one joins their local softball league in order to support the softball club. They do it to meet other players, get exercise, and have fun. Some might join to find friends in a new town or meet new people in their area. Regardless of their intention, they join because of what they get out of it, rather than what they put into it.

Preserving the Fun (And Mountain Bikes) — A Study in Community

Here’s a real world example of how this plays out in a nonprofit we worked with.

We designed and built a new website and action center with the Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Stewardship as they were expanding their mission, changing their name, and rebranding to reflect their new vision. Formed as Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz in 1997, they started out as a group of people who shared a love for their sport. Initially they were advocates for mountain biking generally and put in the hard work of maintaining trails, and taught riders to be environmentally conscious.

Over time, they grew into a professional trail stewardship organization with deep trails expertise, a full roster of field and office staff, extensive community and volunteer engagement, and strong relationships with local land managers. Through those years, their community continued to grow.

Year after year, they continued to ask their members to donate toward the purchase of trail building equipment and volunteer on Dig Days (when they go out and maintain the trails). And their community stepped up big time.

Today, as in the beginning, the core purpose of their organization remains serving the mountain biking community. They expanded their services to include land stewardship so that there are places to mountain bike far into the future and recognize that the land they preserve and the trails that they maintain also serve hikers and equestrians.

And the community gets even more from them. They put on incredibly fun events; Bike raffles, Pump Track events, Fundraising to help kids from low income families get into mountain biking, Organized rides. They’re always focused on serving their community.

A Sense of Belonging

People join the Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Stewardship community because they love mountain biking. They get to ride with and socialize with people who share their passion. They have formed friendships during Dig Days that have lasted for many years. The community is open and accepting of everyone from hard core enthusiasts, to casual weekend riders, to kids who just use the pump tracks the organization builds.

In short, people join their community because they feel like they belong there. Your community members should feel the same way and join your community because:

  • They care about your cause

  • They want to work with and connect with others to make change

  • They want to accomplish something meaningful that’s greater than themselves

  • They want to socialize with people who share their interest and their values

  • For social enterprises, your products bring them together around a passion

Your role is to help them do that.

Easy Alignment

Social impact organizations are in a unique position to provide community. They can fill the gap in people’s lives that has become more pronounced during the pandemic and as they look for a sense of connection and purpose that’s meaningful to them.

It’s reasonable to think that your organization could replace an old school gathering place or service organization that many people no longer find relevant. By their nature, social impact organizations are value and purpose driven. Supporters are attracted to donate, volunteer, and become part of your community because of aligned values.

Through events and advocacy work, in-person and digital communities provide ways for people to remain engaged, both with your organization and each other. Bringing people together for real world and online actions builds trust that can lead to long-term friendships.

Low Barrier to Entry

Social impact communities are one of the few places people can connect with each other without having to overcome a societal or monetary barrier. All you need is passion, time, and common goals for creating change. Be sure to provide clear entry points beyond donating.

Social impact organizations that have embraced a digital-first approach make their communities easily portable. You don’t need a physical presence to keep members engaged. This is even true for some hyper-local organizations, like food banks, where people continue to contribute as a way of maintaining a connection to a community.

Sustaining Community

The longevity and strength of your supporter community is based on finding the balance between structure and evolution. People are more likely to stick around when:

  • There is a sense of organic evolution

  • The participants are driving the activities

  • Everyone feels safe to be themselves

  • They know that they are making impact

Remember that people elect to join your community. Find ways to keep it flexible while remaining on mission. Schedule events out several months in advance to make it easier for members to include advocacy in their busy lives. Use a tool like Discord as a frictionless digital solution to keep people connected without your direct presence.

Provide ways for members of the community to know that their presence is impactful. They joined the community to make a difference. Reward them by sharing successes.

Use metrics to give them a tangible way to understand their impact. Thank people for what they have done, publicly if they are comfortable with that, and privately if they’re humble and want to keep a low profile. Showing measurable change is vital to keeping people involved.

Community Curation

Forcing community never works. An effective and enduring community requires a skilled community curator to help elevate people’s voices and desires without making anyone feel like they’re dealing with an overzealous cruise ship activities director.

The best communities are curated — mostly from within. You need someone from your organization to be a final arbiter of disputes, but good communication can usually resolve conflicts without the need for top-down intervention.

Rely on and empower established members to help moderate the norms on your behalf. Encourage people who have been doing social impact work for decades to act as mentors for new people. New members bring fresh perspectives that are often embraced by their new community. Make sure that yours is open to radical thinkers.

Give the People What They Want

Know what your community wants — and give it to them. They want to belong. They want to make a difference. They want the sense of accomplishment that people used to get elsewhere, but no longer do.

They chose your organization and your community to fill that role in their lives. Reward them by making them part of your journey and they’ll reward you back through volunteering, donating, digging in the dirt, protesting, amplifying your voice, and making your mission one of their passions.

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