Membership organizations and nonprofits always walk on a knife’s edge.

On the one hand, you need to be able to regularly gather enough funds to be able to operate.

On the other, soliciting too aggressively can drive potential donors away.

This is because organizations that put on donations or revenue as their primary goal are pouring their efforts into the wrong place.

The success of your organization is dependent on “advocates”—groups of individuals that feel a deep affinity to your organization and its mission. They take action beyond mere membership dues and donations, and actively promote your cause every chance they get. Organizations that treat advocates like names on a donor list will get similar treatment: they’ll see you as a line item on a bill.

You should take an “advocate-first” approach instead. You’ll benefit from a significantly more engaged stakeholder base, as well as from increased new member acquisition as these advocates spread your message to their peers.

Sustainable engagement is the key

 People treat charities and membership organizations the same way they treat the gym: they sign up in a fever, then after the initial burst of motivation has burned away, drop off the map. According to Blackbaud, the median first-year donor retention rate for American charities is 29%. But even after they get through that initial hump, only 8.4% of donors reactivate after a 1 to 5 year lapse.

Once these well-meaning members drop off, it takes a disproportionate amount of time, effort and resources to reactivate them—only for the same process to happen again.

Sustainable engagement can solve this problem and keep donors happy and involved. This is true whether you’re a membership organization like the CFA or a nonprofit like Charity: Water.

But that raises the question:

How do I keep members and donors engaged?

Sending members and donors a solicitation email every two weeks is not “engagement.” Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s crass and implies you only want them for their money.

In order to truly engage them, you need to go beyond panhandling and focus on community building.

Here’s a few things you’ll need to do to make it a success:

1. Give them a sense of belonging

You want your donors and members to feel like they’re part of something bigger, and that their presence matters. As such, you need to open up to them and give them greater access to what you’re doing. News updates, event invitations and opportunities to connect with other like-minded individuals are all effective ways of building up a sense of community.

2. Give them a voice

If your members and donors want to speak with you, who are you to deny them? Give them opportunities to speak out and share their opinions or ideas with your team. Don’t just solicit money—solicit ideas as well.

3. Celebrate your advocates

Social capital does wonders for driving engagement. Celebrate your staunchest advocates and recognize them for their commitment. Organizations like Charity: Water excel at this strategy by amplifying the stories of their most committed members and donors through official organization communications.

4. Recognize more than donations

There are many ways to support your organization—some even more valuable than a dollar amount. Advocates can help by:

• Referring new members or donors
• Creating user-generated content that amplifies your brand
• Event participation
• Volunteering their time and skills

Smart organizations find ways to appreciate these dedicated members and donors. One can even create a system whereby you reward advocates who perform these valuable activities with perks and other benefits.

By engaging your members and donors, you create a cycle of advocacy that grows bigger and faster the more effort you put into it.

The challenge of advocacy

Admittedly, advocacy is not a new concept. Many staffers in charge of member or donor relations know exactly who their best advocates are, and engage with at least a few of them on a regular basis. However, these same staffers often rely on spreadsheets—or even just their memory—in order to track and maintain said relationships. This makes it easy for advocates to be overlooked.

Social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn can help, but have a couple of problems. Firstly, not everyone has a social media account or is aware of your social media presence. Second, some donors or members may prefer a more discreet form of interaction.

In order to properly scale your advocate management and growth, you need to form an advocate community of your own, independent of standard social media networks. This will allow you to engage with them more easily and manage your relationships with them.

Advocates create advocates

When you create an environment that drives sustainable engagement, you can get donors and members to support you with more than just their wallets. Advocate members can help you with your recruitment, brand promotion, and even with your own internal operations. Humans are, above all, communal creatures, and we take our cues from the actions of others. Thus, if we see people we know and trust actively participate in member organizations and nonprofits, we are more likely to follow suit.

And the best part? Generating advocates help you fulfill your mission’s goals far better than simply asking for donations, because you are creating true believers who will adopt your cause as their own, and do whatever is in their power to help you succeed.

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