Let’s Go Steady: How important are relationships for organizations?

Have you worked in or with an organization that you would call “relationship driven?”

There is a lot of great work being done today around the idea of engagement. How do we get people involved and, over time, get them more involved, engaged and supportive of our organization and its issues?

Engagement is important. Critical, even. But growing and lasting engagement relies upon relationships. You, me, the guy down the street — none of us are going to become more engaged until we’re comfortable with the terms of our relationship. We have a lot going on in life. We need proof that this is great use of time. We’re not looking to date an organization but it’s still a relationship.

What would a “relationship driven” organization look like? What does being relationship-driven mean? How does it work differently than any other organization? Would this make for more effective and stronger organizations?

Organizations and their staff are focused on the work they have to get done together — the planning, budgeting, meetings, conference calls, presentations to executive directors, boards, foundations and large donors. In time, the focus shifts to working with colleagues and succeeding internally.

Meanwhile, it is hard to spend time on those outside the organization. We ask a great deal of people — time, money, support, likes and retweets. But it’s tough to invest time in the sort of two-way work that makes up a relationship. Relationships take effort, not talk. Here are some ways to switch focus and build relationships that matter.

Understand how your organization builds relationships

Another way to put this is: What’s your engagement superpower? Not all organizations are built and operate the same way. They don’t all organize around kitchen sinks, not all rely on volunteers to knock on doors, and not all can build massive email lists to reach people quickly.

Figure out what makes you special, relevant and (yes) potentially powerful in the daily life of your supporters. Use that to create and build relationships. Your superpower makes you special. Use it to attract and keep people that relate to it.

Know the tools you already have and use them well

They’re probably better than you think. Your organization almost certainly has a CRM (or two or three). Do you know what the ‘R’ stands for? Relationship. As in Customer (or Constituent) Relationship Management software.

Most organizations we work with have done little work with the R part of their tools. It’s time to fill in the blanks. Track how people came to your organization and what interests them. Find out who they know in your organization, if anyone. If they don’t know someone, find ways to change that. Work with volunteers, activists and donors to create relationships with their networks and yours. Have them reach out to people directly on your behalf and reward them for that engagement.

Track this work and the relationships that are developed. In time, this will become one of the most powerful areas of your database. And if you aren’t sure how to do do this with the tools you have, make it a priority to find out.

It’s called a “Social Network” because it’s social — and a network

Social networks come with great expectations and uncertain results. The problem? Most organizations focus on numbers, not people. First, you have to care. Really care.

These are real people out there, almost all of whom have some interest in what you’re doing. Be social. Say thank you. Don’t just ask for people to respond and share but retweet and share their stuff when they do. Prove you’re there. Care.

Understand that these are networks. Each person knows other people. Each of those other people knows other people. And so on and so on. As you build relationships and trust with members of your social networks you level up their engagement and improve the chances that they’ll share your content, speak to their networks on your behalf and become a valued voice for your cause.

Also, use social network tools to find and build relationships. Use Twitter search to find key words and phrases as well as the people most interested in them. Follow them. Interact with them. Say hi. Say thanks. Say “hey, just wanted to be sure you saw this.”

Give thanks, often — and mean it

From the bottom of my heart, thank you for reading this article. And if you made it this far you deserve serious gratitude. You’re one of perhaps three people (not including my mom) that made it here. You’re awesome. Seriously. Hope you’ll let us know what you think about these ideas. Leave your feedback and name down below in the comments section and we’ll talk.

See. That wasn’t so hard.  

Much has been written about how donor retention sucks, especially among those that give for the first time online.

Retention has always been tough. It’s hard to keep the flame going and maintain that rush of excitement that led people in the door. We think much has to do with the impersonal nature of online fundraising, particularly its reliance on email. Most organizations crunching through large numbers of email subscribers and donors rely on form emails with maybe some first name personalization.

This doesn’t cut it. It’s time to get creative and invest in appreciation of donors, volunteers, members, activists. Don’t hold back but do test your work. Think of these as people, not records in a database. Invest in lasting relationships. And say thank you.

UPDATE: The great folks at Sea Change Strategies worked with the International Rescue Committee to test the impact of creative thank-yous on mid-level donors. Check out the story recently written up by the Greenpeace Digital Mobilisation Lab.

Cartoons: The great William Haefeli (get them here).

2 thoughts on “Let’s Go Steady: How important are relationships for organizations?

  1. What a great article!

    We agree: the world is changing and organizations that adapt and thrive in the future will be “relationship driven”. At Vantage Point, we believe not-for-profit organizations have a unique opportunity to in this area. They can engage the abundance of talent in the community – without increasing their budgets. Not-for-profits can put high-value skills, knowledge and expertise to work towards their vision and mission by adopting a People Lens – focusing on people first, before money. They can reject scarcity thinking – and begin to thrive while stretching budgets and human resources much further.

    Imagine if an abundance of talented people were suddenly willing to contribute their knowledge and expertise to your favourite not-for-profit organization – without increasing its budget. We believe that is possible. For “relationship driven” organizations.

  2. Thanks for the great thinking on this, Lynda. I’m especially jazzed about the idea of abundance thinking rather than the scarcity perspective many/most organizations work from day to day. Talk of engagement, relationship building, and even, for instance, social media interaction is often met with a “this is more work we don’t have time for here” or seen as a messy new volunteer management task. Possibly true but we can look at relationships as empowering individuals and their networks — greatly extending power and reach.

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