A Handshake And A Smile

April 15, 2009       Heather Burton      

According to Merriam-Webster, "credibility" is the quality or power of inspiring belief. The next part is to ask what inspires belief more than anything else? The answer is trust.

Trust is built from shared experiences and honest conversations, in good and bad times. It’s fostered by doing what you say you’ll do, when you say you’ll do it. Trust is strengthened by coming to the aid of others when help is needed. But, what does trust have to do with building circles of support? Everything.

Trust is personal. It’s a value shared between individuals. Why does Kevin Rogers, long-time friend of your new executive director, now donate to your organization? Is it because he likes your mission? Maybe, but initially, it’s because he trusts and supports his friend.

For thousands of nonprofits, it’s these types of personal and professional relationships that will be the saving grace in what will continue to be a year of uncertainty.

We tend to get caught up in trying to implement the next new whiz-bang, quick-win fundraising tactic. In doing that, we neglect old-fashioned relationship-building with those in our community. It’s imperative to take the time to get out from behind our computer, and in front of business owners, service groups and like-minded individuals who may be able to help keep our organizations strong, and our missions moving forward.

Word of Mouth Yes, word of mouth is still important. Word of mouth is a powerful marketing tool, and it’s at the very core of viral marketing. It can be a powerful fundraising strategy for nonprofit organizations.

Using word of mouth to build circles of support and influence for your organization can create a positive buzz within the community; increase contributions from current donors, while improving donor retention; and bring new donors to the organization. In fact, the Great American Donor Survey, conducted by Campbell Rinker, found that 85 percent of donors say they frequently or occasionally recommend one of their favorite charities to a friend or family member.

Encourage your board, volunteers, and staff to take advantage of opportunities to talk about why they’re passionate about your organization in everyday business and personal interactions. Even casual conversations plant seeds in the minds of others that can be cultivated over time, as well as reinforced by other advertising and communications. Your organization will be introduced to more people in a more positive light than through traditional marketing or public relations alone. When you finally make that ask for support, those people will be more inclined to give, because you have the support of their trusted friends and colleagues.

Local service organizations, such as Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions clubs, are a great way to build circles of support. These organizations mobilize thousands of individuals whose time and contributions impact local, national, and international initiatives, such as hunger prevention, literacy, and medical aid.

Service organizations enjoy learning about new groups and new projects, particularly ones in their local community that align to their strategic initiatives. Try to secure speaking opportunities at local service organization meetings to introduce your organization; educate on the current trends or conditions that make your cause invaluable to the community; and, over time, gain new supporters.

Businesses provide much-needed resources to the nonprofit sector in terms of volunteers, monetary support, pro-bono services and in-kind donations. Business networking organizations, such as Business Networking International (BNI) or your local Chamber of Commerce, can help you tap into your area’s local businesses, resulting in increased awareness for your cause, and the development of key relationships with local business influencers in your community.

It’s essential to developing a true partnership that helps both the business and your organization. When approaching possible new business partners, find out what they need to do to "move the needle" and foster inter-organizational trust by developing a two-way street for communication. Demonstrate how their involvement in your organization will help them accomplish one of their goals, like reaching new customers.

Once the trusting relationship is built, the businesses will naturally become advocates of your cause, spreading the word to their customers, clients, and business associates on your behalf. Attending networking opportunities and becoming a member of a networking group will open doors and avenues of support that may have otherwise gone untapped.

Giving circles are comprised of individuals who come together; pool their dollars; decide where to make donations – either monetary or other resources, such as time or service; and learn more about the needs of their community. According to More Giving Together: The Growth and Impact of Giving Cirlces and Shared Giving, a broad study commissioned in 2007 by the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, "in 2006 alone, giving circles granted $13 million for community needs."

Involvement in a giving circle, whether as a regular attendee, or as an educator about the community’s needs, can put your organization in front of a group that’s already primed for giving and interested in making a difference.

Making time is important. Even if you can only start small, start somewhere. We’re all being asked to do more with less, and it’s your relationships with supporters that will get you through these challenging times. Schedule time – even just 15 minutes each day – to focus on mobilizing your most devoted supporters to be advocates for your organization.

Strong organizations have pillars of strength around them. Fostering trust between your organization and its stakeholders in the community is a strategic activity that will pay for the investment in the long run. The more people who speak highly of your organization, the greater the chance that your current and potential donors will hear messages of credibility and value in casual conversation, thus contributing to your cause. NPT

Heather Burton is senior marketing manager for Sage North America’s Nonprofit Solutions in Austin, Texas. Her email is heather.burton@sage.com. She is a member of the greater Austin Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals and is president-elect for the board of the nonprofit BookSpring in Austin, Texas.