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Community is something all organizations have in common. Whether we’re saving the world’s endangered species, finding a cure for cancer, or ridding the world of hunger, our work hinges upon the trust and vitality of our respective communities. Communities are the root of our collective power, and the source of our programmatic and developmental strategies.
As consultants, we’ve helped countless organizations build healthy and engaged communities that unlock new opportunities for operational success in fundraising, program delivery, event management, etc.
We are bringing that advice and experience from our engagements to the blog. Here are four conceptual tips for developing a rich, vibrant constituent community for your organization. (And stay tuned, because over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be posting more tips for activating and empowering that same community!)
When we assume a community’s needs, we silence the very people we’ve set out to serve. Great intention, it turns out, is not enough. Our best work comes when we first take the time to listen intently to our communities, and to learn. The learning piece is important here, because many listen with no aim to process what they’ve heard.
We find many organizations and leaders treat listening as an inconvenient and nonessential task, using it purely as a tool to appease constituents, colleagues, and stakeholders. They extend their ears, but they never actually open them. Some even do it unintentionally; they genuinely want to learn but are so confident in their own thoughts that they unknowingly limit their own capacity to grow.
So what’s the lesson here? Take the time to listen to your community and as you do make sure you’re investing the energy and brainpower needed to make the process effective.
An important part of listening is asking questions, and also allowing questions to be asked of you. Everyone has a story; everyone has knowledge informed by their unique experiences. But few are granted the opportunity to share it. Asking questions of your community allows you to further explore who they are, what they believe, and what experiences inform their values.
If we are to build strong, sustainable programs for and with these communities, we must first be aware of what is happening within them. What challenges does the community face? What is their history? How are they changing? What initiatives already exist? What doubts and hesitations do they hold?
We should never assume that we have all the answers because we often don’t. If you don’t have all the information you need to move forward with a campaign or initiative, seek it out. If you’re worried you don’t have the right amount of time to ask questions, either change the scope of your work or slow the process down. Without the proper information, the work won’t be worth much.
We hear it all the time, “You must give respect to earn it.” When developing a constituent community, this is especially true as respect is baked into trust. Too often organizations jump to conclusions about the complex needs and nuances of their community. This becomes evident when programs fall flat or the community reacts poorly to their campaign efforts. As leaders, we must learn to appreciate the beauty and richness of the communities we serve. Without this connection, it is unlikely our hard work will resonate with them. Focus on people first, and the rest will build organically.
Without building trust and demonstrating that we genuinely care, our constituents have no reason to support us. Demonstrate a genuine interest in the people you serve, not just the dollars you hope to convert. True fundraising ultimately makes the difference, as dollars pave the way for new opportunities. However, those dollars come from people, and without their trust, they won’t give it to you. Nor should they.
When working with the development of a community, patience is paramount. Few things happen as quickly as we want them or need them to. In nonprofits especially, the pressure to act quickly is all around us. From boards and other stakeholders to grant expectations and event deadlines, it often feels like no speed would be too fast. Still, when we rush action within our communities, we act preemptively and out of pace with the needs of our constituents. In doing so, we undercut the efficacy of our own programs, and thereby our own success.
It is important to note that patience does not necessitate a loss in efficiency or productivity. It simply means that we understand the delicate process of building and strengthening relationships, and not to rush what demands careful thought and attention. Some of the most valuable information comes only with time and careful observation. Consider it an investment. You take the time to plant your seeds, you nurture them, and somewhere down the road, we all enjoy the fruitful gardens together.
We hope you found these tips helpful. We recognize that the details of the above will look different for every organization and every community. The thought is that you ponder on the lessons we’ve learned here at Plenty and think of ways to creatively and constructively implement these larger ideas into granular, more actionable steps.
And remember to stay tuned for “Part 2” where we’ll help you get a bit more tactical. In the meantime, remember to have fun! With passion in your heart and strategy on your mind, your work will prosper.