Cultivating nonprofit fans, revisited

23 Jan

Yesterday, my beloved New England Patriots (I can’t help it, Boston born and bred as I am!) eked out an exciting conference championship win, and they’re going to the Super Bowl. As the game momentum switched back and forth, I couldn’t sit still. My skin was flushed and I could feel my heart beating in my fingertips. The adrenalin surge left me exhausted for the rest of the day. . . which has me asking myself today- why do I, a peace and tofu loving, non-football playing person, even care?

Two years ago at this time, my husband and I were stranded in Miami the weekend of the Superbowl, only because our intended destination had been pummeled by blizzards. As we observed the pre-game fervor, it struck me that nonprofits could learn a lot about building connections with their communities from these football fans. Here’s the post I wrote back then, and it’s still one of my favorites!

(February 8, 2009: Miami)

Ordinary looking people in extraordinary garb; that was the sight throughout Miami before Sunday’s Superbowl game. I saw two different women decked out in New Orleans Saints regalia that included gold lamé jeans. (Where does one find such clothes?) I saw a dignified elderly man with a two foot long glittering feather poised like a sword from the brim of his hat. Apparent strangers shouted greetings across the street to fellow fans, high-fiving as they passed closer to each other. All this celebration unfolded before the game had even begun.

Cultivating passionate fans is a critical skill for nonprofit leaders. According to Heather McLeod Grant and Leslie R. Crutchfield, authors of “Creating High Impact Nonprofits“, effective nonprofits are distinguished by their ability to ”inspire evangelists” in support of their mission.

How exactly can we do this? We can draw surprising lessons for nonprofits by observing what drives ordinary people to roam city streets in costume and pay thousands of dollars to attend a football game.

It’s important first to differentiate between “supporters” and “fans.” Nonprofit supporters are great: they’re more likely than the average person to respond to our requests for action. When we aren’t asking anything, however, we easily fall ”out of sight, out of mind” with supporters.

Fans are more pro-active in connecting with their favorite organizations. In football, they track team activities even during the off-season: for nonprofits, they pass along key feedback about trends, needs, opportunities and resources. Even more importantly, fans reach out enthusiastically to inform and engage others. They can’t contain themselves! What makes people such evangelical fans?

Compelling community and cause– Just as fans identify emotionally with a particular place or style of play in football, they do the same for their favorite nonprofits. How vivid is your community and cause to your supporters and potential fans? What do they know about it, and how can they identify with it? Are your communications about mission and strategy clear and emotionally compelling enough to make supporters become evangelical fans who reach out to others?

Champions and underdogs–  The most passionate fans stand behind two types of teams: dominant teams recognized for excellence, and scrappy underdog teams who creatively apply what they have to slay giants. These teams excite fans beyond their own geographic community, because their storylines are compelling. They embody characteristics that fans seek for themselves, and vicariously through their favorite organizations. What’s your nonprofit storyline? Does it communicate excellence, or perseverance, or success against tough odds, or strong traditions worth keeping?  If your storyline is “middle of the pack”, what can you change about that?

Connecting with others who share their passion– As social animals, humans innately seek opportunities to connect with each other.  We especially seek others with whom we have common bonds. We also seek fun! It’s easy for football fans to find each other: they dress up in team colors, assemble together at designated gametimes, and exchange post-game analysis through numerous on-line communities.  How many different ways can your existing or potential supporters connect with each other as fans? How easily can they sustain connections over time?

Making a difference- Nonprofit communications often lead with a description of need, but “need” can be overwhelming for supporters. Supporters become fans when they believe that their personal participation makes a difference, whether by sitting in a lucky chair for a football team, or contributing hands-on skills to support a nonprofit mission. For example, I moved from a being a supporter/donor for the nonprofit Mercy Corps to a fan when I responded to a call for donors to organize book club readings of ”Half the Sky*.” None of my book club friends were familiar with Mercy Corps, but now we all know more about its work and the key issues it tackles, and more of us are contributors. Habitat for Humanity is another nonprofit that expertly transforms supporters into fans through its hands-on construction projects. What opportunities does your nonprofit offer its supporters to become fans through direct engagement in its work? How do they know they’ve made a difference?

Without fans, teams cease to exist. While paid analysts focus on team quality first, something more visceral connects fans to their teams. Fans thrive on emotional, aspirational, social and/or hands-on connections with their favorite organizations: fueled by these connections, they actively expand the fan network. In fact, connections may trump quality as the primary factor that draws passionate fans. The lesson for nonprofits: doing good work, even great work, is not enough to cultivate fans.  Is your organization doing enough to cultivate its fan base?