How to relentlessly focus on relationships

July 25, 2023

Filed under: Communications,Fundraising,Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 3:42 pm

I’ve previously written about the value of relationship-building to nonprofit organizations.

Organizations that thrive relentlessly focus on relationships. Successful organizations are constantly expanding their pool of relationships and strengthening existing relationships. Then they consciously activate those relationships.

I was recently talking to a nonprofit leader who seemed to grasp this in theory, but struggled with execution.

As such, I’ve repackaged in this article some of my prior writing about the value of relationships with the aims of providing more practical advice people can use when it comes to building relationships that matter for your organization.

But first, why relationships?

It comes down to human nature.  While people receive information outside of relationships, relationships have a powerful role in how people react to information.

People listen more to people with whom they have a relationship.

People are more likely to be persuaded by people with whom they have a relationship.

People take action more when requested from people with whom they have a relationship.

Of course, the quality of the relationship matters too. The deeper the relationship, the greater the odds that we will listen to someone, be persuaded by them, or take action at their request.  Conversely, a bad relationship makes someone even less likely to listen or act upon a request.

Here’s a practical example of how this may impact fundraising for a nonprofit.  An Executive Director may give a pitch-perfect donation request to John Doe. A board member may give a mediocre donation request to the same John Doe.  If the board member and John Doe are friends and the Executive Director has never met John Doe, the mediocre board request is far more likely to yield a significant donation.

Yet, it would be a mistake to think of relationships as just about fundraising.  Relationships impact an organization’s interaction with volunteers, media, allied organizations, elected officials, and people the organizations are working to serve.  Any time you’re trying to shape behavior, relationships matter.

So how do you go from theory to practice?

Here are seven ideas worth considering.

First, build into your workplans (especially Executive Directors) time set aside for relationship-building.  If you don’t set aside time for it, you’re less likely to make it happen.  Examples of relationship-building activities that take time:

  • Attending fundraisers for peer organizations.
  • Going to lunch or coffee with allies who you don’t know particularly well.
  • Asking for advice from elected officials or other decision-makers.
  • Attending conferences and focusing on relationships more than the conference substance.

Second, create events with relationship-building in mind.  This could be:

  • A volunteer appreciation event. 
  • A “Meet the Executive Director” or “someone else important” event. 
  • A workshop or training where time is set aside for people to get to know each other. 

Every time you plan or attend an event, a standard question should be: “how can this event be used to meet someone new and/or strengthen my relationship with those I already know?” 

Third, train your staff about the value of relationships and events.  If they’re attending an event while working for you, they should understand they should be focused on new people and not just standing in the corner chatting with folks they already know well.  Challenge them to come back from every event with a couple examples of new people they met with whom they should do some follow-up.

Fourth, set relationship goals.  When I was an Executive Director, I had a goal of having lunch or coffee with one allied Executive Director per month with no agenda other than getting to know them (and their organization) better.  By putting this goal in writing as part of my annual goals with the board, I “forced” myself to stay on track.

Fifth, use your organizational database to record what you learn.  Even with the best intentions, it can be challenging to meet people and remember everything of relevance you learned six months or a year later. Your organization should have a CRM (constituent relationship management) database (probably primarily for fundraising, but for other things too) where you can keep track of who you met with of significance and add notes of anything significant you learned where you may wish to follow-up at your next meeting. Taking notes in your database doesn’t make your relationship any less authentic. It just recognizes we have fallible memories.

Sixth, seek out and bring into your organization those who’re obviously good at relationships.  You and I know them.  I’m a natural introvert.  But we all know those extroverts who seem to know everyone and like playing a connecting role between people. They are golden for your nonprofit if you can excite them about your cause.  If you see somebody who fits that bill express interest, put extra time and attention into cultivating them.

Lastly, be committed to asking those with whom you’re in a relationship to activate their relationships on your behalf.  As I write this, I have 1,345 LinkedIn Connections.  Those 1,345 have more than 477,000 unique connections!  Of course, LinkedIn is just being used as an illustration of a point:  the people with whom any individual has relationships open them up to a vastly larger network of relationships than they can ever tap on their own. 

So don’t just rely upon this “activation” of relationships to happen by chance.  Directly ask your supporters to reach out to their friends and neighbors.  This could be as part of a Peer to Peer fundraising effort, as part of volunteer recruitment, recruiting people to attend events, sharing online news, or some other method.  Bottom line: turn donors into fundraisers and volunteers into volunteer recruiters. 

Do you have other ideas for how to build and strengthen relationships? I’d love to hear in your comments.

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Ticket to Ride and nonprofit leadership

January 27, 2021

Filed under: Communications,Consulting,Fundraising,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 3:51 pm

One of my pandemic “weaknesses” has been the amount of time I’ve spent playing Ticket to Ride – the online version.  For those not familiar with the game, you can read about it here. 

In short, your intent in the game is to connect train routes between different cities, collecting cards of varying colors and playing them in a strategic way before your opponents take the connections you need.   Longer routes are worth more than shorter routes.  You can add routes during the middle of the game, not just the beginning. For the most part, two players can’t use the same connection.

In order to “justify” my time spent, I started thinking recently about the lessons Ticket to Ride offers to nonprofit leaders.   

So here, without further delay, are my top 5 lessons for nonprofit organizations.  Of course, I’m pretty sure these lessons are worth reading even if you have never and will play the game . . .  .

Lesson 1 – In Ticket to Ride, there is a tension between waiting to have all your cards collected to complete a whole series of connections versus seizing some early connections that are good enough to get you started.  If you wait too long, though, you can miss your moment — in particular, somebody else may claim the same connection.

I’ve seen some nonprofit leaders fail because they were so focused on getting everything right, making sure all the plans and resources were perfectly aligned, that they took action too late.  A certain degree of boldness is essential to lead a nonprofit. 

Lesson 2 – In Ticket to Ride, there are eight different colored cards and one wild color (e.g. yellow, green, black, etc., plus wild.) and you have to be mindful of what colors you need now, what colors you need in the future, and what colors are available right now (you get to see 5 options or pick a mystery card). If you focus too much on your short-term needs only collecting colors you need for a few early connections you want to make, you’ll find yourself short of what you need for subsequent connections.  Of course, sometimes that first connection is critical and it’s worth the short-term focus.  But, over time, I’ve found that I tend to score highest when I focus on a diversity of objectives, looking beyond the initial few steps and towards the next set.

So too in nonprofits I’ve seen nonprofit leaders become so short-term focused that they find themselves emerging from a successful early activity completely ill-prepared for what comes next.  In contrast, nonprofit leaders who amass a variety of resources with the aim of pursuing a series of objectives over time tend to achieve greater success.

Of course, astute readers may ask: “doesn’t this contradict Lesson 1?”  In part, yes.  But not completely.  You must be bold (as described in Lesson 1), but not so bold that you fail to build up the resources (money, people, other assets) that you need to be successful in future endeavors. 

Lesson 3 – in Ticket to Ride, there is a benefit in collecting a series of routes that piggyback on each other, so that you can advance towards multiple objectives (e.g. routes) with a single connection.  For example, connecting Denver to Kansas City could help you connect Salt Lake City to Chicago as well as San Francisco to Washington DC.   You can use that connection on both routes.   

So too for nonprofits, it’s important to look for synergies and other ways in which the same activity can serve multiple purposes.  To take just one obvious example I’ve experienced recently, if you write an article for your email newsletter, are you also posting the same content (with either no or minor edits) on a blog?  Posting it on social media? 

Similarly, if you build relationships with constituents as part of your volunteer program or advocacy, are you taking advantage of those same relationships when fundraising rather than treat your fundraising as unrelated? While this may seem obvious, I’ve watched more than one organization fail to take advantage of the volunteer-fundraising synergy. 

Lesson 4– in Ticket to Ride, you can play cutthroat, where instead of building your own connections/routes, you anticipate the routes others appear to be building, and you block them on your turn.  This is perfectly legal within the rules of the game. 

But within my own social circle and with those I’ve been randomly playing online, it’s considered a social faux pas, and people (including yours truly) will often refuse to play in the future with those who compete in this “blocking” manner. 

A similar dynamic is true for nonprofits.  There can sometimes be short-term advantages you can seize away from an organization with which you are sometimes allied and sometimes in competition.  An example I’ve observed: raising money from a set of overlapping donors with a fundraising message that’s explicitly anti the other allied organization.  This may yield some short-term donations. However, if you get a reputation of being not a good collaborator, future opportunities to collaborate/partner will disappear, to your detriment. 

I can attest first-hand that as an environmental group Executive Director there were some environmental organizations who I cut out of opportunities because I’d seen them repeatedly use messages that undercut other allies.  If you develop a reputation for not being a “fair” player, your nonprofit will be weaker in the end.    

Lesson 5 – In Ticket to Ride, most players exclusively focus on building connections that complete their routes, and nothing but their routes.  However, I have noticed that really stellar players are aware of the overall board and sometimes build beyond their routes, to the next major city.  Perhaps they have to go from Boston to Phoenix and they go ahead and build as well to Los Angeles.  This is because late in the game you can score extra points by drawing new routes and some cities in particular (Los Angeles being an example) come up a lot.  This is an “if you build it they will come” approach, to quote the movie Field of Dreams. 

So too in nonprofits, sometimes when launching a new program, you just have to go the extra mile and do it, even if there’s not yet funding attached.  Build the program and then go out and seek funding for it, rather than the other way around.  I’m not saying always do that; you have to evaluate the level of potential benefit and financial risk.  But on several occasions, I’ve seen organizations grow dramatically in their impact by taking leaps of faith like this at key junctures.

And there you have it – five lessons for nonprofit leaders from Ticket to Ride.  I can now play the game some more without feeling guilty.  And if anyone is playing it online and looking for an opponent, just email me and we can set up a game. 

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The board and nonprofit branding

September 18, 2020

Filed under: Board Development,Communications,Volunteers — jonathanpoisner @ 10:49 am

A friend serving on the board of a local nonprofit recently asked me:

” I have a question about the process of rebranding for a nonprofit. Is it your experience that the board is involved in the design committee? And/or how about needing to vote on and approve the new brand before it’s rolled out?  Our board board is having a discussion about this so I want some expert insights.”

I think this will vary wildly based on the size of the organization and expertise of the board and staff.

It also depends on what is meant by the umbrella term “branding.”

Some think of it very narrowly (e.g. logo and organizational name).

Others think of it more broadly (e.g. logo/name/color pallette/fonts/style sheets).

I tend to think of it still more broadly as encompassing your desired identity (e.g. what you want your constituents and the public to think of when they hear your organizational name and see your materials). For example, a nonprofit I’ve advised recently did a branding exercise that concluded they wanted people to think of “science”, “legacy”, and “thriving” as the three words they most associate with the nonprofit.

In terms of board approval, I’d expect a board vote on a name change.

But everything else it really depends on the size of the organization’s staff and board, and the relative expertise of board and staff. More times than not, I think this probably means the board doesn’t vote — with some exceptions — in part because the board has so many other clear responsibilities that they struggle to find time to meet and vote on.

In terms of board involvement for developing a proposed new branding, I think it again depends on the circumstances.

If the branding is a broader question about organizational identity (e.g. what the brand is trying to convey and not just questions of how to convey it), then I’d certainly expect the board to be consulted for their input.  Whether that’s via a committee or interviews or online survey or focus group or some other method doesn’t really matter. 

If it’s more about how to convey the brand identity (e.g. what color scheme to use), I would not expect board involvement in that. The exception: really small organizations where (a) the board is in part playing a management role because staff doesn’t have the bandwidth to do all desired staff functions, and (b) one or more board members has relevant expertise.

But this is the important thing: if one or more board members are brought into the process because of their expertise on branding, I’d view them as participating as an expert volunteer, not in their board capacity.  When board members volunteer for something other than a board governance responsibility, they’re just another volunteer for that activity.

Has your organization been through branding? What role did your board play in these decisions? Please let me know in the comments!

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Your organization is an intermediary

June 24, 2015

Filed under: Communications,Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 1:11 pm

One of the more interesting words I recently heard used to describe nonprofits is as “intermediaries.”

Under this way of thinking, your organization isn’t the protagonist in your story.

Instead, those who support your organization are the protagonists. The donors, whether individual or institutional.

Their passion is what matters.

Passion for what? Not for your organization, although they may well also have that.

Instead, it’s their passion for the community impact or change that you’re making.

You are the intermediary that helps the donor make the impact that they want, where the donor can’t do the work directly.

If you start thinking this way, you’ll avoid the trap of your fundraising materials being all about how great the organization is. Your case should instead be about the tremendous impact the donors are making for the community and how satisfying it is to play a key role in making that change happen.

You are the intermediary.

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Guest blog: How to become a thought leader

February 17, 2015

Filed under: Communications — jonathanpoisner @ 9:30 am

Guest blog by Liz Banse of Resource Media. 

Thought Leadership: More than just a TED talk and, yes, more than just a fad

Have you ever dreamed of giving a TED talk and selling your big idea to the same folks who gobbled up Bill Gates big vision of innovating to zero, learned that gaming can be good, or how schools kill creativity?

What you were dreaming about was becoming a world-famous thought leader. If there was a word or phrase of the year in the communications industry for 2014, it would be “thought leadership.” Finally, a new phrase has pushed “storytelling” to the side as the “it” thing.

At Resource Media, we have heard a lot of you articulate your dreams of getting your bold vision out to a wider circle. There’s nothing we love more than working with visionaries – who wouldn’t?!

But, with all the ideas and excitement about thought leadership, what is it really?

First of all, it’s disruptive. Take any current notion of how things can or should be done and offer a completely different approach to solving whatever problem you have identified, and you are well on your way to becoming your industry’s thought leader.

Thought leaders tend to upend the status quo with a bold vision.

Thought leadership is not about being the most knowledgeable person on your issue.

If you’ve checked this box, great. But, before you go out and make your mark on the world, make sure that your organization’s brand is strong, too.

As the leader of an organization, your thought leadership should come around to benefit your organization. And, vice versa. If you know your organization’s brand is strong, it can help catapult you to the forefront. If it is weak, work on that first, before you work on your thought leadership plan.

Check. Now, you are ready to go forth and conquer the world. Package your thought leadership with an interesting life story (trust us, everyone has one). People have thought leadership, not organizations.

Create a video or some other vehicle that will carry your idea to others when you are not able to do it in-person. Attend events and conferences with audiences who can help you test out your idea and hone it even further. Actively pursue media interviews with journalists who can help spread your ideas among other influencers. Play an active role on social media, engaging in conversations with other leaders.

Watch your influence meter rise.

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Guest Blog: How to Refresh your Brand

February 10, 2015

Filed under: Communications — jonathanpoisner @ 9:19 am

Guest Blog by Liz Banse of Resource Media

When was the last time you went to the doctor for a check-up? Hopefully, it was in the past year. But, what about your organization? Have you given it a check-up recently? Specifically, have you checked on the health of your organization’s brand?

Aw, we’re fine, you say. I know how to articulate my organization’s mission statement without even referring to the cheat sheet by my phone. But, do you know what other people are saying about you? And does that match how you describe who you are, what you do, and what makes you so unique?

At Resource Media, we like to say that your brand is what people say about you once you leave the room. If there is any sort of gap between how you describe yourself and how others describe you when you aren’t around, you have a brand disconnect. And a brand disconnect means you are not fulfilling your brand promise to your supporters.

That’s when you want to get back into alignment. A branding refresh is all about redefining and getting clear on what sets you apart from others in your field. It’s about finding the right words to communicate the value of the work that you do to the people who need to hear it most – whether they be donors, elected officials or community leaders, other organizational partners or anyone else you need on your side to realize your goals.

How does a typical branding process flow? Start with a discovery process where you interview people within the organization as well as those who interface with it from the outside (supporters, funders, policy makers, partner organizations, and others). Ideally, these interviews are conducted by a neutral third party with communications expertise so that you’re receiving candid views instead of people telling you what you want to hear. These in-depth interviews will give you the first clues as to the health of the brand.

Next, have someone outside of your organization review your organization’s materials – online and offline and write up what they perceive as your brand. Does their write up match what you had intended to convey?

You may also at this point want to do a broader online survey of organizational supporters.

Pull all the research generated together and hold a “workshop” at which you hopefully will generate some “a-ha” moments. The outcome of the workshop should be refreshed language about your organization’s core identity and some tactics for how to better communicate it.

Then, don’t forget to make sure everyone on staff (and possibly the board) is trained and any stock materials are overhauled. The result: Staff, volunteers, and those outside the organization will speak in one voice on how and what you do and, most importantly, why the work you do is important and unique.

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The Science behind Storyelling

November 24, 2014

Filed under: Communications,Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 3:51 pm

Here’s a really quick, but useful read about the science that explains why fundraising via storytelling is more effective than relying on statistics to mak your case.

Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling.



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Should your nonprofit get a drone?

June 18, 2014

Filed under: Communications — jonathanpoisner @ 3:43 pm

Should your nonprofit get a drone?Drone tabling

Okay — never expected to ask that question.  And I’m only half serious.

But at the River Rally I attended a few weeks back, a vendor (Intelligent Unmanned Aerial Solutions) was tabling and the price of drones with cameras was shockingly inexpensive. They were pitching to river groups for taking aerial surveillance of polluters.

Are there other reasons a nonprofit may benefit from having a drone?

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Guest blog: 5 Questions to Ask When Using Marketing to Grow Your Non-Profit

March 31, 2014

Filed under: Communications,Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 11:18 am

Guest Blog by Natalie Henry Bennon  —

Marketing gets a bad rap. And sometimes it’s deserved. I don’t like being told I need a new thing when really I don’t.

And yet, marketing is key to successful for-profit businesses. Non-profits have finally taken notice. Some are hiring marketing staff. Some have shifted budgets from media relations to marketing and social media. Others are hiring marketing firms under contract.

Whatever your non-profit growth challenge, here are five questions to ask in determining how marketing can help your non-profit grow:

1)    What are your measurable goals?

This could be: We want to attract 1,000 new members in 2014. Your marketing goals could also be recruiting new volunteers or board members; retaining members, volunteers, or board members; or raising awareness and attention to your issue.

2)    Who is your target audience?

Let’s assume you are trying to recruit more members, and you know you want younger and more diverse members. Your target audience might be women and men between the ages of 20 and 35 making $30,000 to $55,000 per year. It may help to give this person a real name and picture and persona. Think about what s/he does for a living and for fun.

For example, let’s say you are creating a marketing plan for The Sierra Club. They want to recruit more members. This might be a useful target audience persona:

Meet Chris. He is 28, works at a company that manufactures solar panels, buys mostly organic food, and has in the past volunteered at his local beach cleanup. He likes to ski, hike and cook.

3)    What is your value proposition?

For this, it’s helpful to actually define the difference between marketing, branding, advertising and sales. For non-profits, Arizona State University’s Lodestar Center for Philanthropy defines “marketing” as a process that brings about the voluntary exchange of values (as opposed to goods) between a non-profit organization and its target market. For example, it could be a transfer of a donation in exchange for addressing a social need.

What value is your audience getting? A value proposition helps you articulate this.  It names your target audience, what you want them to do, what benefits they will receive, and why.

Keeping with the Sierra Club example, here is a specific example: When you donate to the Sierra Club, you get peace of mind that your money is going toward proven, effective environmental advocacy that will help provide clean air and water, improve human health, and protect wildlife and wild places.

4)    What is your position in the marketplace?

Now it’s time to consider your competition. Non-profits don’t always like to call it competition, because we don’t actually want other groups doing important work to fail. But you are competing for members and volunteers. So what is your position in the marketplace? How are you different than other non-profits? A positioning map can help with this.

For example, the Sierra Club engages in advocacy, lobbying, and litigation. The club works nationally, but also has local chapters, and even some international programs. Compared to other international environmental non-profits, it positions itself as more reasonable than Greenpeace, which is very confrontational, but more aggressive than The Nature Conservancy, which is less confrontational in its tactics.

A non-profit’s position in the marketplace will help establish trust from different audiences. Moreover, a non-profit’s positioning, combined with it’s value proposition and its target audience, help non-profit managers make a cascade of other strategic decisions including messaging, partnerships and how to get the message to the audience.

5)    How will you reach your audience?

Where do they spend time? What do they like to do?

If you are aiming for the 20-35 year olds in my example, I think the things they are doing are trying to build a career, and find a mate. So perhaps the Sierra Club would offer professional networking events, or young and social volunteering and hiking events. The club might also create a community online where young people engage with Sierra Club actions. The club could also become a news and action resource for all the things this age group cares about regarding the environment (this is a kind of content marketing).

My number one advice: don’t just answer these questions in your head. If your non-profit has plans to grow, try drafting a marketing plan that identifies at least one quantifiable growth goal.

Start today.  What is one goal for your non-profit’s growth? Leave a comment below.

Natalie Henry Bennon’s consulting firm Springtale Strategies specializes in non-profit marketing, media relations, and grant writing. You can email her at

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One big idea and three takeaways

January 27, 2014

Filed under: Communications — jonathanpoisner @ 11:06 am

I recently was given good advice worth sharing.

In any event you are putting on, you should be able to identify the single, one-sentence big idea that will get people interested and three — and no more than three — takeaway messages.

If you systematically identify the big idea and three takeaway messages up-front and design your communications around them, you will have more success.

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