The events of 2020 and 2021 changed the way we form our tribes in significant ways. In the nonprofit space, fundraisers and marketers had to think differently about community engagement when it came to their operations, and in how they cultivated their donors. Now that something of a “next normal” has been established, what do our digital and in-person communities look like? How can we reclaim the most powerful elements of our communities from the pre-COVID days, and integrate them with the digital technologies we've since adopted to create more powerful results going forward?
Over the next two episodes, we spend time with Trent Ricker, our CEO and president at Pursuant, to mine his perspective as an industry leader heading into 2022.
You recently got together with some business and nonprofit leaders and opened a meeting with a keynote on the topic of community. I would love to know, what are your thoughts on community? What got you thinking about it, specifically for leaders?
A couple of months ago, maybe a little less, we had our annual Converge Conference. We missed last year, because of COVID, which was part of what prompted me to talk about community. Our Converge Conference is a very exclusive, invite-only event where we bring in thought leaders from both the nonprofit and for-profit business sectors along with some executive-level leaders in the nonprofit space. And we spend a couple of days at great places. This year we were at Hilton Head Island. I usually kick that conference off by sharing what’s top of mind for me. The topic of community was something that stuck with me in the months leading up to Converge and for obvious reasons. I think we all experienced this disruption globally the same way, at the same time.
Tech was accelerated in a way, but it didn't satiate our need for human connection. As we headed into Converge, I found myself wondering about the lasting impacts of COVID. How did it disrupt the various groups like coworkers, or church, or even the interaction that somebody might have had with their barista at Starbucks, or my kids at dance classes, who had to do dance by Zoom for a while?
For us as Pursuant working in our community of clients and prospects, and being stewards of the industry, like all the many other great agencies that served this fantastic charitable and nonprofit sector, we weren't able to be in community with them the same way. It just was interesting for me to think about how it was so disrupted. So, I spent some time talking about it. And I'm happy to share with you on some of what we learned about community.
As a team member of Pursuant, we've interacted quite differently too during this time, as has everybody else, right?
Yes. Definitely. There was that book that came out several years ago I’m reminded of called The Power of Habit. Something that I've been grappling with lately is how much of my routine is around habits. You mentioned church attendance. There's that weekly routine, that weekly rhythm. Or classes that I would take that I don't really take anymore. Not because I don't have the time, but because I'm now of out of the habit of going to them. Or even going into the office. I live 10 minutes from the office. But now just the idea of getting up, and choosing an outfit, and going into the office feels like so much more of a chore than it once was. Just because I'm not in that habit anymore.
So much of what the pandemic disrupted was our patterns of how we do things. The human brain doesn't like to think. It likes to go into autopilot. And our habits are that autopilot. Before we get into more of some other talking points about community, that's just something that really stands out to me as something so true about human nature, that is, once you stop something it's difficult to get it back going.
That's so true. When we think about the nonprofit sector in general, so many of those routines were disrupted, both how the nonprofits operated, but also how their constituencies interacted in their routines. I mean, if you think about some of the services that were provided by nonprofit organizations, for example. I serve on the board of a human services organization here in Dallas that fights poverty. And if you think about the disruption that the pandemic created, not just for those neighbors in our community of Dallas that needed help, but how that organization, called CitySquare, could serve their constituents. To your point, the routine was disrupted. People that might otherwise have relied upon their nonprofit partner from a mission delivery standpoint to get a meal or to take care of their health, the nonprofit serving that had to think differently.
When we think about what community or routine means, because to your point, there's a routine that's a subset of the community that we're in, it was all disrupted by this global pandemic. And while tech accelerated, it couldn't satiate the human connection in a way that being present in a community was. Let’s start with defining what community means.
To me, there's a sense of fellowship, or common interest, or common attitudes with one another in a community. So that might be an interest in taking a class, or music, or people who do yoga. I went to a yoga class with my daughter for the first time in a long time. And I'm new to yoga and there's a community in yoga.
There was a point during the pandemic that those that were deeply embedded in a community of yoga being present, had to do that from their homes for a while. And to your point, probably some of them, because the community didn't exist, they didn't have the same experience. So, they didn't continue with that community. They chose not to join it. As you know, I'm a big Seth Godin fan and it's probably a decade ago or more, probably more, he published a book called Tribes. Godin’s perspective on that was within marketing there's a niche of individuals, or a group, who are an organization’s core audience. His perspective is to speak directly to those people and exclude others so that makes your tribe feel special.
If we think about the nonprofit industry, there are communities built around something like peer-to-peer events that were significantly disrupted by the pandemic. But these communities went beyond just raising money for the organization. It included cancer survivors being able to be in fellowship with one another and celebrate survival. The same for family members who wish to remember lost loved ones. You can't replace that with Zoom. It makes me emotional to think about it. I think that those of us who have served in the nonprofit space for a long time, while we focus on the marketing and the fundraising components to serve our clients, the mission delivery side and that intangible aspect of community was so disrupted that it was sad in a lot of ways. And I think that's part of the reason why the fatigue from the pandemic gets to a lot of people now, still.
Even if you take it outside of the nonprofit space, there was an emergence of for-profit sectors that recognized that community was changing. Two years ago, in 2019 when we went into Converge, I was interested in the immersive experience that retailers create and how nonprofits can emulate that.
Retailers like Bonobos and Warby Parker, for instance, began as solely online shopping experiences. But they realized that having physical stores were important for them to continue to build the value of their brand and customer loyalty. That even though you could be a mail-order retailer, there was value in going to a Bonobos store to get properly fitted and profiled. Even if you walked out of that store with the intent of ordering those clothes online, retailers were tracking the buyer's journey and seeing the value of offering a showroom experience to their customers. They realized that if the pendulum swung too far outside of community, that you would lose connection with your “tribe.”
We as nonprofits need to consider the ways we can measure how people engage from the first interaction to supporting an organization, either through giving or volunteering, or participating in an event, or advocating, or amplifying a message. Nonprofits are masters at community. I mean, the human connection in a nonprofit is greater there than pretty much anywhere else. Take, for example, people who attend church on a Sunday to be in community and worship together. Whatever that church may be, whatever religion that might otherwise be for folks, that was a community built around a ritualistic routine.
When the routine is disrupted, it's hard to get back into some of that routine. So, I wonder about how peer-to-peer events reemerge post-pandemic. I wonder how churches obviously reemerge post-pandemic and other experiences. It’s an interesting evolution, I guess, as we head from a pandemic to an endemic.
Shifting into the topic of digital communities, Facebook recently changed its holding company name to Meta, short Metaverse. They've demoted the brand of Facebook down to one of the many brands in Meta, like how Google did with Alphabet.
There're these larger holding companies with a house of experiences that you can have with them. There are some people, I think, who are still very cautious or fearful about going back to the way things were. I don't know when or if they'll ever return to life the way it was pre-pandemic. And for them, digital experience will have to continue to evolve to meet their needs.
And then for other people, they can't wait for things to be open and for us to not have to worry about someone's vaccine status or whether we need to consider wearing masks. And unfortunately, over the course of the pandemic, community has also looked different because now there seem to be so many more issues for us to divide over. Without getting too deep into what those issues are, technology, because of the way algorithms are built, tends to sort us into tribes and embed us into those tribes more deeply. And if you don't want to become that deeply embedded in one side or the other, you have to actively fight against that by listening to other opinions or cultivating this active compassion for people who have a different position than you do and act with empathy towards them.
Communities, no matter what they look like, religious or within the nonprofit space, must be able to hold room for people who wind up on different ends of whatever spectrum of an issue that there is because that's the only way that we'll be able to move forward with any form of unity.
Well, it's an excellent point. If I may, I'll take a moment on Facebook. If we rewind to the origins of Facebook, it began as an online community. It still is. But it's evolved. Originally, Facebook was valuable because the community that was built was focused around friends and family, and it offered the ability to connect with them in a way that was uplifting. It was a much tighter community within your friends, to be able to share pictures and updates about your life. People still do this, of course. But I think the way people use Facebook has changed.
This is not necessarily my area of expertise. I'm only speaking this as a consumer and a constituent. But Facebook has changed to be more of a content platform. Then, they were attempting to expand your community with people that were like-minded. Let's go back to Seth Godin. If there's a niche, and you're speaking to that niche, and you have a certain belief, then you may not necessarily know some of those people that share those beliefs with you. But now you feel comfortable in a new tribe of somebody who shares some level of belief and therefore, you've got a new community.
So when Facebook groups began, you could join a nonprofit group of cancer survivors, a specific ACS chapter or a cancer society might have a group. And they would have followers that would allow permission for people to raise their hand and say, "I want to hear from you because this is a community that I resonate with." The script has gotten flipped a little bit. And I think that's what's pretty disappointing to people who had engaged in a positive experience with big tech and social media. And now, it isn't as positive, because the community has become faceless. And the algorithms that serve the content are engineered to get more clicks and eyeballs to drive revenue for those companies. Community was pushed aside for revenue for those companies, which, they are entitled to do. So if the intention of the platform changes, there's nothing wrong with that. People can choose to go to other platforms or not engage anymore.
But people still thirst for a human connection that's authentic. On this continuum of authenticity versus manufactured community, I think those nonprofits that were the most vulnerable during the pandemic, for those Brene Brown fans out there, the art of vulnerability, if you will, versus the science of direct response, those that said, "Hey, we're human. We have a crisis. Can you help me? My case for support changed."
For example, an animal humane organization might not have been able to have folks come in to physically be present, they couldn't serve the animals that they were serving before, because they couldn't physically be present together, so they experienced a crisis. The fundraisers themselves were human, too. It wasn’t a reach to ask, "Where can we be authentic and vulnerable and rebuild our community?"
So, I guess, what I'm saying here is, digital communities that existed, like Facebook, have changed, evolved. Nonprofit organizations have had to reinvent how they are engaging their communities digitally. But we cannot lose sight, as shift into the endemic phase, that the human interaction of community remains critically important. Both for us as individuals, consumers, coworkers, church, goers, customers, but also in the nonprofit space. It's important that we continue to invest in community and expand it as best we possibly can.
I've observed that people who have gone back into those in-person communities have a new appreciation for it, of seeing people. Whereas, prior to the pandemic, we might have even seen it as a burden or an obligation of going to a, let's say, a fundraising gala, or doing a walk-ride-run event, or getting together with an alumni community and doing a small fundraiser with those folks.
So as fundraisers think about how we thoughtfully go back to doing things in person, how can fundraisers think differently to make that experience even more valuable? To get people to reengage, knowing that, as we spoke about at the beginning of our talk, that habits have been broken? How do we get people to reestablish those habits?
Let’s back up a little bit and think about the different sorts of nonprofits that I know I've shared with you before from a macro philosophy. There are organizations that operate as customer-based nonprofits. Think of hospitals, universities, museums. Places that have a well-defined customer base and a physical experience are paramount to those organizations. The philanthropic component of those organizations is important. For those organizations, the donation revenue can sometimes be secondary to the revenue sources of the patient, student, or museum ticket buyer. Clearly, during the pandemic, those communities were quite disrupted. Hospitals weren't allowing visitors and those things can ebb and flow as we're in the endemic stage. Students had to go virtual.
The customer experience was affected. And I'll come back to that in a minute, because I think your question's a good one, about how do we move back towards community in a way that it is in this, and I hate this phrase, new normal? But we do have to think about it. Things have changed.
The second category I think of is mission-based nonprofits: health and human services organizations, ministries, animal welfare, those that are raising money for a cause. The community connection is not so much a customer experience. People are giving so that they can help others.
The third bucket would be churches, which we've talked a little bit about. I'm going to put that aside for a bit because that tribe meets together in community as a congregation on a regular basis. But we'll put them aside. We do know that obviously, churches, hospitals, universities were the most disrupted. But mission-based organizations were disrupted as well. For example, an organization built around fighting poverty that’s taking care of people who need housing and healthcare, and now suddenly you're also fighting hunger, and trying to get meals... Boy, the way we interacted during the pandemic was certainly disrupted in regard to mission delivery.
During the pandemic, digital took such a sudden, important role. And it will continue to. But if you think on a continuum of digital to physical, we must have a balance of each. We saw some great success with galas. Our good friend, Reggie Rivers, and his Gala Team did some wonderful work with virtual events. And now we are starting to resume live or hybrid events. So, if you think about that continuum of digital to physical, we must continue to offer not just physical events for the sake of physical events, but to recognize that when people are in community with one another, they're going to be more altruistic. They're going to be more philanthropic.
But we also should continue to engage constituents in a digital way, because is the pandemic has helped people in a quantum leap in their comfort with technology. When you think about Baby Boomers, for instance, who might not have been as technically adept, were forced to be more adapt during the pandemic. And now, we as nonprofits can continue to leverage that. On the other axis of that, from a mental standpoint, where can we tap into the human context? The emotional aspect of giving in a customer experience. Customer experience is not that new to general marketers in the for-profit space. They spend a lot of money on customer experience because they know it leads to customer loyalty and lifetime value and all those things. But it’s a newer field of study for customer-focused nonprofits.
We must think about this continuum of the human context in philanthropy, all the way across to the full customer experience. There is emerging thinking around a concept called the human experience. So I think CX was customer experience, and it still is important. But now there is this evolving thinking in the human experience. In the pandemic and the post-pandemic world, I challenge nonprofits to stay vulnerable, be very transparent, and make sure you are allowing for and building community with a good balance of both digital and physical. And not to be afraid to rethink whether the things that defined community before are relevant in the context of COVID and beyond.
Many organizations reevaluated some of their peer-to-peer events and said, "Look, even though we're building community in the city, it's not good for our mission, because it doesn't have a good return on its investment." For that particular community, it may not make sense any longer do a peer-to-peer event. Then how are you going to stay in community with those folks? Is there a different approach that you can take? Is there a digital approach and/or a different sort of event that you can bring together people who are in community because they have in common cancer survivorship, or the care for animals, or whatever it may be that their passion might be?
Nonprofit leaders must evaluate that in the post-pandemic world. I believe that nonprofits are very resilient. I believe they'll rise to the occasion. But now's the time to do that. It's an important time to think about the human experience as it relates to the nonprofit organizations and their mission delivery and in its support or matrix as well.
Something that we haven't discussed yet is this idea of content delivery. One of the ways that you experience a sense of community is when I regularly see that very human and relatable content in my digital universe and in my physical universe. There are nonprofits I would probably give more to if they were more present in my life digitally. But right now, I have to go to their website to find stories. Or I have to do certain things to make sure that I am seeing their emails because sometimes they send emails that just go straight to my spam folder. And I would like to see their emails, but I'm not seeing them anymore, because of the way that Google Gmail has configured my inbox.
We keep bringing things back to this digital topic. But I think it's an important one because community is human and digital. What we've learned over the pandemic is that people have a nearly insatiable need for content. Not just because it's something that entertains us and passes the time, but because it's what helps us connect with people.
Yes. Whether it's social, or email, or mobile, or it's leveraging the power of video teleconferencing. I've seen some amazing examples of digital communities. Let’s take a micro tribe: mid-level or major donors have experienced being in community via Zoom in a way that they could get a briefing. Let's just use the pandemic as an example, the evolving virus that is coronavirus. If a hospital were to take a tribe of supporters and brief them via Zoom once a month with key doctors or stakeholders, those are things that the supporter audience finds incredibly valuable.
Do you think anybody pre-pandemic would've really thought, "Okay, here's what we're going to do: We're going to send out a Zoom invitation to some of our most important donors. And we're going to get some of our key doctors and leaders to talk about a fill-in-the-blank topic, whatever it might be." I think attendance would've been pretty low. Let’s go back to Reggie Rivers and his experience with virtual galas. His team found that the generosity of donors engaging digitally via video conference for 45 minutes to an hour was comparable to those same donors going to a gala, getting dressed up, driving across town, and spending a lot of time at the event.
Nonprofits can innovate in how they leverage technology to keep their constituency engaged but also continue to have the feeling that they're in a physical community. For those who want to satisfy the human experience, that might be an actual gala, or a gathering, or a bike event to cure cancer, or whatever else it might be. And then the holy grail being, post-pandemic, a better, stronger nonprofit organization with more engaged constituents within our community.
Our tribe, if you will, are our amplifiers. As a result of stronger communities, our advocates can recruit more constituents to spread the word in an organic way. That's what’s most exciting for me, I think, are those prospects. I'm an optimist in that way. So even though this has been very challenging 21 months since the pandemic started, there's a lot of hope for nonprofits that are looking at this the right way.
Absolutely. I agree with you that there are still challenges down the road that we must figure out. But something that has been a net positive is there are so many different avenues available and new donor groups that you can engage with. The pandemic has opened this world digitally, and that can be an augmentation of whatever it is that we return to in person.
I totally agree, Leah. Thank you for having me once again.
Thank you so much for joining us, Trent.