Connecting Coffee attends share take a break from their routines to share their thoughts on trending issues in the nonprofit sector. (Photo by Deborah Arnold Brown)
Connecting Coffee this month was all about engagement – of staff, donors, board members, and volunteers. Engagement is hot in the business press right now because there is some evidence that an engaged staff makes for a more profitable company. The “how to,” however, has been missing, while the experts say you need to figure out what your audience needs.
We dug into the concept and tailored it for a nonprofit world. What do nonprofits need to do to increase engagement, knowing that engaged staff, volunteers and donors are more likely to give more of their time or resources?
First off, we defined engagement. We liked the definition offered up by one person that says “customers sell the product.” In the nonprofit world, that would mean that the staff, volunteers and donors are selling the mission if they are engaged.
One key theme with the group was that communication is the key to engagement. How do you sustain commitment to the mission? It’s not a one-time project, it is constant work. One participant explained that her organization is taking the time to over-communicate. She said that the education has made a difference at her agency and people are working better together. The leadership team at her agency is sharing budgets, talking about changes afoot and sharing what each person at the organization does all day. It’s an ongoing effort that is strengthening the agency.
Another way to increase engagement is to break down silos – groups that don’t interact with other departments. One participant suggested creating cross-functional teams for special projects to help with planning. These types of groups encourage buy-in and support for the activity and build teams across the agency. You can also tie performance and goals to the strategic plan so everyone can see how they fit into the overall direction of the agency.
The group was very interested in one participant’s extensive volunteer engagement program. The agency found a sponsor to support the hard costs of the program (in the range of $10,000) and are therefore able to provide giveaways and have an appreciation event in the spring at the agency’s facility with staff. We heard that it took this agency several years to get to the point that they thought it was working well. The takeaway being that they worked at it for years until they got it right. They have strong volunteers that are passionate about the mission and have lots of ways to plug-in to the program. The volunteers are the best ambassadors and fundraisers the agency could ask for.
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And “stuff” makes a difference. Volunteers (and I’d venture to say staff too) like to have t-shirts, pens, and other giveaways that show they are associated with the agency and the agency’s mission. It costs money to have giveaways, but it doesn’t need to cost a lot. Most important is the time and structure you put into picking the things that will connect and the effort you put into making your people feel good about their work.
Ashley Tobin, founder of the Work Better Consulting firm for nonprofits, brings diverse professionals together every two months for Connecting Coffee, a free networking and sharing event for 501(c)(3) employees at all levels, from organizations of all sizes and missions.
Stay in touch with upcoming Connecting Coffee events by joining the email list at www.connectingcoffee.com.
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