The Community Contract

Nonprofit organizations exist to meet community needs, are governed by community members, and funded through community contributions. Nonprofit agencies leverage their scarce resources by fostering community relationships. Nonprofits even receive special tax-exempt status based on their involvement with the community. In the nonprofit world, survival is defined by how much community support you receive, financially and otherwise. Knowing how to procure strong community backing is crucial to your nonprofit’s success.

To understand how to build strong community support, you need to know where your starting point is, that is, what the community thinks now. Often, community members think of nonprofits as do-good organizations who are poor and unsophisticated, always asking for money. Where people do the work of saints on a shoe-string budget. Where there is never enough money to meet all the needs. It’s a sad situation those nonprofits are in. Bless them, trying to beat the odds.

Well, if those are the prevailing stereotypes, no wonder nonprofits have trouble garnering strong, widespread community support. Who wants to support a losing battle? Yes, you’ll attract other do-gooders. And you will attract the underdog fans. But why settle for only a fraction of the pie?

To realize pervasive, robust community support, you need to position yourself as a winner. You start improving your organization’s position by clearly defining what your organization is and what it stands for in a way that reflects your agency’s personality. Through all your communication channels, even your internal ones. You need to communicate a consistent image within and throughout your organization in order to steadfastly project that message to the community. You want control over your messaging in order to take control of the public conversation about you. You want to have control over the public conversation in order to influence the community. And you want to influence the community to give you their generous support.

You get their generous support by giving it. It’s an exchange relationship. You both give and get something of value. So, you need to define the benefits you bring to your different constituencies. Both in terms of what you do and how you do it, as well as the results you achieve.

Defining your value is easier said than done because people outside the nonprofit world generally don’t speak the same communal language as we do. And the corporate cultures are different, meaning they most likely have a different set of collective values than we do. It’s important that we research who we want to talk to so we can understand their perspectives and speak to them in language they comprehend, in terms that have meaning and are important to them, using words and conducting deeds that motivate them, not necessarily us. Only then, will we be able to convey an accurate picture of what we have to offer and can invite them to enter into a mutually beneficial relationship.

Once you have people on board, you need to keep them on board. Engage them. Give something meaningful to do, whether they be volunteers, staff, donors, or advocates.  You can even give your vendors something meaningful to do and engage them. Keep in mind, though, the something meaningful needs to be meaningful to them, as well as you.

Then thank them up the wazoo. Treat them as the most important people in your world. Because they are the heroes of your cause.

And then start building on the personal investment they have given and the goodwill you have built, as well as any other benefits they have received as a result of your partnership. Ask them to invite their networks to experience the same sense of fulfillment they have. Attract other community members and organizations by touting the value of the benefits you deliver. Watch your network grow. Observe, one by one, people and establishments commit to working with you.

Yes, it’s a lot of work. Yes, it takes time. No, it won’t always go smoothly. But if you stick with it, the results are worth it. You will see your public visibility increase. More community members will be aware of what you do and the importance of your work. People will want to work with you. You will have begun a positive, upward cycle of obtaining more and more community support.

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