Relationship Trumps Mission in Nonprofit Social Media & on the Street

Nonprofits’ and NGOs’ use of street marketing and social media reveals how mission too often overshadows relationship building—and alienates more people than it attracts.

In How Nonprofits & NGOs Can Press Their Home Court Advantage in Social Business, I explained how nonprofits had a significant “moral advantage” over commercial enterprises because they were cause-focused, which is inherently more attractive to most people than business focus. However, as I’ll explain here, too many NFPs apply their moral advantage in the wrong way, so it creates more negative than positive impressions. I’ll use the tangible example of street marketing to make the point before applying it to social business/social media.

Nonprofits’ Common Goals of Interaction

Broadly speaking, nonprofits interact to increase support for their causes and programs, whether by phone, in digital social venues or on the street. Some of nonprofits’ common stakeholders are: donors, members, volunteers, community businesses, global organizations, government and institutions. When interactions create goodwill between the nonprofit “representative” and the stakeholder, they are “successful.”

How Mission Can Blind Nonprofits

Few people would assert that nonprofits don’t have worthy causes or programs, but to engage stakeholders, the question is not the worth of the cause, it is whether the stakeholder feels like s/he can engage “right now,” when the representative invites interaction. In street marketing, I have observed that well meaning representatives of nonprofits and NGOs unknowingly assume that their missions give them license to impose on passersby, which violates the primary rule of relationship. I’ll call this phenomenon “being blinded by the mission.” It is lethal.

The Primacy of Relationship

Stakeholders are people, so the primary rules of relationship and trust apply. Bear with me a minute because most people do not appreciate the nuances of “relationship,” and getting this right is key to having successful interactions online and offline. The first rule is consideration of oneself (the representative) and the other (the stakeholder) as separate people. To succeed most often, the representative must be grounded in the right attitude: s/he is inviting another people to interact, but the latter’s participation is utterly voluntary. The representative must be at peace with this reality to have successful interactions, which increase trust and support. The mission does not give the representative the right to impinge on another person. Too many assume that right and do more harm than help.

Street Marketing Example

Street marketing is increasingly used by brands, small business and nonprofits/NGOs to engage people spontaneously in public places. As I live in downtown Chicago and travel globally in metropolitan centers, I spend much time navigating and moving around public places. I observe many nonprofit pairs, facing each other, usually one of each gender, trying to engage passersby. Most have clipboards and try to get one to commit pen to paper to garner support. Personality and attitude count tremendously because passersby make their decisions of whether to stop in a split second.

In Chicago this morning, I was rushing to a meeting using my favorite mode of transportation (walking) when I saw I would be approaching a Red Cross pair. I quickly assessed paths of navigation that would not require slackening my 6 mph walk. The fresh-faced young woman smiled genuinely as I reached her, turned aside to let me pass and said, “Have a nice day.”

This beautiful interaction precipitated this post, which had been percolating for some time. By observing one of the primary rules of relationship—consideration—she succeeded in encouraging my already positive impression of Red Cross. She gave me something (consideration) before she asked for something (my time). This was a rare occurrence. Your teams can use it literally to your organization’s benefit.

Too many street and social media teams violate the rule of consideration and sabotage their missions. I and other passersby have compassion for them because we have all done similar things and know how difficult it is to have a cause, to try and to face rejection. This is a primal situation that most people don’t appreciate.

Attitude Is Critical

A person who is grounded in his/her reality is accepting of it. S/He is responsible and humble. From that reality, s/he asks other people for something. This is all reflected in the attitude felt by passersby:

“I am a human being and am grounded in my self. May I talk with you?” (I am curious about your thoughts)


“I have a great mission. You owe me to stop and chat.” (I want something from you)

Now, imagine your street teams, volunteers in fundraising events and your social media teams. You pay them in time, recognition or money to represent you in countless interactions. Too many have the second attitude. By adopting the first attitude, they will be far more successful and happy. Moreover, nonprofits should not count too heavily on goodwill. The passersby (literal or digital ;^) may accommodate the teams with the second attitude. Their signatures may suggest success in the short term but goodwill weakens with each negative interaction. People who accommodate the second attitude are often resentful and do not follow through with real support.

The mission is a difficult one, but teams’ behaviors are quickly self-reinforcing. If they are angry or resentful that people aren’t stopping, people feel it and stop even less. Attitude is very difficult to hide, so it is far better is to get it right at the core.

Specific Recommendations for Social Business and Street Marketing

Leadership and Attitude

  • Management and volunteer/member leadership play a huge role here. They need to be grounded in their state (as leaders of the organization/cause). They need to be humble. Maybe the rough economy has hit donations or support. Members or volunteers may be more difficult to engage. No one owes them to help, regardless of the cause. Nonprofit leadership needs to get this right. If they don’t, their organizations will weaken.
  • Openly discuss attitude, consideration, relationship and trust during team meetings. Model genuine interactions live, on video and in digital social venues.
  • Attitude is the emotional channel of what your representatives bring to their interactions. Mission is the intellectual channel. In most situations, the emotional channel dwarfs the intellectual channel. Getting attitude right can improve your results tremendously.
  • Interactions are self-perpetuating. Positive interactions energize teams, emotionally (the passersby smiled when they signed my sheet) and intellectually (they volunteered additional information or helpful hints). Teams like doing it and will sign up to do it again. Likewise, negative interactions self-reinforce.
  • Design pilots with relationship-oriented success metrics, and contrast these results with your existing service projects. Some suggestions:
    • Make the goal to have positive interactions, not getting a number of retweets/likes/signatures. Smiles. Focus teams on being curious about what other people think. Brainstorm things they want to learn; invite them to use these thoughts to engage people. Challenge teams to collect insights from passersby.
    • Focus teams on giving something to passersby, not getting something. Their results will improve when they give first.
    • When teams demonstrate genuine interest in passersby, the latter will increase their interest in your representatives and cause. Ask them to practice consideration, to try to engage curiosity and to realize that 1/20 (whatever the portion is) of passersby is probably the desired “prospect.”
    • Experienced teams can show focus and curiosity by observing passersby and commenting on something about their appearance; this is an art; it can’t come across as invasive or manipulative.
    • Design questionnaires with one open question such as “Would you like to advise us on how to do this better?” Successful interactions increase trust and the willingness to share.
    • Measure the portion of service project teams that volunteer for the same project again.

Social Business/Media

  • This post tries to use a tangible offline situation with which most readers are familiar to share insight about interaction in digital social venues.
  • The stakes are far higher in social venues than on the street or in any other situation because the former are immortal, and the audience is potentially very large. This can work for you or against you, but it is a fact.
  • People smell attitude a mile away, but they won’t say anything openly; however, their reactions show their perceptions (as well as their own attitudes, BTW ;^)
  • Explain to teams that no one owes your organization or any person to Like, Retweet, Comment or share. If their attitudes and curiosity about others are genuine, results will improve.
  • To some people, these concepts will be abstract, so you need to model the behavior. Plan to do this regularly; some people will require a learning curve.
  • Design social business outcomes to reflect attitude. Use the platform’s ladder of social actions to measure engagement over time (here is one example).
  • Some people will think relationship and trust are silly and won’t take them seriously. Don’t try to change these people, but keep engaging. Instead, identify the people who get it and take relationship seriously. They are your leaders.

Street Marketing

  • Street marketing is very similar to deciding whether to interact in digital social venues, except it is even more difficult because the opportunity is won or lost in less than a second; in digital social venues, someone could theoretically return to a conversation, but that rarely happens in practice.
  • Cross-train street marketing teams to interact online—and vice versa; your teams will learn a lot, fast.
  • Practice sensitivity, consideration and respect. Teams can give these to passersby and improve the brand image and support for the cause. Make this explicit during training; do skits. Show that this is serious and note who takes it seriously.
  • Interactions are cumulative, so one team’s positive interaction could well encourage a person to stop and talk with other team later the same day. Interrupting is inconsiderate, so they must design interactions to change that dynamic and engender positive feelings.
  • Use a URL shortener to link to an online survey where people could complete the information later; put it on a business card with a reminder of the cause. Have volunteers handwrite their names and a short message; pass these out to people who can’t stop then. This will work when the interaction was positive.

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