Regaining Trust from Our Constituents and Supporters

Last year, alarm bells rang when Edelman reported that trust among the four main U.S. institutions—Government, NGOs, Businesses and the Media—were at an all-time low.

Now, in 2019, trust has risen — but only marginally — and only for the most informed public: they tend to be younger (between 25-64), college-educated, high-earners and consume significant amount of news media, in addition to being involved in public policy.

Sound like our donors? Yes—except they are younger than we would normally expect. And it’s only a slice of the U.S. population.

In addition, while more people are consuming the news, they are also more engaged with the news. In 2019, Edelman reports a 14% increase in people sharing or posting content “several times a month or more”.  This doesn’t mean that trust in social media has risen—quite the opposite.  Search and traditional media are trusted almost twice as much as social media in the U.S. and Canada.

At the same time, we all know that social media — or specific social channels — are critical to building brand awareness, story-telling, promoting our work, generating leads and donor acquisition.

What does this mean for nonprofits and fundraising specifically?

First, we need to make sure that we are being authentic, transparent and genuine — in all our communications, whether that’s direct mail, email, social, blogs…you get the point. This all goes back to story-telling — the subject of countless blogs, books and classes. This becomes the backbone of your organization’s story and paints a vivid, moving and passionate picture of who you are, what you do and how you make the world a better place.

Second, it’s time to start empowering other people to speak on behalf of our organization. In Edelman’s 2018 Trust Barometer Special Report: Brands and Social Media, experts (e.g., program staff, academic staff) and “a person like yourself” (e.g., a supporter’s own peer network or what we would term “micro-influencers” which are people who have 5,000-10,000 highly-engaged followers) rated highest in terms of credibility when speaking for a brand (i.e., your non-profit). Next was a representative from your organization (not your CEO – these are your employees, and they don’t have to be the heads of your departments). Interpreting Edelman’s findings for our industry, I would rank a donor, journalist, and your CEO next in terms of credibility. Last on the list would be a board member and celebrity.

Third, focus on your social media platforms. Not all of them! Find one, two or three where you know your supporters gravitate to and you are committed to updating regularly (more than daily) with interesting, relevant content. It doesn’t all have to be directly about your program. Fun quizzes, recipes, holiday ideas, book recommendations, polls … anything that is interesting and connects with your work, region or mission is great content that keeps people reading your posts – and sharing.

Remember the fact above that people distrust social media? They do when posts/advertisements show up in their feed unannounced and without any endorsements from their own community. The larger your social community, the more people your advertisement will have “endorsing” it. Use your larger community to your advantage.

Want to take your social media program to the next level? Create a suite of content that indicates people who click that content are more deeply involved in your issue. When they click that recipe, quiz, or, stories about your work, send them a personal message asking them to join a closed Facebook group to get more involved with behind-the-scenes information, curated content and moderated Q&A. Everyone loves exclusivity and feeling special. Supporters can talk to each other, share their interests and begin small fundraisers of their own.

Fourth, make it easy for supporters to give feedback, ask questions and navigate their personal constituent journey. With the advent of chatbots, texting and messaging platforms (including Facebook messenger), there is no reason an organization should not be available to answer a supporter’s inquiries nearly seven-days a week. While much of these chats can be handled with simple algorithms, because we are in the business of donor service, there are firms who also staff these services (like a 1-800 number) who can also handle these inquiries.

Not ready to implement a chatbot? (Don’t worry, we’ll keep bringing it up until you are!) Be sure to create a comprehensive FAQ section for donors, members, advocates, supporters and anyone else you can think of on your website. Be sure, too, that you have a mechanism for people to submit their own question and a process for answering and then immediately posting the answer. Why? First, it’s just good donor service. Second, FAQs are often some of the highest ranked pages in SEO, so it would be foolish not to have them on your site – if just to boost your own site’s rankings in Google’s search algorithm. Third, people who submit a FAQ will often immediately search for the answer to their question — again, boosting your ranking in Google’s algorithm. Win. Win. Win.

Fifth, remember when we talked about people trusting representatives from your organization? Use them. A lot. Assign different employees to take over social media handles for a day a week. Have them live stream. If they are specialists that can build up their own following under their own handle, let them. It will allow them to build a network that is completely different than the organization’s and allow you to tap into a whole different audience. Retweet what they are doing and have these employees retweet the organization’s own posts. Use each other to amplify the organization’s message.

In today’s fractured society, building trust means finding your organization’s ambassadors — whether they come from within or outside your organization — and giving them the freedom to spread your organization’s message to their own community. 

We are not advocating for eliminating any of the traditional ways of acquiring, retaining or upgrading donors. Far from it. But to continue to see increased growth in today’s splintered society, we need to look for new avenues of growth, even if it’s by letting go of the tightly managed way of doing business we’ve clung to in the past.