To attract brand ambassadors, advocates, and donors, nonprofits must build a platform and a movement. This allows us to capture attention and communicate with our audience. We must build trust, create an experience, and engage our audience cleanly, clearly and concisely.

Building Trust: Patience, Compassion, and Tolerance

Building trust starts with adding real value to an individual, community or organization. We build trust through authenticity and relevance, by resonating instead of alienating. We also build agreements between partners to avoid conflict (guide, don’t shove). A collective approach makes it easier for potential participants to find their voice within the movement. Relationship building is an intentional process and a major tool for spreading ideas. Building authentic relationships with people who believe what you believe catapults your idea to the next level.

Our Evening Education Option Program at the Mobile Area Education Foundation is a program aimed at assisting students ages 17-21 with achieving their high school diplomas. Students are generally two or more years behind, with only a 25% chance of high school graduation in the regular setting. In the past 6 years, though, we have helped over 700 students graduate college and be career ready, with graduation rates as high as 83%. Our program builds trust by treating students as individuals. We spend the first few weeks of the school year getting acquainted and assigning the student an advocate counselor, based on attitude, temperament, and personality. For the student to be successful in the program, they must fully trust that we have their best interest at heart.

Without trust, there can be no meaningful connection between people. Trust is a collection of small choices made every day, changing the way that we live, love and lead. Our care for another person affects the way that person responds to us. When students arrive on campus each evening, they are greeted by a staff member between the parking lot and the front door. The staff member acknowledges the student by name, while taking a mental note of their behavior to gauge the appropriate level of engagement. Once we have gained students’ trust, they give us access into their lives. Then we start to prioritize the secondary level of student engagement efforts. This step must occur purposefully and intentionally. One misstep could set a student back and negate any previous progress.

Activate people’s gifts, creating mutual delight and mutually beneficial partnerships. Share! If you share what you love with the world, then those who share that love will find you. Connect people with complementary people, connecting people and ideas. Our students are members of their advocate counselor’s caseload, but receive individual attention, along with group sessions. During group sessions, the advocate counselor transforms a group of individuals into a fully functioning community of learners.

The most transformative method has been to nurture the relationship with the student who shows the most interest in the task at hand, your first follower. The first follower has a dual role; he’s first transformed from a passionate loner into a leader, then provides an example for new followers to emulate the follower, not the leader, thus creating a following. The first follower must be embraced as an equal. It’s about the vision and not the leader. Other students will follow their peers, but some will find it difficult to just follow the adult leader, through fear of not appearing to be cool or of being ridiculed by their peers. The first follower becomes an unofficial student leader, and is embraced as an equal by the advocate counselor. They will also serve as an example to the other students on how they are expected to behave. This is how we create mutually beneficial partnerships between students and adults.

Creating a meaningful experience: Immersion and multilayered experiences

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
People can talk you out of your philosophy and tradition, but they can’t talk you out of your experiences. We must ensure that every experience is enjoyable to the end user; enjoyment is at least as important as access. Access without enjoyment could prevent your movement/idea/event from spreading.

To create a sense of urgency, understand the importance of and then implement the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). It increases the likelihood of participation if the audience feels that they will miss out. For our students, during the college and career development sessions, we create a sense of urgency in order to create a meaningful experience. Originally, we invited speakers to describe their careers, education, and how to gain entry into those fields. About 50% of the audience lost interest within the first 7 minutes, causing distractions for the other students.

So we changed the format of our sessions to create a sense of urgency. Instead of allowing the speaker to speak freely, we requested that each speaker bring a demonstration (prop) with them, thus respecting different learning styles: auditory, visual, and kinesthetic. You cannot create an immersive experience without creating multiple entry points to the experience. We also changed the format. Each speaker has 15 minutes to speak, 6 minutes for demonstration (which could be integrated throughout the presentation), and 7 minutes for Q&A, creating a sense of urgency, since students fear that they will not be able to have their question answered. Afterwards, there are 20 minutes for introverted students to ask questions after everyone else has returned to class. We have now gained students’ attention and maintained it for the duration of each presentation. These changes have resulted in an increase of internship, job shadowing, and job offers for our students.

Listening is needed for designing rich and immersive experiences. By thoughtfully observing and providing your undivided attention to potential participants, you can capture the reality and sentiments of the audience’s world. Listening helps you gain insight, understanding, perspective, and context. Once your audience senses your interest in adding value, you can create a bond that will enable them to hear your unique perspective.

Your audience’s trust and attention, along with the information that you get from being attentive and fulfilling their emotional needs, provide the essential elements needed to start creating immersive experiences. Through these experiences, we help people accept alternate realities, helping them deviate from the norm, while conceptualizing the idea. These unique experiences help flip the traditional model from control to influence. Deliver a multilayered experience that creates some kind of value in exchange for their time.

Storytelling: Engaging your audience (clean, clear, and concise)

The greatest idea in the world means nothing if you can’t get it to resonate with people. Be new, innovative, but leave points where the audience can use their preexisting knowledge and relate to it. Constructing a story that is clean, clear and concise improves the likelihood that it will spread. Play on naturally occurring triggers, removing the guesswork. Trigger emotion, because the most important part of a story is the feeling that it gives you, so that people remember the story and share it. This sets the stage for collaboration and ownership. Creating a movement is about knowing your story and powerfully communicating your values.

We construct counter-narratives to bridge the gap between the community and the public education system. This transforms our volunteers into brand ambassadors. Each speaker leaves with a new perspective of at-risk youth. When people feel emotionally connected and help us achieve our goals through storytelling, authenticity, and establishing a personal connection, they then become a part of our story, and they feel compelled to spread the story. Create clear social incentives and compelling benefits. Stakeholders don’t act on abstract ideas.

To motivate people to share, create something that people will want to talk about and that will increase their social capital. When great ideas fail to sustain their momentum, it’s most likely due to their lack of subtle reminders. These reminders serve as a nudge that increases the sharing of ideas during periods of downtime. Does sharing your idea/event/movement make the sharer appear more interesting?


Terrance DeShaun Smith is dedicated to developing community programs that guide and mentor today’s youth. Terrance has been especially impactful in minimizing high school dropout rates and cultivating positive expressions of manhood in young boys. He is also the founder of Pop Up Mobile, which hosts community “pop up events” that promote economic development in dormant areas. www.maef.net/our-work/

This article is reprinted from Vol. 3, No. 1, of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today!

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