Brand Evangelists: Strategies for engaging your nonprofit's strongest supporters

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We’ve all found a product whose abilities match its claims, enjoyed superior customer service or discovered an organization that does great work for a cause that is near and dear to our hearts. Our natural tendency in such situations is almost always to share these great finds with people around us. In doing so, we become what Silicon Valley entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki calls a brand evangelist.

While the word evangelist has in the past been used in a religious context — the word originally came from a Greek term referring to a messenger who brings good news — increasingly it is used in both the for-profit and nonprofit worlds to describe the enormous value of word-of-mouth marketing in reaching new supporters. The task for organizations is to identify and harness the positive energy of these avid supporters.

What is a brand evangelist anyhow?

A brand evangelist is a donor or supporter of a nonprofit who keenly extols the virtues of the organization in an attempt to get their friends, family and Twitter followers to engage with the organization. According to nonprofit fundraising expert Roger Craver, 14% of donors and supporters self-identify as brand evangelists.

Why is it important to identify brand evangelists?

Randy Hawthorne, executive director for US-based Nonprofit Hub, sees it this way: “Nothing says, ‘This organization is worth your time and money’ better than a satisfied supporter or volunteer who passionately believes that your organization is truly worth his time and money.” While this concept is not new, it rings especially true today. Fraser Green, principal and chief strategist at Good Works Co, observes that traditional methods of acquiring new donors — direct response mail, phone campaigns and direct intercept on the street — are becoming less and less effective.

At the same time, people (especially those in the Generation X cohort) are increasingly turning to word of mouth as a key influence in their purchasing decisions, including which organizations to support. They are also, in turn, telling their peers about worthwhile products and organizations, with 42% of Generation X saying they often tell family and friends about products and services that interest them.

These brand evangelists can play a role in what’s called social proof: “the positive influence created when people find out others are doing something – now, suddenly, everyone else wants to do that something, too.” Brand evangelists also “show casual fans that they can do more than simply liking a brand.”

“What we’ve done until now is ‘push marketing,’” says Green. “I’m convinced it’s more important to generate ‘pull marketing’ where potential supporters become interested in finding out more about nonprofits.” He adds, “In my opinion, as a sector, we haven’t fully explored the idea of using our own engaged constituents to find and interest new supporters.”

How to identify a brand evangelist

In his book The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell identified three types of people who are necessary for an idea to spread: mavens (knowledge experts), connectors and salespeople. Fraser Green believes brand evangelists are a hybrid of connectors and salespeople.

Gwen Chapman, donor relations agent at Agents of Good says, “Don’t assume that someone who has given multiple financial donations is the same thing as a brand evangelist — they could simply be giving out of habit.”

Instead, she says, a brand evangelist can often be identified by the fact that they initiate contact with a nonprofit. “Unsolicited gifts are different than an answer to an appeal or campaign. Someone who writes a letter and praises how an event was run is also likely to be a potential evangelist for an organization.”

According to Chapman, even people who complain demonstrate their care and strong engagement with an organization. “When we think about ambassadors, we hope they will say wonderful things, but the donor experience is not always a good one. People who complain offer great perspective and – depending on how you handle it — can be potentially great brand evangelists.”

Another often-overlooked source of brand evangelists is a third-party fundraising event — such as a charity run where participants solicit funds for the charity from friends and colleagues. Ryann Miller, director of nonprofit services at, says, “Third-party fundraising often brings brand evangelists to the surface. If a typical participant raises $50 for an event and you find someone who has raised $500 or $5,000, there’s a good chance you’re dealing with a brand evangelist.”

Brand evangelists are perhaps easiest to find on social media. They will often be the most vocal participants on your Facebook and Twitter feeds, those who respond to your blog or are active in your online forums. Communications strategist James Howe of Communicate and Howe advises nonprofits to use social media analytics tools to track the online activity of followers who retweet, reply or mention your organization. He notes that many of these tools are available free of charge. Howe also advises creating a list of actively engaged followers and following those people in turn.

Building relationships with your brand evangelists

While people are more likely to be influenced to support an organization by a friend rather than by the organization itself, nonprofit staff have an important role to play in this process: building solid relationships with brand evangelists. “If a nonprofit organization is smart,” says Miller, “they will figure out who their brand evangelists are and do a good job of building an ongoing relationship with them.”

As with any relationship, the initial phase can be exciting but Miller cautions nonprofit staff to avoid overwhelming a supporter by rushing ahead too quickly. “There’s such excitement about finding someone who is passionate about your organization, but nonprofit staff often make the mistake of sharing everything about their organization and too quickly inviting a passionate supporter to become fully engaged.”

A better approach is to start by asking questions and listening. “It can be valuable to find out what they might be willing to do or how they might speak on behalf of the organization,” Miller notes, “but someone who is passionate about your work can often also provide useful feedback about your organization.” Chapman agrees, suggesting that surveying donors about their experience is a very valuable (and under-utilized) activity — and another way of revealing people who are committed to and passionate about your organization and its work.

Following your followers on social media, retweeting them and sending them direct messages when you have something special coming up are ways of cultivating a relationship with these key supporters, says Howe. Such support shows that your organization’s social media presence is not a “one-way platform for promotion”, making your supporters more likely to care more about the organization. Engaging the influencers in your online community can also have wide-reaching effects: “Even if 90% of word-of-mouth conversations happen offline, the vast majority of the time, the topics of conversation are coming from online sources.”

How to talk to your brand evangelists

While Green agrees that nonprofits should get to know their key supporters first — rather than trying to educate them or call them to action — he also says that the tone of conversation with brand evangelists is important. “I describe it as being like moving from vous to tu, when you speak French. When you speak to a prospective donor, you use the respectful vous tone and you keep a polite distance. Once that person has shown a tangible interest in your organization, you can switch to the more personal tu.”

While it’s easy to slip into depersonalized, institutional language in communicating on behalf of an organization, it’s particularly important to talk to brand evangelists with a human voice. As Chapman says, “I always tell clients to use the same kind of language they would use if they were speaking to their grandmothers. You can speak informally and relationally — use the kind of language your donors would use.”

When you have built relationships with your brand evangelists, you can offer them different opportunities for engagement. “Let them choose for themselves,” says Green. “Some may want to spread the word online and would never come to an event or a meeting — while others are ready to get involved. Offer them options.” These can include:

  • Encourage supporters to share their personal experiences with your nonprofit;
  • Build a group on LinkedIn or Facebook for your brand evangelists;
  • Encourage brand evangelists to bring a friend to an event or recruit new supporters;
  • Give information about your organization and its work to your key supporters so they can have real data to share;
  • Invite real world opportunities: if your women’s crisis centre needs diapers, let your influencers know so they can help spread the word;
  • Provide shareable images and strong feel-good stories;
  • Include actions in some updates — such as “sign up for our cupcake sale” or “subscribe to our newsletter”;
  • Email tweets or status updates that evangelists can post themselves on behalf of your organization;
  • Enable supporters to do online personal fundraising campaigns connected with milestones in their lives;
  • Says Randy Hawthorne: “Create a welcome kit of sorts, giving this core group a packaged promotional plan, including do’s and don’ts for speaking about your organization, the history of your NPO, the programs and services you offer, a directory of friendly and relevant places to spread the word, a calendar of events, etc. You could create a catchy name for this group, give them some swag, arm them with the right know-how and intelligence necessary for communicating effectively about your organization — then let them loose and allow their passion for your cause to take over and spread through your community.”

"Branding started out because customers no longer had personal relationships with the people behind growing companies," says Alison Carlman, unmarketing manager at peer-to-peer fundraising platform GlobalGiving. But building those personal relationships with even a few brand evangelists can be far more powerful than simply accumulating large numbers of followers. Nonprofit organizations that are able to build authentic relationships with people who are passionate about their work will be better able to harness both the power of branding and the power of relationship in order to spread their influence to more people who share their mission.

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organization tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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