How Relationship Marketing Builds Dedicated Champions for Your Nonprofit

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by Pam Gerogiana

Pam Georgiana, MBA is the Vice President of Engagement for Lutheran Social Services in Ohio. She is a marketing strategy professional with more than 20 years of experience in experiential and relational marketing, communications, and branding. She is passionate about identifying trends, brainstorming innovative engagement ideas and creative brand messaging and turning them into impactful strategies that change the world.

For nonprofit professionals, traditional marketing approaches have been transactional. Typically, you ask for donation dollars, volunteer hours, or press coverage.

However, the world is changing as consumers interact with brands on a more fundamental level. For example, consumers communicate in real-time on digital platforms, wear clothing with brand logos, and recommend brands to their friends, family and followers.

To that end, smart brands pivot their marketing efforts to build long-term, loyal, and engaged relationships with their consumers. In this article, we will outline the importance of engagement and relationship marketing, as opposed to transactional marketing, and offer suggestions for how you can do it at your nonprofit.

The New Model of Engagement

Traditionally, the model for consumer engagement with a brand was represented by a ladder. An individual’s involvement grows as they move up the ladder, from awareness to purchase and higher.

The closer they get to the top, the deeper the engagement experience. And at the top, consumers share their influence to benefit the brand. Now, the engagement process is more of a spiral. There are many ways consumers choose to interact with a brand for the first time and beyond.

Access points to a brand could be through in-person interactions, printed materials, broadcast media, or digital platforms. Conversations and touchpoints may not follow a linear path as people engage with brands on different levels simultaneously.

Smart brands also focus on finding cause champions to widen their influence and bring more people into their spiral. In order to do this, they use engagement and relationship marketing techniques that build a two-way bond between consumer and brand.

Identify Your Important Constituents

If you want your nonprofit’s brand to be relationship-worthy, you need to know who your important customers and constituents are. That is, what groups of people have a direct impact on the interest in the future of your organization?

At Lutheran Social Services (LSS), we categorize our critical constituent groups as:

  • Client
  • Employee
  • Volunteer
  • Donor

Each of these segments are equally important to our mission and our existence at LSS. Their positive engagement with our nonprofit is an important reflection of our brand.

Your organization may classify other critical constituents, such as government leaders, foundations, or local chambers of commerce. Beyond that, it’s important to define your aspirational relationship with each constituent group.

For example, LSS aspires to build a donor relationship that starts with a one-time gift, like a holiday gift to our homeless shelter. Over time, we work to nurture this into a monthly gift to the same shelter and expand to in-kind donations to other programs within our nonprofit.

In a spiral model, this same donor could also expand into becoming a regular volunteer or possibly a board member. However, relationship building is a two-way street and we take our cues from our constituents as we engage with them.

For example, if a volunteer first engages with our food pantry program, but over time expresses interest in learning more about our domestic violence program, we will offer them a tour of the shelter and an invitation to volunteer there. If that volunteer seems happy just serving at the food pantry, we will offer them more opportunities to engage at the food pantry.

Write Your Value Propositions

As you define your critical constituents and the relationships you hope to have, write value propositions (VP) for each. These VPs should list the benefits each group should expect from your organization and the problems you will solve for them.

Not only that, a VP is also a reflection of your long-term organizational strategy. For example, the LSS Volunteer VP reads:

“LSS will collaborate with and support an engaged and compassionate volunteer team across service lines, bringing together individuals and groups, motivated by the LSS mission, to provide experiences that enhance and add value to client services within LSS while nourishing both the client and volunteer spirit. A fully engaged volunteer team is well prepared (through superior orientation and ongoing training), well supported (through open communication and opportunities to provide input), well respected (through appreciation for time, talents, skills, abilities, limitations and preferences), and continuously celebrated (through ongoing recognition and acts of gratitude) in their impact.”

Within this VP is a strategic roadmap in which the volunteer engagement team will work to enhance our volunteer opportunities and experience. And as we develop these initiatives, we’ll also build brand experiences.

Because engagement is a critical part of the LSS strategic plan, we’ve created an Engagement Value Proposition that sits above the constituent VPs. It outlines the strategy behind our approach to engagement as well as provides leadership the roadmap to get there:

“All critical constituents connected to LSS will perceive a shared purpose with LSS. Long-term relationships will deepen to include multiple roles within their initial group and broaden to include roles in other constituent groups. All relationships are built on shared purpose and experiences.”

VPs help us understand how to strategically use resources to provide value for our constituents. It provides my team a framework in which to develop messaging based on the aspirational relationship we are building within a certain constituent group.

However, because engagement is a two-way street, we also collect pertinent data from our constituents whenever possible and pivot in our messaging and engagement opportunities when it is warranted.

Measure Your Relationships

In order to react quickly, the ongoing tracking of engagement metrics is extremely important. LSS has identified critical metrics that fall into four succinct buckets. Below, you’ll get a brief about each bucket and examples for each in the bulleted list.


This goal is to change the number of members within a constituency group. This may be an increase in donors or volunteers. It may also be a decrease or “keep flat” goal in the case of clients or residents of our programs.

  • Increase the total number of active volunteers to address natural attrition of the volunteer base in each program
  • Stay at or below the client capacity goal set by the Community Shelter Board at the homeless shelter


This goal is to change the retention rate for members within a constituency group. Again, the goal depends on the group.

  • Increase the number of new volunteers who commit to future engagement
  • Decrease the return rate in domestic violence shelter clients


This goal is to increase the growth rate for members within a certain constituency group so that they deepen their relationship with LSS. This measurement would only apply to constituents that can help the agency grow and thrive in the future.

  • Increase the number of volunteers within a program’s various roles
  • Increase the number of donors who donate across multiple LSS channels (online, direct mail, events).


This goal is to increase the rate of constituents moving among groups, without affecting in-group retention and growth rates. This is the most critical set of goals and the hardest to measure. In order to do so, you may need to invest in technology and systems that are available across programs as well as data analytics.

  • Increase the percentage of recurring donors who are also recurring volunteers
  • Increase the percentage of recurring volunteers who are also recurring donors
  • Increase the percentage of employment applicants from the volunteer rosters

It is important to write goals using the SMART methodology: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time bound. It’s hard to motivate the troops with a goal that can’t be met or is unclear in scope.

For example, the LSS volunteer growth goal may be written as:

“By the end of the fiscal year, LSS will increase the number of volunteers who have maintained one shift per month in both the LSS Faith Mission Community Kitchen and for the LSS Faith Mission Speakers Bureau for at least 3 months by 15%.”

This includes a lot of detail that is important to our overarching engagement strategy for the agency, but it is also completely understandable and attainable for our volunteer engagement team.

With your VPs in mind, establish your critical goals and set up your tracking mechanisms. Measure results every step of the way and be ready to iterate as needed. And make sure that your program operators are carrying the messaging through to their face-to-face engagements as well. Before you know it, your relationship marketing efforts will help create life-long, passionate champions for your organization, which is the most satisfying part of this whole process.

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