What Fortune 500 Community Managers Can Learn from Nonprofits about Social Business

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We’re really hung up on technology these days. And jargon. We use terms like “social media” to describe a range of practices – from digital communications to any form of customer-centered marketing that embraces the ways in which people interact, inform themselves, form communities and co-create within the current zeitgeist.  Then we mix it up with terms like “social business,” tending to again describe a range of meanings – from…. social enterprise to digital business to social ecosystem to social sales.

We’re confusing the heck out of ourselves, and it’s contributing to fuzzy thinking. It doesn’t so much matter what we call it, as long as we avoid common mistakes and get buy-in from our stakeholders that’s based on tangible, perceived benefits. You say potato; I say potahto.  What we should be able to agree on is that it’s not simply a matter of technology. From Forbes: “Social business is the discipline of working out all the societal and business impacts of instantaneous, ubiquitous communications.”

Make no mistake — we’re in the midst of a digital revolution that has fundamentally altered the ways people communicate and do business. There’s been an explosion of internet connectivity in the past decade. Social media is an important tool in today’s world.  If we ignore this, we risk becoming irrelevant.  However, using social media does not ipso facto make you a “social business”.

When we apply social media with ignorance it’s not much better than ignoring it entirely. In Social Business Failure Is a Choice: Speaking a Common Language we are warned of a Gartner prediction that 80% of social business efforts will not achieve intended benefits through 2015. But the author notes that part of the problem is that we lack a common language that enables us to clearly understand what success looks like. He calls it a “Babylonian Confusion” that is heightened due to the incapability within many organizations to properly measure across silos due to non-standardized metrics and Key Performance Indicators.

Which brings us to the key question: What is social business and why might it be something we strive to become? To quote one of my favorite thought leaders on the subject, Brian Solis, author of The End of Business as Usual:

This is your time. This is our time. But, these times are different and what comes next is difficult to grasp. How people communicate. How people learn and share. How people make decisions. Everything is different now. Think about this…you’re reading this article because it was sent to you via email. Yet more people spend their online time in social networks than they do in email… The consumer revolution is already underway, and the question is: How do you better understand the role you play in this production as a connected or social consumer as well as business professional?

It turns out that the human dimension is key to the success of your social business.  Technology plays a part, but automating everything robotically is not likely to get you where you want to go. What’s going to get you there are values, relationships and people.


Nonprofits have always been social businesses.  They, in fact, operate in a zone we call the “social benefit sector.”  What drives them are mission and values. Social benefit organizations are, at their core, enactors of values. No soap is being sold. Only hope. And caring. And justice. And love.  The very definition of philanthropy – the social benefit sector’s financial engine – is “love of humankind.”

When I began my career in nonprofit, we didn’t even have marketing departments.  We had invented our own language, and I was a director of ‘development.’  Boiled down to its essence, ‘development’ is the process of uncovering folks who share the values your organization enacts.  It’s more about psychographics than demographics — the linkage of people through common interests. In many respects it’s very much like traditional marketing.  Where it differs is in its single-minded focus on values. Instead of looking for customers who want a hole… or something to keep them clean… or something to make them look sexy… nonprofits are looking for folks who want to make their community and world a better place  … be the hero and make an impact   … feel the joy of giving.

At the heart of what the community manager does is facilitating an exchange of values.  And that’s exactly what good fundraisers do. E.X.A.C.T.L.Y. The world of philanthropy is a world that lives and breathes values.  The core work, however, is in the ‘development’ stage.  Because until you find the folks who share your values – the right target markets – you’re really wasting your time trying to develop and promote content.  You’ve got to know what you’re aiming at. So… time must be spent thinking really hard about values. And community managers in Fortune 500 companies – or any business – need to think about what they offer to their consumers as well. They need to live and breathe values too. The value proposition is all important.

Fundraising (and giving) flows naturally when everyone operates within this values-based atmosphere. Once a development professional finds those folks who share the values their organization enacts, their job is to create a community strategy that extends their mission, vision, and value and align it with the interests, behavior, and values of those they wish to reach and galvanize. It never feels manipulative or sleazy. In fact, a whole new science of altruism, building on the physiological underpinnings of compassion, reveals that what’s good for charity, and society, is also good for donors.

Wouldn’t it be great if everything that was good for your business was also good for your customers?  If everything you did with your customers – meeting with them, networking with them, engaging in social media with them, thanking them — resulted in bonding and social connections that could offer them healthier, more meaningful lives? Could there be anything more win/win? More social? Aha! Now we’re getting closer to the meaning of social business.


Let’s talk a bit about the importance of relationships. In the nonprofit world there is a foremost leader in the area of donor-centered fundraising, Penelope Burk.  She is famous for research that showed us the number one thing donors care about: “ Show me that you know me.”  My hunch is that this also holds true for the customers of just about any business.  No one wants to be one of many… a statistic… a nameless, faceless and, worst of all, expendable consumer.

You may be thinking this doesn’t apply, because you’re using social media for prospecting. You don’t care if all these folks turn into leads and customers. It’s a volume game. Perhaps. But… don’t forget the impact of the digital revolution.  Everything is topsy-turvy in the new regime. Where we once lived in a world of caveat emptor, we’re now in a world of caveat venditor.  You’ve got to play nice.  It’s extraordinarily important to practice the principles of attunement, so brilliant outlined by Daniel Pink in his new book, To Sell is Human, The Surprising Truth About Moving Others.

One of the things that make businesses social today is that your customers are connected.  They have it within their fingertips to be exceedingly social – all of the time. If you treat them like they aren’t important – like you don’t care if you build a relationship with them or not – there’s a pretty good chance they’ll share this with a friend.  Only it won’t be just one friend over lunch.  It will be 160 Facebook friends. As Brian Solis so prophetically states in This is the End of Business as Usual and the Beginning of a New Era of Relevance: “Once someone is introduced to the marvels of connectedness, the sensation becomes a contagion. It touches and affects everyone. And, that’s why this isn’t going anywhere but normalcy.”


‘Engagement’ is a big buzz word these days. But what is it about? Fundamentally, it’s about attracting, capturing and holding the attention of another.  Another person.  Engagement is about people. It’s about the customer journey. Ultimately your purpose is to set the stage for something more meaningful and substantive… the experience. [This reminds me that my boss, when I was a “Director of Development” used to introduce me as “Director of Donor Experiences”; ‘customer experience’ is another buzz word du jour, both in the for profit and nonprofit worlds – so we’ve all got to be on to something].

We’re engaging with human beings.  We’re creating a community.  And community is much more than belonging to something; it’s about doing something together that makes belonging matter. That means community managers must participate in the communities that are important to their business. It’s the only way to be perceived as authentic and trustworthy – two important qualities if you want long-term relationships with your customers. When community managers use social media they’re simply using a series of channels that facilitate a dynamic form of people-to-people connection. 


The social business formula for success begins with first defining what success is and how it will be measured. There is no one right way to do this. But it’s imperative that you know where you’re going, and that you ask and answer some key questions. Your answers will depend on the people you’re trying to reach, their expectations, your business objectives and how this engagement ties specifically to your organization (revenues, marketing, service, products, etc.).

  1. Clarify your values. Take the time to thoughtfully articulate them. You’ll find they’ll tell you a lot about your future directions in terms of vision, mission, brand, programs, products, leadership and constituencies.
  2. Clarify your social, relationship-building channels.  Chances are good that the primary ways you communicate with your constituents are things you already have: Your website and email. Email is unbeatable at this point as a distribution mechanism.  However, it’s not a tool for collaboration. It’s not a place where people collectively come together. In other words, it isn’t “social.”  Figure out where your best constituencies hang out.  Meet them where they are.
  3. Clarify your constituencies, your people. It’s not about you.  It’s about engaging who cares, or who might care, about what you do. For folks to care about you, you’ve got to care about them. You aren’t selling product features.  You’re selling benefits and values.

ACTION CHECKLIST to help you engage your customers from a win/win, values-focused, social, attuned, people-centered perspective:

  1. Who are you hoping to connect with – what are your target markets?
  2. Why should you engage in social networks – what is your desired outcome?
  3. Why would anyone want to engage with you – what’s in it for them?
  4. Are your objectives aligned with the objectives of your customers?  If not, what can you do about this?  (e.g., reframe your objectives; search for new markets).
  5. What brings these folks together — how you can add value to the conversation?
  6. Who are the influencers in your world – what matters to them and what would it take for them to get involved with you? How can you create a win/win together?
  7. Which of your competitors are doing a good job connecting with the types of folks you’d like to reach — how can you emulate them?
  8. Once you’ve gotten engaged with folks, what processes do you have in place for engaging in meaningful, personal listening and conversation?
  9. What are you hearing?  Where are you hearing it? How can you learn and adapt your crafting of messages and your choice of social platforms to better serve folks?
  10. Do you have resources in place to develop and promote relevant content on a consistent basis?  If not, what can you do? (e.g., be in fewer channels; hire more staff; outsource; repurpose existing content; create/use an editorial calendar).
  11. What value do you provide to customers, and potential customers, that no one else provides – at least the way that you do?  Are you conveying this?
  12. What resources do you need to be more effective (e.g., management systems, databases; CRM; analytics tools; other technology; human resources; elimination of departmental silos; budget)?

The digital revolution is transforming the very nature of business, moving it toward a direction that explores customer and employee centricity. One partnership that understands this is between Salesforce and Altimeter Group, who recently collaborated on a special project to help executives understand the real impact of social media and, in turn, how to lead meaningful and lucrative transformation. You can download the resulting free ebook, The Little Blue Book of Social Transformation.

Social business is the new normal.  Do you know how to do it well?  Are you clarifying your values? Focusing on building relationships? And putting people at the heart of your work?  If you work through the checklist above you’ll be well on your way to aligning what you want to talk about with what your customers care about and want to talk about.

What’s one new thing you’ll do this month to set yourself on the path towards meaningful engagement?  Please share how you plan to seize your opportunities!

Claire Axelrad
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE contributes a monthly column on Social Media and Nonprofits. Claire brings 30 years of frontline development and marketing leadership experience to her work as principal of her social benefit consulting firm, Clairification. Named Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Claire teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, is a web and audio presenter for Good Done Great Nonprofits and was recently honored as “Best Fundraising Blog” by FundRaising Success' 2013 Fundraising Professionals of the Year Awards. Her passion is instilling an institution-wide culture of philanthropy to help organizations build constituencies and drive increased income to sustain and expand missions. +Claire Axelrad
Claire Axelrad
RT @lizebizz: #ClairityClickit: Social Media + #Content; Cause-Related Marketing; Events; Business Cards;… http://t.co/GcgpEd32xY via @Char - 7 hours ago
Claire Axelrad
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