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Four Moments to Turn Towards the People Who Power Our Mission

As nonprofit professionals, we know that our work depends on strong relationships—relationships with the people we serve, our staff and volunteer colleagues, and our donors. We know that taking the time to recognize and appreciate each other builds an organizational culture where people want to seek services, work, volunteer, and give.

Yet, the crushing pace and urgency of our work in organizations means that we abandon what we know is important to survive the day of addressing urgent whack-a-mole issues.

This is not unlike the good intentions in our romantic relationships. We know we should take the time to really listen and deeply know each other. This sounds great until work, family, health conditions, or—let’s be honest—social media sucks every scrap of good intention from our being.

Luckily for couples—and nonprofits—in the Northwest and beyond, we can draw on the wisdom of Seattle-based Drs. John and Julie Gottman, international experts in relationships and founders of the Gottman Institute. One of the core elements of their Sound Relationship House Theory developed for couples is “Turn Towards Instead of Away.” The Gottmans say the small moments of everyday life are the building blocks of relationships.

Even if we can’t carve out huge swaths of time in our schedule to focus on our key relationships, we can do it in the middle of our chaos.

So, how do we connect with the core people who power our mission—despite the craziness of everyday life in our organizations?  In the spirit of Valentine’s Day and channeling the Gottmans, here are four ways you can weave together relationship-building and the small moments of your organization’s life—with little additional time and financial investment.

Four Moments to Turn Towards Your Clients, Volunteers, Donors, and Staff  

  1. Small, but Mighty Decisions: We often reserve seeking feedback for the big chapters in an organization’s life (leadership transition, strategic planning, campaigns, etc.). While you don’t need to ask everyone about every minor decision (like the brand of bottled water available in the break room), you can identify small, but mighty decisions that will empower the people closest to you. Examples include inviting clients to pick the paint color that will make them feel most comfortable in the reception area or sending a survey to donors about their communication preferences. 

  2. Every day, but Extraordinary Experiences: Don’t have time to plan a separate stewardship event? Invite donors to observe the everyday life of your organization with a behind-the-scenes tour (sit in the orchestra pit during rehearsal or observe deliveries in the food bank warehouse). The daily grind that you find to be ordinary can be extraordinary for others to glimpse. Is your mission one that is “hard to access” (geographically distant or sensitive work)? No problem. You can capture raw cellphone footage on a site visit or gather objects that tell powerful stories (like client artwork or letters) to share with donors wherever you can meet them.

  3. Bite-Size Volunteer Tasks: While some people find it hard to commit to significant, ongoing volunteer commitments, it’s hard to say no to a short-term, simple task. Do your vans need a wash or thank you letters need to be signed by a live human? You can develop a running list of bite-size volunteer tasks that volunteers and donors could accomplish in an afternoon. Their sense of completion and accomplishment may prompt them to ask for more. 

  4. Celebrate the Little Things: Build moments of celebration and appreciation into every meeting or organization gathering for staff, clients, volunteers, and donors. It only takes a moment to recognize the small and big ways specific people have contributed time, energy, expertise, or money. This makes everyone feel seen and appreciated.

In all these ordinary, but meaningful moments, you are deepening your relationships and building more widespread ownership of the organization. The goal is that any additional time these moments occupy on your calendar, it’s an investment in drawing more people into your organization to further your mission. At the end of the day, if the people who power your mission are happy and take responsibility alongside you, your load will lighten.

Let’s keep this conversation going. We want to hear your questions and ideas about building key stakeholder relationships. We’re here to connect.


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