Relationships play an essential role in the success of any organization. Whether it is relationships within your organization, external partners, donors, clients, or volunteers, success is dependent on the support from others. Nonprofit organizations rely heavily on the engagement of teams and constituencies to ensure successful delivery of mission and sustainability for the future.

Strong relationships can take on many forms and we identify three characteristics commonly found in all: trust, respect, and authenticity. There are several strategies which help accelerate those relationships with your organizational staff, board, volunteers, and donors.

Three Pillars of Strong Relationships

  • Trust

Trust is an integral element to any successful relationship. Lack of trust equates to an imbalance in predictability which creates a culture where one or both parties feel a lack of control and foster an unwillingness to move forward and overcome challenges. Building trust can be implemented through some immediate best practices:

  • Prioritize learning and listening. Equal relationships are a two-way street, requiring both listening and understanding.
  • Be reliable and accountable. Following up and delivering items you have promised demonstrates you are committed to, and value, the time and ideas of your counterpart.
  • Perform tasks diligently and intentionally, show you can not only complete tasks but also go above and beyond to make that task meaningful and impactful. This is essential to building a strong sense of trust and loyalty.

When building trust with your constituencies, ensure that you are communicating transparently and providing consistent updates. Two successful trust building activities include: personal meetings/information sharing sessions and consistent stewardship publications highlighting organization success. These actions promote trust, which leads to a strong relationship between your organization and its partners.

  • Respect

As one of the most powerful elements of a strong relationship, respect is essential, especially when tasked with overcoming challenges.  Knowing that you have entered a cooperative partnership leads to successful collaboration.

Lack of respect reduces the opportunity to work collaboratively. If one or more party feels they are not heard, understood, or valued, the opportunity to overcome challenges is drastically more difficult.

Many well-respected organizations can be characterized by the level of engaged volunteers. These organizations find that managing volunteer engagement through orientations, trainings, and laser-focused activity charts fosters an elevated level of respect. Feeling fulfilled in their volunteer work only heightens the engagement of volunteers, ultimately raising the sites of the organization.

  • Authenticity

Those who bring their authentic selves into a relationship lead with courage, ask questions to strengthen a genuine connection, and create intentional environments of trust and respect. Entering a relationship authentically allows you to freely communicate your perspective while providing others with the same courtesy. Authentic relationships eliminate barriers created by feelings of unreliability and fear.

When our actions and thoughts are incongruent to our true beliefs, our outcome can come across as disingenuous. Easily identified by others, an insincere person will quickly fall out of favor.

Authentic leadership focuses on fulfilling the mission and vision of their organization. By articulating a strong Case for Support, leadership develops an action-oriented plan for their internal teams and a heightened sense of impact awareness among their external constituencies.

Developing Strong Organizational Relationships

Many chose a nonprofit career because of a deep connection to the organization’s mission. Respecting that passion is essential to building this relationship. Beginning with a foundation of mutual respect strengthens the relationship between manager and staff while valuing teams for the hard work and many sacrifices they make.

A staff culture built on respect and trust allows for leaders to effectively assess situations, garner support and input and forge paths forward. An authentic leader works to ensure that their staff is confident that everyone’s best interest is kept in the forefront of decision making. As you navigate the changing landscape of nonprofit leadership, keep in mind the pillars that make up a successful relationship and implement them in your daily team communication.

Three Effective Strategies to Strengthen Team Relationships

  1. Implement weekly all-team check-in call to increase transparency throughout team functions.
  2. Institute bi-weekly one-on-one phone calls or email notes to strengthen individual relationships.
  3. Discuss high-level department strategy on a quarterly, if not monthly, basis. Your team wants to understand leadership decision making and it is important that you encourage feedback to foster a collaborative environment.

Growing Board and Volunteer Relationships

Board and volunteer leadership are an organization’s greatest assets. Nonprofits rely on their leadership, their guidance, and their unwavering commitment to help further the day-to-day work. Focusing on the motivation of their involvement is the first step in deepening your personal relationship with these partners. When managing your board and volunteers, ensure that you are following through with promises to build trust in your work.

Conveying to volunteers and board members their importance and the impact of their time helps grow a new or challenging relationship. Elevating their level of engagement is possible through deepening their relationship with the organization and core staff members.

Three Effective Strategies to Strengthen Board and Volunteer Relationships

  1. Manage their time effectively: respect agenda items and manage activity tracking charts and expectations.
  2. Allow for proactive two-way communication: listen, implement suggested ideas, and follow up.
  3. Provide follow up reminders for tasks and expectations: volunteers give freely of their time and gentle follow up provides a roadmap of guidance.

Fostering Strong Donor Relationships

Nonprofit leaders focus much of their energy on the identification, discovery, and cultivation of our donor relationships. These relationships, the lifeline of the organization, are invaluable and should always be both a short- and long-term strategic focus. Being the bridge between the donor and the organization’s mission is the first step in developing deep engagement. It is best practice to employ all three pillars of a successful relationship as you become the financial steward of a donor’s charitable investment. Building an authentic, trustworthy relationship built on respect provides you the credibility to engage with donors in a meaningful way.

We know that individuals give because they are asked, and in relationship to who asks them. With this as a foundational principle, we understand the essential role relationship building has to our organization’s success.

Three Effective Strategies to Strengthen Donor Relationships

  1. Schedule listening sessions to understand what motivates each donor and how they see themselves as part of your organization.
  2. Develop detailed communication plans for donors to ensure they are aware of organizational updates and activities consistently and not only when asked for financial commitments.
  3. Provide comprehensive, personalized, and thoughtful gift acknowledgements and stewardship reports to demonstrate impact to the organization and appreciation.

Relationship development is a deeply personal activity and can manifest in several ways. When assessing your relationship dynamics are you thinking about respect, trust and authenticity? As you continue to deepen the engagement of your constituencies, keep these tools in mind to create strong and meaningful relationships.

CCS Fundraising is a strategic fundraising consulting firm that partners with nonprofits for transformational change. Members of the CCS team are highly experienced and knowledgeable across sectors, disciplines, and regions. With offices throughout the United States and the world, our unique, customized approach provides each client with an embedded team member for the duration of the engagement. To access our full suite of perspectives, publications, and reports, visit our insights page. To learn more about CCS Fundraising’s suite of services, click here.

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About the Author

Jennifer Devon is a Senior Director with CCS Fundraising. Jennifer has over 10 years of experience in nonprofit management and philanthropic advising in the human service, health, education and religious sectors. Jennifer specializes in strategic planning, campaign management, volunteer training, and annual and major gift strategy. Jennifer is an adjunct professor for Notre Dame University of Maryland, she holds an MBA with a focus in Management and Strategy and a Bachelors of Science in Marketing from Salisbury University.