What Does it Mean to Belong?

Sometimes the simplest questions are the most difficult to understand.

“What does it mean to belong?” certainly falls in that category. For non-profits and charities, understanding why someone joins and contributes is critical to attracting new members and donors, and, more importantly, keeping them engaged for the long haul.

We spend our days trying to understand what motivates these individuals. To do this, we organize online “insight communities” of donors and members whose thoughts and feelings can shine a light on the question of what it means to belong.

As I prepare for an upcoming conference presentation, I’m running a blog series on some key insights we’ve developed from this research with the goal of helping non-profits and member organizations engage more fully with their members and donors. Here’s a sneak peek at the topics I’ll dive into in the next few weeks.

People Want to Belong – Give Them a Reason to!

As member acquisition numbers stagnate and cancellations rise, it may feel like the world has turned cold. There’s a general belief that social media has allowed more and more people to withdraw into their own personal bubbles.

Our research shows this is not true – seven in ten Americans agree that, “getting involved in groups/activities makes me feel better about myself.” In other words, people still want to belong.

So when low numbers get you down, keep your head up and remember it’s incumbent upon you to give potential and current members a reason to belong. Not just to put their names on a list, but to stay emotionally engaged and to contribute over time. In fact, they are looking for this.

Depends Who You Ask (or if You Ask at All)

The experience of belonging is different for everyone – elderly people tend to express it through religious involvement, while younger people connect through professional or recreational organizations. Women generally experience more personal satisfaction as part of a group than men. New technology, like social networks, enables people to curate the experience that matches their unique tastes – a positive – but it also makes it more challenging to draw them out.

Understanding what motivates people to belong means adopting the principals of empathy. It requires a research process that creates a two-way dialogue that incorporates multiple methodologies to really understand what matters. These conversations deliver actionable insights that form the bedrock for member acquisition and retention strategies.

Many organizations get stuck in the trap of assuming what matters to insiders is the same for those on the outside. As a result, they ask the wrong questions of the wrong people – and sometimes don’t even ask at all. When membership rolls were more static and giving more consistent, that might have worked. But in a world of fluid allegiances and never-ending demands for time and attention, you can’t take anything for granted.

The Millennial Paradox

And, of course the last is especially true of younger cohorts, i.e. Millennials.

In a recent paper titled “The Everything Guide to Millennials” we concluded that Millennials hold social causes dear and seek out opportunities to support them, not just in the voting booth but in their daily lives – at the supermarket, the mall, and the office. And in a more recent study we found that seven in ten agree with the statement “I want to belong to something larger than my family and friends.”

So, it should be like shooting fish in a barrel, right?

Not quite – thanks to media fragmentation, proliferation of social causes, and short attention spans. While Millennials in our Springboard America community report donating to causes early in their lives and more frequently than their elders, they are nonetheless more prone to treating charities like Tinder – jumping in to share a Facebook post, participating in the ice-bucket challenge, or making a one-time donation. Their attention wanders. That’s the Millennial paradox.

The truth is that Millennials define “belonging” differently, a subject we plan to explore at greater length in another post (hint: they want to be more involved and expect a fully digital experience). Understanding this will be critical to non-profits looking to attract the next generation of donors.

From Desire to Action

Growing up outside of Toronto as a promising ice skater, I wanted to grab a stick and join the hockey club. But at that time there were few girls on the ice, and I never followed through.

We all have experiences like this in our lives, where our desires or interests don’t translate into action. The same failure to act often afflicts potential donors or members. They want to be involved, but something stops them before they follow through.

Applied Sociologists point to ambivalence, in a variety of forms, as the largest barrier to taking the first step to belong. One aspect, “Sociological Ambivalence”, is defined by Sociologist Robert Merton as “incompatible normative expectations of attitudes, beliefs, and behavior assigned to […] a single social status” (Coser 1966).

Or, more simply put, Sociological Ambivalence refers to the competing pressures that people feel, causing them to experience opposing thoughts or emotions at the same time.

In my hockey example, one might say “I am interested in participating but the social dynamics of joining a club make me feel self-conscious and anxious.” These two emotions, acting in opposition, result in inaction.

In a subsequent post, we’re going to dive into how people try to reconcile sociological ambivalence through avoidance, procrastination, or substitution. We’ll also look into other forms of ambivalence that people experience and how non-profits can overcome them.

From Action to Commitment

While acquisition needs to remain a key part of member strategy, for many non-profits the greatest revenue opportunity lies in member retention strategies. In North America, 77% of new donors don’t contribute after their first engagement.

This is where a solid understanding of what it means for your members to belong really pays off. In order to engage your member base, you need to be able to continually iterate and adapt to give them a reason to remain active. You have to know what moves them, and that gets us back to the concept of “empathy”.

“What does it mean to belong?” is not an easy question to answer, but getting it right will help you attract and retain members and revenue, allowing your organization to continue to grow and fulfill its purpose.

If you’d like to learn more about how to make this happen, just subscribe to receive alerts as we continue to explore this important topic.