100 true fans is all your nonprofit needs

Chris Esh

Activist marching
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash, modified by me.

Kevin Kelly wrote a profound blog post in 2008 called 1,000 True Fans where he argues that creators should focus on 1,000 people who love everything they do, rather than searching for a million casual followers.

A true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce. These diehard fans will drive 200 miles to see you sing; they will buy the hardback and paperback and audible versions of your book; they will purchase your next figurine sight unseen; they will pay for the “best-of” DVD version of your free youtube channel; they will come to your chef’s table once a month.

These fans will be your biggest spokespeople. They’ll do far more to convince others to like you than any of your own marketing efforts.

The deeper concept here—that you should focus on cultivating a small subset of people who love what you do—is pure gold for nonprofits trying to get donors and supporters.

Passion is more important than numbers

Your nonprofit doesn’t need a six-figure email list to be successful. Instead, you need a small but passionate following that donates monthly, attends all your events, shares your social media posts, and tells their friends about you.

I often hear clients say things like, “All of our supporters are [insert limitation: too old, not wealthy enough, all based in the suburbs, etc,]. We need to reach a broader audience to increase our revenue.”

What many of these clients are doing is seeing the glass as half-empty. They define their level of success based on what they lack rather than they have: a defined subset of people who really like them.

If you’re a small/medium nonprofit trying to grow, your existing, dedicated supporters are the key to your success. It might not be 1,000. Maybe it’s more realistically 100 people. Or maybe even 14.

No matter what you have to start with, find ways to get them more involved. Appreciate the hell out of them and encourage them to donate a little more. Invite them to volunteer for events and hopefully bring their friends. Ask for their input and make them feel like a valuable part of the movement.

Figure out why they like you so freakin’ much

Why do these people like you so much? What convinced them that you’re the real deal? What made them decide to donate for the first time? Etc.

Chances are, there are more people like them somewhere out in the world. If you can get 10 to love you, then there’s no reason you can’t eventually find 90 others that get excited about all the same things. And then many, many more.

Note: If it turns out they love you because of a misperception about what you actually do, then this may not be your subset to build on. The rest of the piece is based on the assumption that these people love you because they “get it” and they love you for it. 

Cultivate Ambassadors

Getting others to talk about you is infinitely more valuable than anything you can say or do yourself.

When is the last time you donated money to an unknown organization because they sent you a really well-written e-blast? Or attended an event for a nonprofit just because they posted it on their Facebook page?

Never, right? If you attended some unknown nonprofit’s event, it was because you saw that three of your friends had already RSVP’ed. Or you donated money to a new organization because somebody you trust invited them to speak at your church or community group.

The point is, we rely on people we know and trust to connect us to worthwhile causes and organizations. Those people are true fans of those organizations, and pure gold, from the perspective of the organization.

But I Want to Go Big!

You don’t need to stick to 100 or 1,000 true fans forever. When you build momentum with your true fans, the sky is the limit. But as Tim Ferriss says in Tools of Titans, “Everything big starts small.”

The problem with aiming for a huge national/global audience is that, chances are, you’ll spend your time talking at a generic audience rather than cultivating relationships with real people. And you’ll disappoint the true fans who originally loved you for being you.

Some will stick with you despite that, but you won’t feel like their thing anymore, so they won’t talk about you with their friends or repost your generic promo on social media. Their True Fandom wanes.

So start with quality, then only once you have momentum, add quantity.

Go Hug a True Fan

Maybe don’t actually hug them — unless your niche is full of hugger-types — but take some time to appreciate the people who’ve had your back since day one.

Next, bathe in the glory of being so important in somebody’s eyes. Feel good about helping other people connect to things they care deeply about.

Now notice how good you feel. Then contrast that with the last time you sent an e-blast to 5,000 subscribers and got zero meaningful response.

Focusing on your true fans is rewarding, both in purpose and finances.


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