A box of donuts that Joanna Vervoza-Dolezal, the starting centre back for TSS Rovers, brought for the Swanguardians on the last game of the season. Reciprocity in support.
Yesterday I had an informal call with a person who is leading up customer relationships for a large local company. The company is both a profit-making venture but also is a community institution and has a profile and responsibility beyond just the bottom line. We were talking about how the organization was stuck and the different approaches that the organization was taking towards customer relations when we stumbled onto an untapped area that may help to get the organization unstuck.
For organizations with double or triple bottom lines, the moment your focus moves beyond a financial return on investment, your customers and clients stop becoming ATMs and start becoming friends. Yes. Friends. The lines between your organizational life and the community become blurred. Social license becomes a reality, and that means that customers suddenly make decisions out of love and loyalty to the bigger vision which they can help co-create. They become non-material investors and shareholders in what you are doing. Your sustainability does not solely rely on making a profit. It relies on how those people that buy your services AND how they help shape and co-create your mission.
Where we got to in this conversation was that the organization needed to find ways to allow customers and clients to offer something back. Rather than going out and catering to their needs constantly and trying traditional marketing methods of giving the illusion of being a part of something, customers and clients of the organization need to have a chance to be meaningfully involved. In fact there are probably at present lots of people who are trying to give back and be involved but haven’t been seen because the organization has no way to receive their gifts. This is a real shift for how this organization has grown to see its customers. As the connection to social license fades away, customers increasingly get seen as people to be catered to, responded to and served. On the surface that seems a noble customer relations strategy, but when challenges are met, there are very few people with a meaningful investment in the organization to help repair it and set it back on track. Customers can just walk away at any time. And if you have customers who have bought into the social bottom line but you are only chasing the dollar, those ones will feel the lack of reciprocity first. When they leave its hard to get them back.
Why? Because people want to give. They want to be a part of something. They want to do something meaningful with their lives, their time and their money. We love a good product, but we also crave being a part of making it. Witness the way Apple for example has created a Distinguished Educator network. This is a way that educators in schools who love Apple products can help create new applications for these products in their schools. These folks are often cutting edge front-line teachers who are exploring pedagogy and using technology in a way that supports good learning theory. They are no longer customers. They are helping the company grow its brand, for sure, by working with schools but they also helping Apple find new ways to use their technology in service of education and learning.
As the Chair of the Board of Rivendell, a non-profit spiritual retreat centre, we’ve been exploring this angle through fundraising. We are an organization that has been generously supported by a Foundation throughout our whole existence and we have decided that we want to start doing fundraising not because we need financial resources, but because we want to create a different relationship with the community of people who love and support us and for whom our organization has made a deep impact in their lives. None of us on the Board are skilled at fundraising, and for all of us the prospect of doing it is terrifying. So we decided to learn together. We worked with a friend of mine who specializes in fundraising in these kinds of situations and he said his job is not parting people from their money but rather “helping people with money them heal by giving them a way to make meaning.”
Heal from what? Partly from a world that has completely commodified us either as a customer or as a unit of productivity. I think humans have a deep need to give and to be a part of something, but those of us who live in capitalist market-based societies are primarily valued as transactions. Everything we do is tracked for the benefit of dominating our attention and ultimately our wallets. But when I am offered an opportunity to provide a gift of time or money because it enters me into reciprocity and relationship, suddenly my life has the meaning I have been seeking. It is truly healing to give a gift and have that gift received.
To refuse an authentic gift is dehumanizing to both the giver and the receiver. Over time, losing the opportunities to provide gifts causes us to lose touch with what fundamentally makes community.
You cannot build communities around transactions. If your organization has a social bottom line at all and your entire customer relations strategy is transactional, I reckon you will always fail on this score. I think many companies who start out with a social bottom line leave it behind if they can’t figure out how to do it and revert to the single financial bottom line. That is enabled with customer management systems and managers who are trained in this type of work. Through our Art of Participatory Leadership training, we seek to teach leadership practices that enable social sustainability through enabling contribution. I’d love to know if folks are seeing this meaningfully taught in MBA programs or inside other institutional management and business programs.
The sustainability of an enterprise with an implicit or explicit community mandate rests in the ability of the enterprise to create spaces for people to give and co-create. That leads to co-ownership which can be material – like with our TSS Rovers FC community-ownership model – or more intangible, like the feeling of connection people have to helping create a space for spiritual renewal at our Rivendell retreat centre. Our sustainability depends on financial security and community. TSS Rovers FC needs to make a profit to survive, but we cannot do that without a community of people investing their time and talent over the long term to create an organization that is about developing humans, whether on or off the pitch. We encourage folks to offer what they can to the enterprise with two principles:
- Assume your talents are needed and;
- Proceed until apprehended.
The result at Rovers is that we have a happy patchwork of folks who offer expertise, enthusiasm, money and sometimes just an extra body to move things around. We even have a tradition of our players helping to set up the stadium and prepare the supporters section before they begin their warm up routines. We try to provide opportunities for everyone to experience gifting, because that is fundamental to the game of football anyway. Giving, receiving, offering space and time, and enabling your team mates to succeed is what secure victory on a football pitch and so we try to bring that ethos into our lives off the field too. That is how we go from being a successful football club to being a place that makes better humans and builds community whether you come to a match, in cleats, boots, shoes, sandals or bare feet.
Think about that. In the place where you are involved as a formal or informal leader, how are you enabling people to give? How are you receiving and holding the gifts and intentions of those in your orbit who are already giving to you? How are you enabling reciprocity to build community and sustainability?