What I Learned About Creating Advocates from Leading a Church

If someone asks me how they create advocates, I immediately point them to church.

For many years I was a minister, and everything I know about advocacy I learned during that time. In fact, it’s my contention that unless we understand advocacy in an offline, non-commercial context, we won’t get in an online or a commercial context.

When people join a church, they do so because of a central belief, and the desire to connect with people around that belief. I like to call this gathering around meaning, and it’s the driving force of engagement as an offering, where people connect with organisations not for their products but for the meaning they get from them.

You might say that connecting with brands or organisations based on meaning is nothing new, and you’d be absolutely correct! This has always been a driver for our connection, but today offering meaning is a competitive advantage because there are so many brands competing for our attention.

But one institution that has a head start on every brand is the church (and indeed other religious institutions). For thousands of years, they’ve been gathering people around meaning, and they know very well how to turn their ‘users’ into advcoates: it’s the only way they’ve been able to survive for so long!

So let’s look at how they’ve created advocates by examining three key elements:

1. Belief

The first element is to begin with belief. People won’t advocate something they don’t believe in.

However, it is not enough to say that we start with belief, and then move on. Belief is the life-force of advocacy: it is its beginning, the thread that runs through it, and the very definition of its end.

To return to my church experience, a central part of religious life is evangelism — telling others about your beliefs. As a minister I was entrusted with the task of getting the church’s congregation to evangelise, and I noticed there were two ways I could do this:

  1. I noticed that I could talk about evangelism and request people to do it,
  2. Or I could talk about our beliefs, and then mention evangelism as a response to those beliefs.

I always found the second tactic to be far more powerful. Response, I believe, is more powerful that request, because it is from internal motivation, not external.

So any advocacy, and any messaging about advocacy, must begin and end with belief, because that’s where the connection itself begins and ends. For instance, compare these two invitations to join an advocacy programme:

We are looking for members who wish to become advocates in order to help our community grow.

Or

We believe in our community. This cause matters to us. We are committed to it. With that in mind, we’re looking for members who wish to advocate for our community.

It’s a simple example, but immediately you see why the second is more powerful. The first is a request, the second is a response.

I think the best phrase to explain this is comes from Simon Sinek, who observed that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” That’s belief.

2. Benefit

The second element is about benefit. Do I believe that telling others about my cause will benefit them, benefit me, and perhaps even benefit the world? Within my church context, the answer amongst the congregation was yes – religions themselves are necessarily founded upon the belief (notice that!) that they are beneficial to the world.

In the deceptively simple management book Gung Ho, Ken Blanchard talks about “the spirit of the squirrel”, in which he says people like to do work that is worthwhile. The squirrel hoards nuts for hibernation because it is worthwhile—nay, critical—work. Likewise, our community members need to know, what is it that makes their work (or in this case, their advocacy) worthwhile for the world?

Put another way: people are greater advovcates when they know that their advocacy is doing something beneficial.

I forget the study, but I once read that the simple act of telling someone why you are asking them to do something for you increases their chance of responding.

We spoke above about the importance of ‘why’ we do things, so in the case of advocacy, the answer to the question must be spelled out: why is this a beneficial thing to do?

Consider these two statements:

Please be an advocate because it’s fun.

Or

Please be an advocate because it will benefit us, you and others.

Now the first is motivating, no doubt – having fun is fun! – but the second is more motivating. It says that being an advocate isn’t just in my interests, or in our community’s interests, it is in the interests of the person I’m advocating to.

3. Ability

Finally, the last element is ability. In their wonderful book Switch, Chip and Dan Heath write about shaping the path: the idea that often what seems to be a people issue is actually a situation issue.

I found that the biggest obstacle to people in my congregation sharing their faith wasn’t the strength of their belief, nor their understanding of the benefits, but in their ability to actually share it. What we’re talking about here is the practical how-to element, the tools, if you will, of advocacy.

Years ago I went on a sales course, where they led us very practically through how to make phone calls. Then at the end of the session, we picked up our phones, and we made those calls! And I was a lot better at it than before!

What had changed? It wasn’t my belief, nor my understanding of the benefits, it was simply that through some training I had improved my ability to communicate the beliefs and the benefits to someone else.

So when it comes to advocacy, I like to say that we can’t expect word of mouth unless we give words to their mouths. The question is, how we are training and empowering our advocates to advocate?

This needn’t be complex, and certainly doesn’t need to be delivered via a training webinar course or similar (although you can of course do one if you wish). It can be as simple as providing some sample tweets or emails, giving a few examples of an advocacy conversation, or even as simple as giving them a graphic to put on their Facebook profile.

Putting it all together

So the way that we empower people to be advocates consists of three parts:

  1. We start and end with the belief,
  2. We get clear about the benefits – why we are doing this, and how others will benefit
  3. We provide simple assets that help people share the message, such as examples and samples.

Now if you have been wondering up until now how we find and recruit these people, here’s the kicker: as we make the above three points a regular part of our messaging and conversation, a regular entry on our newsletter, with stories begin shared on a regular basis, talked about at our events, we create an environment where people naturally become advocates.

Think about it: anyone who joins a group or any kind has belief and already receives the benefits. They are half, if not two thirds of the way there. By clarifying the three elements on a regular basis, as part of your culture, you create an environment that is conducive to advocacy. You are encouraging a certain behaviour by making it the norm.

Recruiting super-advocates beyond that won’t be difficult either. Those who seem to ‘rise to the top’ in their response to your advocacy culture self-select themselves again, and you can cultivate their advocacy individually or in a smal group.

So there we have it: the three elements of advocacy, learned from the offline world, and now applied to the online world. All that’s left is you to to go forth and advocate!

23rd February, 2017

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