When it comes to the long-term success of a business or organization, there is no better marketing strategy than a highly engaged community. A community is different than an audience. An audience is willing to receive your information and be entertained until the curtains close that day, whereas a community discovers your mission and recognizes that they hold the same values. They align their actions and behaviors in support of your efforts. Over the past few years, I’ve witnessed first-hand the power of community in my family’s distillery business and at the university where I work. In both cases, building community has drastically impacted the trajectory of the organizations and their success.
At the brink of the COVID-19 pandemic, my family’s craft distillery halted production on rum to begin manufacturing a different type of alcohol: hand sanitizer. I vividly remember the morning of March 15, 2020, because my husband, our company’s head distiller, came home from an early morning run to the grocery store and said that he couldn’t find any hand sanitizer on the shelves. I listened while bustling around the kitchen, making breakfast and packing our daughters’ lunches for school that day. That’s when I heard him say, “We have the equipment to make hand sanitizer at the distillery. I’ll get some ingredients and see what we can do.”
Our intentions with the distillery have always been to serve the community. Yes, we do serve craft cocktails in the tasting room. But more than that, we serve people in need. For example, when a hurricane is approaching, we open our doors for locals to fill their jugs with water from our reverse osmosis unit. It’s the best water around! Listening to my husband’s offer to make hand sanitizer, simply because we have access, wasn’t out of the ordinary. Just like when we offer water every hurricane season, I assumed about a dozen people would take us up on our offer.
I was wrong.
My email to our city manager offering to bring him hand sanitizer quickly spread around town and beyond. On the morning of March 18, 2020, more than 100 people were in line with their own personal bottles ready fill with our homemade hand sanitizer (using CDC guidelines of course). We rationed to four ounces per person. The next day, there were even more people waiting, plus journalists from every news station in central Florida, along with MSNBC and USA Today to cover “our story.” Everyone asked how they could help, so we requested more ingredients to make hand sanitizer: white table sugar, glycerin and hydrogen peroxide.
Over the next few weeks, we received hundreds of donations of ingredients. The local stores started rationing their white sugar sales because so many people were buying in bulk for our production. Elderly ladies showed up with half-empty bags of sugar from their pantries. Viewers from across the country shipped us supplies. We supplied hand sanitizer to every sheriff’s office from the panhandle to Miami. The Secret Service sent someone to pick up 15 gallons. Can you imagine answering the phone to hear the Secret Service on the other line asking you for help? That was me, in complete disbelief. We delivered 50 gallons to Jacksonville where a helicopter from the U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford met us at an airfield. As long as people continued to bring us ingredients, we continued to manufacture and give away hand sanitizer to anyone who needed it. It was tragic. And beautiful. And in a time of chaos, supporting our small distillery — turned hand sanitizer factory — became a community mission.
My work at the distillery occupies most nights and weekends. By day, I am a fundraiser at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University where I manage our affinity programs that focus on the collective interests of mid-level donors. We launched the first affinity group three and a half years ago in an effort to re-engage disconnected alumni with their alma mater. The results speak for themselves. In this short time, we’ve built a dozen affinity groups, engaged more than 150 alumni, and secured nearly $2 million in memberships and major gifts to support scholarships and student projects. In short, we build communities on a mission.
The philanthropic impact of the affinity groups has been great for the university, but it pales in comparison to the program’s impact on students and donors. In 2022, a business student presented to affinity group members on behalf of the Future Farmers of America club. He requested $1,300 to build two indoor hydroponic gardens on campus to support the university’s food pantry. The pantry provides food items to approximately one-third of college students facing food insecurity. The most commonly requested items are fruits and vegetables, and one hydroponic system could produce up to 162 plants per year with a minimum five-year useful life expectancy. Affinity group members were blown away with the mission of this club and applauded the sustainable business practices this project would teach students involved. Not only did they approve funding for the project, they doubled their donation to contribute four hydroponic systems instead of two.
More than $100,000 was awarded from affinity group members to student projects in 2022. Since inception, members have supported 35 scholarships and 69 student projects. Approximately 25% of members contribute additional funding outside of their membership commitments.
For donor Rod Moore, joining the affinity program was just the beginning of his philanthropy with the university. The retired US Navy officer was recovering from a brain injury when he first joined and committed $2,000 annually for three years. “When I got the chance to start reviewing all these projects, I got really excited again – and then to actually ask questions and have a chance to interact with students is probably the most rewarding part of it.” Moore and his wife Amy went on to establish an endowment, including a planned gift, and provide additional financial support for faculty professional development. Moore sees his involvement as a way to set an example for students to see the importance of education, perseverance to overcome obstacles, and the opportunity to pay it forward.
Moore is just one example of donors finding meaning and fulfillment from their affinity group membership. Our programs are structured to encourage community among members in the group, too. We have two virtual meetings per year and invite everyone to campus in the fall. The inner workings of our affinity programs are strategic. We have a 12-month communication plan that includes one touchpoint per month. Birthday phone calls, member meetings, and the alumni magazine all count as touchpoints. We have a stewardship plan in place, so whether a member is a first-time donor or has been giving for years, they receive communications about the collective impacts of their membership contributions. Finally, we have a cultivation plan. Members commit to a three-year term and our fundraising team capitalizes on this timeline to explore moves management strategies with donors beyond affinity group membership.
Embry-Riddle’s affinity program started with the hopes of re-engaging alumni through philanthropy. It quickly morphed into communities that are highly engaged with the areas of campus they care most about. By identifying their affinities and connecting them with other like-minded members, the program has flourished beyond all expectations. Similarly, our family distillery attempted to meet a need by producing hand sanitizer. Once we invited others to help us with production by contributing ingredients of their own, our mission became their mission, and it grew bigger than any of us could have imagined. To this day, people come to our distillery to thank us for the hand sanitizer they got three years ago. It was never our intention to get any level of press for our efforts, but the results continue to compound.
Whether you’re a business owner, a fundraiser or the founder of a nonprofit organization, consider the ways you’re serving the community and where you’re inviting others to serve alongside you. Instead of asking for a sale or a donation once a year, invite your most consistent customers to give you insights to the parts of your organization that mean the most to them. Offer the opportunity to support a niche area where members can contribute to your work and witness their own impact. A mission-driven community can be life-changing for the organization and for its donors.