What Nonprofits Can Learn From Bernie Sanders by Vanessa Wakeman, for Huffington Post

Regardless of your political propensity, nearly all of us can agree that Bernie Sanders has a wildly enthusiastic following. How did he do it?

He’s not a celebrity, yet when Bernie Sanders walks into a room or steps behind a podium, his fans go absolutely wild. Their loyalty is enviable — and their passion is unmatched.

During last week’s Democratic National Convention (DNC), I was struck by the response of the crowd every time Bernie Sanders was mentioned. Beyond the extended applause and downright defiance of anything other than feeling the Bern, there was a palpable energy — even if you were watching it from the comfort of your own home.

And while Sanders didn’t achieve his goal of being nominated as the Democratic presidential candidate, his fans remain wholeheartedly committed to him. In fact, minutes into his Monday night speech, the camera panned to the audience showing millennial after millennial crying and clutching their Bernie signs. The images were reminiscent of a Prince concert — it’s not what you’d expect when a seasoned senator shifts his support to the presumed nominee.

But what does this have to do with nonprofits?

Now, more than ever, nonprofit organizations need to capture that passion to initiate change.

This Sanders phenomenon and intense response to what he was attempting to build is the connection that every brand strives for, but few are able to create. He spawned ambassadors and activists so deeply committed to his platform that even when it is no longer plausible to move forward, they are unable to emotionally and mentally disconnect, and to accept the reality of the moment.

Some may say it’s the idealistic nature of youth, while others may say it’s just a random few. However, the undisputable fact is that this is a telltale sign of a movement — and movements ignite change.

In my work in the nonprofit sector, I have observed many organizations with worthwhile missions that fall flat in communicating them to their stakeholders in meaningful and active ways. Often, the thinking is that people will be so moved by the problem, that they will take action. In reality, as we observed with the Sanders campaign, the problem may be what gets their attention, but the approach to solving the problem is what keeps their interest and solidifies their loyalty.

As long-time advocates begin to age out of the pool of volunteers, board members and donors, organizations around the country are having conversations about how best to attract and engage young people. It’s been demonstrated that this population is most powerful when there is an opportunity for them to do transformative work.

When addressing hunger, a millennial is more likely to jump at the chance to create a community garden in a food desert rather than volunteer to serve meals at a soup kitchen. The idea of impactful, sustainable and scalable solutions that transform eco-systems are what they seek. While some millennials may be donors, most are doers.

Looking back, we can see that the Sanders trajectory began when he presented a platform that was fresh, innovative, real and inclusive. Applying this same approach to the mission of a nonprofit would captivate more people to become foot soldiers who spread the word and garner support. It’s quite simple to understand, yet complex to execute: If organizations want to see activism, they must empower supporters to be active.

There are several key take-aways from the Sanders campaign that can serve as a guide to organizations, both new and well-established. As Sanders showed us, you don’t have to be cool and sexy to attract the cool and sexy. Instead, you must be prepared to look at your nonprofit with a fresh set of eyes and to pursue non-traditional approaches to secure an energized, loyal support base. In today’s world, casual followers are fine — but it’s the emotionally connected who get the job done.

To the Senator from Vermont, I say, “well done.”

Leave a Comment