These are trying times for any nonprofit trying to communicate with its members, particularly if it involves a request for funding. A recent study found that the email fundraising response rate in 2010 was less than .08 percent (eNonprofits Benchmark Study 2011). This marks a decline of almost 20 percent from the previous year. While direct mail did not suffer a precipitous fall off in open rates, it maintained a relatively unimpressive response rate of under 3.5 percent for “house” lists and a bit over 1 percent for third-party lists (DMA 2010 Response Rate Trend Report).

There is, however, a bright spot: peer-to-peer communication, which leverages the personal networks of members to disseminate messages. The efficacy and impact of peer-to-peer communication will only get brighter for those organizations that devote significant resources to it. The reason for its success is simple: People are growing increasingly intolerant of messages from people they don’t really know (even if it’s the executive director of a nonprofit they like). They are increasingly limiting their attention to messages from trusted friends and business colleagues.

What are most nonprofits doing to take advantage of this new reality, now that traditional organization-to-member communication has been turned on its ear? Not nearly enough. Here are three tips for building the foundation for a successful peer-to-peer network.

  1. Get buy-in from the top. Many organizations will pay lip service to the benefits of peer-to-peer advocacy, but few will truly embrace it. If the leadership isn’t willing to reallocate significant resources from more traditional fundraising efforts to new peer-to-peer programs, you’re unlikely to have great success.
  2. Start thinking of your most active members as one of your biggest assets, and treat them accordingly. As you would with your largest donors, reach out to each of them in a highly personal way, even face-to-face if you can.
  3. Ask your most active members how they traditionally communicate with their friends. Ask them what help or tools they would they’d like to help them create and publish powerful communications with as little work as possible on their part.

Most institutions are hard-wired to resist change, and nonprofits are no exception. But the fact people are getting more and more messages through more and more modalities, but making fewer real connections. It’s time to understand and promote peer-to-peer communications; its future as a reliable way to “get your story out” is remarkably bright.