The most dangerous thing a leader can do is to try something different when what they did previously was successful. Nonprofit leaders often don’t have the luxury of big research and development dollars, or the necessary staff to constantly stay on the edge of what’s next. But in a time when everything seems to be shifting, doing something different—ironically—may be the most secure move a leader can make.

Communication strategies are no exception, and in the nonprofit world, they have been slow to shift with the culture. Traditional outreach remains comfortable, predictable, and known. It’s easy to measure and manage, and, importantly, its value requires no explanation to the board, executive staff, or supporters and donors.

There is, however, something fundamentally refreshing about building support around open dialogue, authentic interactions, and shared interests and passions in real-time. This is something that traditional media simply can’t do. It requires a simple principle that’s as old as Buddha: Be present. Anyone who’s raised dollars understands that they must cultivate relationships and that the art of cultivation begins with active listening through repeated conversations—some face to face, some through channels such as social media.

Successful engagement within a digital communications paradigm means practicing the Zen art of being present. Trust and confidence are essential in this new “economy of engagement”—go where your donors and supporters are and stay there. If you aren’t consistently present, you won’t have any currency to spend with the people you want to reach.

  • If I don’t see you, how will I know you exist?
  • If I don’t hear from you, how can I learn to trust you?
  • If I can’t talk to you, how will I know you’re listening to me?

The reality is that donors and supporters want to engage with the world around them in a different way and have changed their habits. They now expect to engage with nonprofits in the same way they engage with their favorite brands and businesses. And the longer nonprofits wait to adapt to this change, the more frustrating it will become for their donors.

People want to connect with brands and organizations that they trust in ways that are native to their context and consumption habits. That means organizations no longer control the conversation, but instead must adopt the consumption habits of each segment of their support and donor bases. There’s more at risk than negative financial ramifications—organizations that don’t adapt risk being ignored completely.

Anyone who’s built a following in social media has learned the first important rule: The more you do for others, the more they will engage with you. Being present through social and digital media channels means more than just using them as another megaphone to talk about what’s most important to you. Do that; just don’t only do that. Healthy habits of good interpersonal communication—whenever you’re online—include:

  • Listen more than you talk.
  • Be active regularly and consistently.
  • Respond to the comments, questions, and interactions from others when they’re directed to you.
  • Share relevant information that is consistent with the needs, obstacles, and questions of the people you want to reach.
  • Do more than just hire an intern with a Facebook page, and then expect that person to merge organizational and fundraising strategy with his or her personal social media habits.
  • Appreciate channels for what they are; flex the unique muscles of each one.
  • Always shoot for effectiveness, not efficiency. Relationships aren’t efficient—they are mandatory for building capacity to advance your mission.
  • Be patient. Let the other person move at his or her own pace.
  • Prompt for a specific transaction (or ask) much less often than you desire a response.
  • Promote and give credit to others for great ideas and exciting results.

It’s important to remember that digital media does not replace traditional communications or outreach efforts. Rather, it’s an effective way to make your organization present in the places where your donors and supporters are asking themselves deep questions and considering what they want to accomplish in the world. If you are present and listen actively, you’ll be there to guide and point them toward a path of meaning and significance.

This is not an emerging trend; it’s happening now. The time to realign your habits with the needs and expectations of the people you want to reach, engage, and empower to change the world is here. And if your organization’s habits aren’t changing, you risk pushing your donors and supporters toward other organizations that are willing to adapt.

Don’t underestimate the engagement potential of the device in everyone’s pocket. The advent of Zen marketing means that the power to change the world and invite others to help you do it is, quite literally, in your hands.