Five Ways to Bring Happy Hour to Nonprofit Work

Cocktails, craft beers, and creating community

This is the transcript of a talk I gave at the Colorado Nonprofit Association annual conference on October 21 2016. Enjoy!


About two years ago, my wife Christina and I decided we wanted to be more hospitable. Like probably most of you, we didn’t see a lot of our friends as often as we wanted, most of us were living pretty fast-paced lives, and keeping up with even our nearby friends was starting to seem like a full-time job.

As it happened, I’d been itching to learn how to tend bar. So we came up with an idea: we would start throwing a cocktail party every month. Now, Christina had a concern; she felt that the fact that neither of us knew how to make anything besides a gin and tonic might put a damper on a cocktail party. (Imagine!) But we came up with a solution.

The plan was that on the last Friday evening of every month, our home was an open house. Anyone was welcome; come when you can, leave when you must. We would serve a couple featured cocktails each month, which meant I only had to learn two drinks every 30 days. And we would cultivate a fun, low-key environment that was friendly to people who wanted to step away from the rat race for an hour or two and enjoy life. We would ask people to bring $5 to help cover costs or some munchies to share, if they felt so inclined, but neither would be required.

We figured that some months we’d have half a dozen people, and other months we might have one or even zero. But we wanted our friends and acquaintances to know that if they needed a little R&R, that the last Friday of the month would find us sitting in a cozy room with martini glasses, enjoying each other’s company and ready to talk to anyone who came in the door.

That was not the way it played out. Our first “happy hour,” as we somehow started calling them, had 30 people, and in the two years since, we’ve consistently had at least 15 each time. There are tired parents, energetic entrepreneurs, heady artists, and thirsty construction workers. There are regulars, and there’s nearly always somebody new. We, and our circle, have found that happy hour is a great plugin point when we meet new and interesting people throughout the month, because there’s always a date on the calendar we can use to get to know them better, no matter how busy we are. And we created a bit of a monster; people bring friends, our neighbors poke their heads in, complete strangers turn up on our doorstep who just found out somehow, and usually we are up till 2am with the last call crowd talking art or books or theology or other such things that really require a couple drinks to do well. Meanwhile, we’ve watched people meet kindred spirits, we’ve watched businesses and community initiatives spring out of relationships that started in our kitchen, and I’ve gone from knowing how to make one drink to having a repertoire of hundreds and a bar with 40 bottles in it. And as a side benefit, my son is growing up knowing how to interact with adults, and learning (by watching) how to drink well.

I know that especially in Colorado, my story is not unique. Other people have put far more thought and love into building coffeehouses and wine bars and craft breweries that have, not accidentally, become hubs for community and for vitality in neighborhoods, business, the arts, and countless other areas. Some are hipster havens, others are just full of regular people who want to do life a little better. Every time I visit friends in San Francisco or Philadelphia or D.C. they go green with envy as I tell them about what we have going on in more and more of our towns and cities.

Now, during my few short breaks from happy hour planning, I have a day job. For the last five years, I’ve run a company called Narrator, through which my team and I help nonprofits build the strategies and infrastructure to not only tell their stories better, but do a better job inviting people into those stories as supporters. I’ve spent years studying demographic and donor trends, social network theory, and the psychology of community and viral movements. And I’m convinced that most of the nonprofits that are going to thrive well into the future, in many cases the ones that are thriving now, are the ones that can operate in a way that is actually quite similar to what we’ve seen in our happy hours, and what we can see in Colorado’s thriving beer and cocktail scene. Specifically: accomplishing your mission goals in 2016 requires more than mission focus; for most types of nonprofits, it requires embracing a role as the hub of a community.

In many cases, that role is actually less about doing something radically new and more about rediscovering something we lost in the last 50 years. Thanks in part to specialization and in part to foundation pressure, the norm of the last 50 years looks less like a thriving neighborhood microbrewery and more like a dead roadside bar with a single customer staring into his empty pint glass—lonely and drained, unaware that he’s not the only one.

So, since we’re nearing the end of an intense couple of days, and since it is happy hour, we’re going to take a fast-paced look at five principles we as nonprofit leaders can take from alcohol. Then we can talk together about things we see that are working that we’re excited about, and impediments we see to building strong support communities around our organizations. (I was going to make you all martinis to drink while we talked, but for some strange reason CNA wouldn’t cover them.)

#1: The Pub Principle

All our other principles will be organized around a specific drink, but first we have to tackle a foundational claim I’ve just made, so our first principle is the pub principle. Those of you who have been to Europe know that a pub and a bar are very different things. Bars have, you guessed it, a bar. You sit at a counter and face the booze. You can have social interactions, but they are incidental to the core thing that’s happening, which is you with your face in a glass. A pub, on the other hand, was originally (and usually still is) a community watering hole; it was built around small tables, because the core thing that’s happening is people bonding over the booze.

The old way of doing things was more like a bar; mission drift is obviously bad, so the focus needs to be on the mission. You sell a donor on your mission by individually finding people who you can get excited about the mission. Sometimes they’re not really paying attention to what they’re drinking and they’re just easy money for you, but your best donors, your strongest supporters, are the ones most invested in your vision; who like what you’re pouring. But fundamentally, they are doing it alone; the only relationship required is a relationship between you and them—and plenty of nonprofits have managed to get a lot of donors without even that relationship.

The problem is this ignores a fundamental fact about humans: we are social. It also ignores a central insight that social network theorists, social psychologists, and anyone who’s active on Facebook knows: while people care about causes, they make nearly all their decisions from clothes to votes to donations based on the influence of the people around them. They get most excited about things their friends are excited about. Retaining a donor is hard when your mission is competing with a zillion other things for his attention; it’s easy when his social network is constantly keeping it a shared priority in his  life. And when networks of friends get so invested in something that they are willing to publicly go to bat for it, when they have the opportunity to bond over a shared passion, movements start, because your supporters are doing donor development for you. People bring friends with them into your circle, and make friends through your circle.

Literally while I was writing that last paragraph, I was sharing a table at my favorite local coffee shop, Loyal Coffee, with two guys who turned out to be software developers. All of us were sitting at the table because of coffee, but we met each other and followed up with each other because we discovered other shared interests. And all of us, we learned, made a habit of telling other people about Loyal because we loved it—which ironically was what made the place so full of enthusiastic people that we’d been forced to share a table in the first place.

So with the Pub Principle, we’re saying that healthy nonprofits do not have a bunch of individual supporters, isolated from each other, where the nonprofit is doing all the mission work and just periodically asking them if they want another beer; another report or another December phone call. Healthy nonprofits embrace that pub-style identity as the hub of a community, going the extra mile to connect people with each other, so that the support base is an organism that is bigger than the mission but makes the organization what it is. Pub principle: help people bond over their shared passions.

#2: The Sangria Principle.

Sangria is a Spanish drink, made mostly from red wine and fruit. It was actually popular in America during the colonial era but mostly died out until the mid-20th century, when Hispanic restaurants and especially the 1964 World’s Fair brought it back into the public eye.

It’s made by the pitcher, not by the glass, because it’s a non-exclusive drink. It’s meant to be shared. There’s an obvious correlation with our previous principle there, but there’s a second notion I want to draw out of it: you don’t hoard the sangria pitcher. If you look in any given focus area in any given city midsize or larger, you’ll often see as many as half a dozen (or more) organizations focused on the same thing. They’re competing for the same donors. Sometimes they don’t get along well, sometimes some were founded by frustrated employees of others, and sometimes they barely know each other exists. Here, again, they can learn from what happened when downtown Denver’s businesses got over that mentality, and the mentality Colorado’s alcohol scene has employed for the last several years: if you operate in the same focus area, you’re not competing against each other, you’re competing against other focus areas; other possible uses of people’s time and energy; other causes, businesses, hobbies, jobs, and whatnot. When you work together successfully to draw attention to your issue, everybody wins, because the supporter pool grows.

In Colorado Springs, where I live, there’s an old school called Ivywild that closed a number of years ago. It was a beautiful classical building with columns in front and lots of lovely exposed brick inside. Some folks bought it, renovated it, and turned it into not only a community hub, but a community of businesses. There’s a microbrewery, a deli, a bakery, a cocktail bar, a concert and meeting space, a farmer’s market, a whiskey distillery and tasting room, and co-working space for entrepreneurs. All these places could have been competing with each other for market share, but by throwing in their lot together in a shared enterprise, they built one of the most popular places in the downtown area in the last five years. Developers recognized the importance of what was going on there, and now a bunch of rundown streets and neighborhoods within walking distance of Ivywild are being renovated one building at a time; with new houses, apartments, condos, office space, businesses, a performing arts theatre, a creekwalk, and more.

This was a perfect case of the Sangria principle; the larger issue wasn’t the cocktail bar beating out the microbrewery for business; it was creating a market share out of a neighborhood that didn’t have one (in fact, a big thing some of those folks helped start was trading bartenders and doing guest bartender nights, so all the good cocktail bars around town were helping each other out). Those businesses created an appreciation for something most people didn’t know they wanted. By achieving that larger goal together, all the businesses are thriving and in fact a couple of the business owners have been able to launch spinoff projects in other parts of town.

There are some people in the nonprofit sector for whom this is old news, and they’ve been doing it wonderfully for a long time. I’ve seen several cities in Colorado where human services organizations have worked well together on the program side. LGBT organizations nationally have been very successful working together to create momentum for their issue in the last 10 years through coordination on messaging and developing new revenue streams. For other people, this principle really goes against the grain because the old mentality of competing for donors, or for the primacy of their particular way of solving a problem, is so strong. But in most contexts, it’s worth pushing for the Sangria Principle: drinking from the same pitcher can be awesome; or to put it in our terms, cooperation is better for everyone. When your cause wins, everyone wins.

#3: The Pinot Principle.

Let’s talk wine. One thing I love about wine is how inescapably its quality is rooted in age and place. The best places for wine are the places with the best soil, and people who have studied and loved wine longer than I have can usually tell what region a wine is from just by tasting it. And most wines get better with age. It doesn’t matter how young you are or where you’re from; if you’re going to enjoy wine, you can’t avoid engaging a place and its history.

The age element is of obvious value in the nonprofit sector; you want long-term relationships with donors, which means a strong focus on relationship development, on knowing what your donors care about, on understanding where they came from. When people have confidence you’ll be there when they’re gone, it’s easier to develop the infrastructure that allows you to scale your relationship building so you don’t peak at the number of donors the executive director can be best friends with at one time.

The place piece is of great value too, though—connecting a supporter’s relationship with you to a place of shared commitment—and you’d be surprised at the number of kinds of organizations it works for. It’s an intuitive concept for a local-focused organization; you’re assuming you both care about your home. But I also have clients that are national organizations where we’ve built their fundraising strategy around three or four “hub cities,” where they have a critical mass of friends, donors, and foundation relationships and can build a local presence—this allows them to save a ton of travel time, focus their efforts strategically, and create a dynamic where plugging into the organization in my city means a fulfilling experience and relationship in my hometown. For a third example: I myself run a nonprofit that’s focused on Colorado Springs where we’ve actually developed a non-local, supplementary support base because we’ve done a good job documenting our successes and sharing them online, so we have people all over the world who want to see more organizations like ours spring up and are investing in our work as a part of that.

Two guys named Russ and Yemi started what they called a meeting house, called Wild Goose, near my home; it has coffee, beer, wine, and food, all local, and a strong emphasis on building community and supporting entrepreneurship both in the business and social sectors. When they opened it a few years ago, everybody said they were crazy—the last thing we needed downtown was another coffee shop. But Russ and Yemi had spent a lot of time listening to what people wanted. The Goose’s identity caught on; next thing we knew, there were businesses springing up all around Wild Goose, and if you cared about the city and were invested at all, you couldn’t go there without running into people you knew. On top of that, it became a popular spot for local charitable organizations and businesses to have smaller donor meetings and events, because unlike the community room at Panera, it signaled their knowledge of, and commitment to, the community. People bought into the identity at Wild Goose because they were invited into a long-term, place-based relationship. I know people who literally moved so they could live within walking distance of this place, because they so valued the relationship dynamic the Goose offered them.

So, the Pinot Principle: build long-term relationships with people, and learn to love what matters to them. That’s what a connector of people does.

#4: The Martini Principle.

Right behind Wild Goose, in the last year, the Springs opened its first Prohibition-throwback speakeasy. Hidden behind a fake men’s haberdashery, if you know where it is and how to get in, is a dark room with a carved wood bar, burgundy velvet curtains, and the best supply of 1920s cocktails made with 1920s ingredients I’ve seen in the state. If you can get over your disappointment that they don’t actually sell bowler caps and ties, it’s a very enjoyable place. The figurehead of Brooklyn’s is Nate, a cocktail history connoisseur who makes a lot of his own ingredients when he can’t find authentic ones on the market.

One of Nate’s passion points is rediscovering old joys, and old ways of doing things. In the case of cocktails, most of the best ones have already been invented—we can make five- or six-ingredient mixed drinks using molecular mixology or crazy ingredients that taste very good. And we can have terrible fads like the artificially flavored Appletinis of the ‘90s. But Nate will tell you nothing can match the exquisite effect of a perfectly made martini, with London Dry gin, dry vermouth, and orange bitters in exactly the right proportions. There’s a reason it has endured.

Likewise, in the nonprofit sector, we’ve gotten more complex—more complex than most of us can handle, to be honest. There are a ton of moving parts. And sometimes the norms we’ve inherited from recent decades have, like the Appletini, outlived their usefulness. We have a lot of new technologies at our disposal, but human taste buds, so to speak, haven’t really changed. I’ve seen many an attempt to use social media for fundraising that didn’t do it within the larger context of the way humans have always worked—they just threw ads at people and were surprised that total strangers didn’t give away their money.

The sector is changing so fast, and there are so many more changes coming that it largely isn’t ready for—what will we hang onto in the face of that change? Will we cling to superficial Appletini norms like 8-page prospecting mailers, because they worked for a particular audience for a while? Or will we manage to stay grounded in deeper realities of how people relate to each other, yearn for community, and long to see that they’ve made a difference—and apply that knowledge creatively to the challenges of new settings, technologies, and donor demographics? The Martini Principle says that when creatively applied, old ways can be worth rediscovering. Sometimes we need to go back to what endures, if that’s what we want our organizations to do.

#5 (you knew this was coming): The Craft Beer Principle.

Let’s imagine you are unexpectedly short on cash—you just lost your job, or your organization just went under, or your car just got totaled, and you aren’t sure how your family is going to make it through the month. And imagine that I walk up to you and hand you a check for $2,000. Your pride and the fact you don’t know me makes you put up a fuss, but eventually you take the money. You’re thrilled—if you believe in God, you’re thanking him; if you don’t, you’re thinking how inexplicably lucky you are. I’m feeling pretty good about it too; I had no idea my $2,000 would mean so much to you, but your story comes pouring out of your grateful mouth, I walk away feeling thrilled I made such a difference.

Now imagine instead of me giving you that money, it was your closest friend. Assuming she can spare the cash and you know it, both of you would probably feel even better about it. From your perspective, your friend was there for you when you needed her, and you know you’d do the same for her if your situations were ever reversed. From her perspective, she didn’t just help a random stranger who might do goodness knows what with the money; she helped someone she cares about and is probably rejoicing that she was in a position to do so.

There are two intertwined points here. First, the closer you are to the person you’re helping, the more satisfying it typically is. Second, it’s actually okay to enjoy that feeling.

This is what I’m going to call the Craft Beer Principle. If I opened a nonprofit microbrewery, I’d do better than most nonprofits very quickly, because I would be operating on the understanding that my supporters love what I’m making and want to taste the benefits of what they’re supporting.

But somehow, the way we view giving got twisted up and yanked away from that commonsense notion. I have a friend, whose name (I kid you not) is Jeremy Beer, who wrote a book a couple years ago called The Philanthropic Revolution: An Alternative History of American Charity. In it, he describes how every culture and every religion used to have this idea that giving and receiving were two ends of a relationship, where both actually got a spiritual value out of the act. And he tells the story of the rise of alternative philosophies of giving starting in the late 19th century, that were focused on problem-solving on a mass scale. Out of a combination of those philosophies came the modern foundation, modern welfare programs, and the modern nonprofit, where no matter how good we are at proving ROI to our donors, we are ultimately still semi-professionals solving social problems on behalf of everyone else.

Imagine if my microbrewery worked that way; imagine if I scaled it and built it into a donor-funded Budweiser. Several things would happen. The donors would be far away from the process. The results, no matter how impressive they might be, would be the product of my model, and only tangentially the product of my support community. And the donors wouldn’t be in my pub every Saturday night enjoying the fruits of their shared project. To bring the analogy back to the nonprofit sector: there is a real human element to giving, that isn’t naturally built into most of our nonprofit business models anymore, where people (consciously or not) are spending money on nonprofits for a dual purpose; to accomplish a goal, and to feel good about doing it. If you artificially divorce those two pieces from each other, you’re going to need a massive communications team and effort to even make up a fraction of the lost ground as far as donor retention.

In fact, most of nonprofit communications work in competent organizations focuses on demonstrating ROI, because that is the trademark demand of the Baby Boomer donors. Most of the comms work in superb organizations links that ROI to an emotional element; making you feel it rather than just see it. But if your organization doesn’t actually operate according to the Craft Beer Principle, if you’re still just professionals solving a problem with other people’s money while they go off and do their own thing, all of that is just smoke and mirrors to try to compensate for the fact that they are not a part of what you’re doing.

So the takeaway from the Craft Beer Principle is: find ways to let people get close to your work, where they can feel the effects of being a part of it.

In conclusion:

#1: The Pub Principle: Help people bond over their shared passions.

#2 The Sangria Principle: Don’t fight over the cups; make a bigger pitcher. When your cause wins, everyone wins.

#3: The Pinot Principle: Age and place matter. Build deep roots if you want a serious harvest.

#4: The Martini Principle: Lose the Appletinis. When creatively applied, old ways can be worth rediscovering.

#5: The Craft Beer Principle: find ways to let people get close to your work, where they can enjoy being a part of it.

You have a tremendous opportunity to be the hub of a community at a time in history when everyone is searching for that. It’s an exciting time to be a part of the nonprofit sector in this great state. The big question for you is: how many people will get to feel that excitement through how you do your work?

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