engagement, social media strategy

Fierce Loyalty: The Interview with Sarah Robinson You Need To Read

23 Comments 19 September 2012


In July, Sarah Robinson contacted me to find out if I’d be willing to review her forthcoming book, Fierce Loyalty. Would I? But of course! Sarah truly understands social media engagement, and her new book Fierce Loyalty is a shining example of why I admire her work and her philosophy. The book is a step-by-step framework for defining your compelling community interest, and building a fiercely loyal community that cares about your cause.  It’s practical, easy to absorb, and thoroughly engaging (oh, pun intended!) Fierce Loyalty emphasizes that developing a community is not about the organization, but about the community and the people in it. Using Sarah’s framework, any organization can easily move from “why don’t enough people care?” to understanding what fans really want to talk about within an online community, and finally, to developing a strong and fiercely loyal online community. I couldn’t agree more with Sarah’s guide to building a community of engaged, loyal, and enthusiastic fans.

Readers of this blog will be interested to hear of Sarah’s deep experience working in the nonprofit community, from her role at St. Louis University as a Community Development Coordinator in the residence hall system, to working at HandsOn Memphis, to her role as Executive Director at the Alzheimers Association in Memphis. Fierce Loyalty is jam-packed with case study snapshots of non-profit and corporate organizations that have built fiercely loyal online and offline communities.

Sarah Robinson doesn’t just understand that loyalty is important, she understands the DNA behind what makes customers fiercely loyal. In my interview with her, below, she speaks to what makes up the DNA of a fiercely loyal community. In these economic times, when individual and organizational resources are stretched, nonprofits must cultivate fiercely loyal fans in order to thrive.

I believe in this book, and what it can do for your organization. Thanks to Sarah, I am giving away two free copies of Fierce Loyalty to my blog readers.

Please leave a question for Sarah on this blog post. I will give away one paperback and one Kindle version of Fierce Loyalty to the first two blog commentors who leave great questions for Sarah.

My interview to with Sarah Robinson follows below. Read on to learn more about Fierce Loyalty, the DNA of successful communities, her background, and the role of social media in building loyalty. You may also want to read more from Sarah on the Fierce Loyalty blog, chat with her on Twitter, and find out more about the the book on the website.

How do you define Fierce Loyalty?

Sarah: To me, Fierce Loyalty is that unshakable commitment we give to someone or something that we feel is an integral part of who we are. The trademark qualities of Fierce Loyalty are Pride, Trust and Passion.

In your book, you write that you first learned the building blocks of Fierce Loyalty at St. Louis University. Can you tell us more about that? What did you learn that you use with your business clients today?

Sarah: Little did I know I’d learn so much from my very first job out of college that I would use over 20 years later.  I was hired by St. Louis University as a Community Development Coordinator in their residence hall system. My job every day was to build and grow community among the student who lived in the dorm I was in charge of. For many reason, most of the students weren’t really interested in forming a community. Being as stubborn then as I am now, I decided to dig in and figure out how to get them to buy into the idea. I couldn’t force a community on them. They had to want it.  That’s one of the biggest lessons I took away from that experience, actually. So often I see brands build a community and then go out and try to find people to be in it. And then they don’t understand why it’s not happening. That’s what I teach my clients: build your community WITH your community members – even if you just start with a handful of people. This invests them in the success of the community and it gives you invaluable insight into what they really want from a community.

You explain that all successful communities – from the small start-up nonprofit to the internationally recognized brand – share a common DNA. Can you give us a brief overview of what this DNA looks like?

Sarah: Sure! There are five building blocks that make up the DNA of a Fiercely Loyal Community. They are:

1) A Frame That is Formed by a Common Interest. This common interest could be about your organization specifically or it could be about a bigger idea that is associated with your organization. For example, if your organization runs an overnight shelter for homeless women and children, the common interest could be in your organization and it’s unique approach to solving this problem or the common interest could be about improving the welfare of homeless women and children.

2) People Who Share This Common Interest. Conversations are happening all around us all the time. It’s easier than ever to find conversations around specific topics.  Once you have an idea of what your community common interest could be, find people who are talking about that. Observe conversations. Participate if you can be helpful.

3) Compelling Needs. Not everyone who shares your common interest will be looking for a community. You can identify those that are because they are expressing three compelling needs: The Need for Belonging, The Need for Recognition and the Need for Safety.

4) Organizational Structure. For a strong community to exist and flourish, the organizational structure must contain these elements: Predictability, Support and Connection.

5) Community Evolution. As I mentioned earlier, there are three hallmark qualities that distinguish a Fiercely Loyal Communtiy – Pride, Trust and Passion. These qualities have to be intentionally fostered and encouraged so that they can evolve and grow.

In the book, you offer a lot of examples of how you’ve built fiercely loyal communities around a nonprofit mission. Can you offer some examples of nonprofit organizations that are doing a great job of building fiercely loyal communities today, and what they are doing so well that enables those communities to grow?

Sarah: I can think of two nonprofit organizations who are building awesome fiercely loyal communities – each in a slightly different way:

First is the one I mention in the book, Surfrider. They found a captivating common interest shared by many surfers (not an easy thing to do) and once they started building their community, they gave each local chapter a high degree of autonomy to make their own decisions about what their efforts should like. VERY empowering.

Second is Habitat For Humanity. Each and every house build that happens requires that a community form around the project. Habitat provides the organizational structure, lending predictability, support and connection points. The structure allows the sponsoring organization, the fundraising team, the family, the builders and Habitat to form a high degree of Pride, Trust and Passion very very quickly.

What is the role that social media plays in building fierce loyalty?

Sarah: It’s funny you should ask that. During a presentation this morning someone asked me I thought community was the exclusive domain on the online world. I tried not to shout my answer “NO!”. Don’t get me wrong. Social media has a huge part to play in building and supporting a fiercely loyal community. It offers simple and easy ways to find people who share a common interest, connect them with your community and develop pride, trust and passion I wouldn’t have any of my current communities without it.

All that said, though, don’t overlook the critical importance of face-to-face community experiences. In this great big impersonal world we live in, we crave real human interaction. By providing that to your community, along with online experiences, you’ll see Fierce Loyalty develop much more rapidly.

 Please leave a question for Sarah in the blog comments. Sarah has generously donated two copies of Fierce Loyalty to this community of blog readers.

I’m looking forward to reading your questions and giving the books away to the first two blog commenters who leave a great question for Sarah.


Your Comments

23 Comments so far

  1. marcapitman says:

    Sarah: I love your DNA idea!! How would you advise nonprofits with board members who don’t exhibit the “compelling needs” for belonging? 

    Moving forward, I realize the nonprofit can change it’s recruitment strategy. But for those on the board who are less than fiercely loyal, is there hope of growing them toward fierceness? 


    sarahrobinson Reply:

    Ah yes – back in the day when I trained boards how to raise money, I often ran into these board members. :-) My first question to them was (and still is) “Why are you on the board?” If the answer to that question is something that you can use to cultivate Pride Trust & Passion – do it! If it isn’t, I highly recommend looking for another way they can serve the org. You need your fiercest leading the charge. :-)


    marcapitman Reply:

    I’ve asked that question too!! I love how refreshing frankness can be. :)8


  2. Ephraimgopin says:

    great stuff from both Sarah AND Debra!

    the last Q about online vs offline communities: Sarah- how do you suggest finding the right balance (NPO or biz) so that the two COMPLIMENT each other creating a cohesive, fiercely loyal overall community rather than divide & conquer with one eating up a greater chunk of the resources? (assuming the target audience can be found in both places!)


    sarahrobinson Reply:

    SUCH a great question. That’s really the trick isn’t it? How do we wisely invest our most precious resource – time?

    The brands I see who do this really well understand that there will some people who prefer just online connection and others who just want IRL connection. So you have to make an effort at both (using your assumption that they are in both places). Create connection points, events, gatherings, etc. online and once the community feels strong, invite them to a live event. Online connection points are much much easier so you can do these more frequently and without a ton of heavy lifting. 

    For offline gatherings, many brands start out doing them infrequently, once a month, once a quarter or even once a year. At these events, you can help people see the value of connecting with your online community.

    Some brands who do this well are Harley Davidson, Surfrider, Running Room and TED.  I highly recommend checking out their sites to see how they make it work.

    Hope this helps!


    Ephraimgopin Reply:

     thanx- now I’ve got new brands to follow on The Twitter etc :)


  3. Using the core fabric of our lives to describe the core of our communities! love it


    Debra Askanase Reply:

     Yes, Sarah really “gets” it, doesn’t she?


    sarahrobinson Reply:



  4. lapisak says:

    This short interview is densely packed with fantastic tips. I’m now hungry to read the book! I am curious to hear more about the evolution piece. I understand the need for both predictability and evolution in a community, but sometimes those two can create a tension or even be at odds with each other. How do you balance the need to evolve with the necessity of creating a consistent experience? And beyond the passion, trust, and pride, can you give some specific ways that communities evolve (or an example of a community that has evolved successfully)?


    sarahrobinson Reply:

    Another great question!

    Growth of any kind always involves a certain amount of chaos, and community evolution is no exception. 

    Predictability comes first – and it’s your job as the community organizer to provide the bulk of that. And while you’re doing that, you also give the community opportunities and experiences that develop Pride, Trust and Loyalty. 

    For the evolution part to happen in a real and true way, the community itself drives it (with all the bumps that that involves). Your job in the midst of all this is to maintain as much of that consistency as you can. It’s a tricky thing because you have to be willing to give over some control to the community. The best communities I’ve seen who’ve done this actually engage the community “Hey! We’re growing and changing, which is awesome, and we still want to give everyone a consistent experience here. What ideas do you have for that?” Or something like that.

    One example I can give you (it’s from the book) is when I helped start Hands On Memphis. At first we were doing well just to handle the Predictability piece – coordinating projects, communicating consistently and regularly, seeing our projects through to success. As we grew (very quickly), we realized that our volunteers wanted to share common experiences in addition to our volunteer projects. So we started socializing after projects and having “volunteer parties”. These common experiences gave the community a common language and a common history which fed the feeling of Fierce Loyalty. It was overwhelming at first because we were spending as much time coordinating social events as we were coordinating volunteer projects. But we knew that without predictability on the project side, we wouldn’t have anyone to come to our events. Does that make sense?

    Hope this helps!


    sarahrobinson Reply:

    Another great question!!

    It is a fine balance isn’t it? Growth necessarily means a certain amount of chaos, and community evolution is no exception. 

    The communities I’ve seen walk this tight rope well understand that their primary job always is to provide that predictability to their community. They also understand that this doesn’t mean they tightly control or dictate the community. For Pride, Trust and Passion to evolve and transform a community, it’s got to come from the community itself. You provide the opportunities & experiences that will foster these feelings and involve the community as much as you can in the entire process. When you run into a challenge balancing the evolution with a predictable experience, for example, ask for community input. “We want everyone to continue to experience this great community while we are growing and changing. What are your thoughts on how we can make that happen?”

    When I helped start Hands On Memphis, we initially had our hands full just creating the predictability part – scheduling projects, organizing volunteers, communicating regularly – it was a lot. But we also started to realize that our volunteers wanted to connect and engage with each other beyond the volunteer projects. So, we started hosting regular social events. To help make this happen, we asked for volunteers to help us coordinate these one-a-week happenings. We helped provide just a little structure but the events themselves were in the hands of the volunteer team. Were they perfect all the time? Of course not. But Pride Trust and Passion started to develop about our volunteer projects AND our social gatherings – which was pretty cool.

    Hope this helps!


  5. Thanks for the interview. I designed my project with this idea in mind, but I’m failing in the execution. For me, I think part of the problem is that I haven’t made it easy for members to share their passion. Can you recommend any tools or tips for getting your existing members to invite friends and family?


    sarahrobinson Reply:

    Hey Sharon!
    Yes – making it easy to share their passion with others will make a huge different. If you’re online, make sure you have all the social media sharing tools connected to your site so people can share with the click of a button. If you are offline, make sure you have “stuff” that members can pick up and easily give to people they know.

    Two tips that can make a huge difference for you:
    1) Give them a really solid, compelling reason to invite their friends and family. Look at it from their point of view. And I’m not talking about financial compensation here. They just need to be really clear on why they are asking people to join. You might have a contest or some kind of incentive that will get them moving.

    2) Ask them to invite their friends and family. I’ve seen many businesses and organizations overlook this one powerful tool. Ask them to share, give them a great reason to and give them the tools to do it easily.



    Debra Askanase Reply:

     Sharon, I’ve also found that finding ways to allow members to create content (submit photos, answers, polls, moderate chats, etc.) is also a good way to deepen engagement. When they are engaged creators for the community, they’re more likely to invite friends. A recent Wildfire Apps study found that Facebook Pages where the community is highly engaged have a larger member growth rate than other pages, and that engaged members bring in 1.3 members to the Page (on average). This is the downloadable free report: lp.wildfireapp.com/Brand_Advocate_Report_Req_US.html


    Sharon Lipinski Reply:

    Ah, yes this “highly engage FB pages”. I’ve heard of its existence, but to me, it’s still a mythical creature. I just enrolled in Social Media Examiners FB Summit, so maybe that will help.  Thanks for the advice :)


  6. Sarah – thanks for sharing your knowledge! This is such an important topic and skill for nonprofits and I can’t wait to read your book and get your recipes for success. Before I do, I’m wondering about your thoughts on leading a community and letting it self lead. Are there markers or characteristics that let you know when a community needs to be led (like by a nonprofit) and when it can be self-led (by the members, supporters, volunteers)? 


    sarahrobinson Reply:

    Hey Zan :-)

    I think it really depends on the purpose of the community and the skills and talents of the people in it. All NPO’s depend on supporters to lead certain aspects of a community. The responsibility for the overall community  – it’s functioning, well-being, etc. – will always belong to the nonprofit itself.

    Make sense?


  7. Thanks so much to Marc and Ephraim for your comments and conversation-starters. A copy of Fierce Loyalty is on its way, courtesy of Sarah Robinson :-)


  8. Here is a very belated question. I was at an event last night and the conversation of community came up. This was in the context of business to business, rather than nonprofits. Anyway, everyone was bemoaning the fact that LinkedIn groups have become mostly an avenue for self-promotion rather than community. Do you see other places where “true” communities are forming for B to B? Google+??


    Debra Askanase Reply:

    Hi Geoff, I actually like Google+ for communities. They are slowly growing, and I’ve been invited to a few good ones. There are, of course, some that were begun by consultants just for self-promotion, but those are pretty obvious from the outset!

    What I’ve found with Linkedin is that if there is a very stringent moderator, the discussion can be fantastic and not focused on self-promotion. For example, there are two wonderful Linkedin groups with vibrant discussion that I keep an eye on: Social Media for Nonprofit Organizations, and Strategic Planning for Nonprofits.

    However, to your point about building one’s real community, I would look more towards closed Facebook Groups and Google+, where the “feeling” of intimacy and cross-connections that abound facilitate community growth.


    sarahrobinson Reply:

    You took the words right out of my mouth Debra! Google+ is coming along and the best communities I’ve seen there are B to B. Facebook Groups work well too. I belong to a few LI groups with moderators who kick out anyone who even thinks about spamming, so there are still a few around that are super useful. :-)

    Hope this helps!



  1. Fierce Loyalty: The Interview with Sarah Robinson You Need To ... | SM4NPGeneralSocialMedia | Scoop.it - September 24, 2012

    […] In these economic times, when individual and organizational resources are stretched, nonprofits must cultivate fiercely loyal fans in order to thrive.Sarah truly understands social media engagement, and her new book Fierce …  […]

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Debra Askanase is an experienced digital engagement strategist, non-profit executive, and community organizer. She works with mission-driven organizations to develop digital strategies and campaigns that engage, create trust, and move stakeholders to action. Debra speaks at conferences worldwide on the intersection of technology, social media, and nonprofit organizations.

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