Putting the Community Back in Engagement: Interview with Alex Stallings

Alex is a well-respected community advocate and event planner based in Saint Louis, MO. Throughout her 10+ years career, she has hosted close to one thousand events with six thousand attendees. Alex is no stranger to the elbow grease it takes to have an impact on communities at large through successful programming.

Aleshia:  Thank you for joining me, Alex!

Alex: Thank you for having me!  

Aleshia: So tell me about your background. Where did you go to school, where did you grow up, what’s your education background?

Alex: I am a proud graduate of St Louis Public Schools and attended University of Missouri – Saint Louis where I completed a dual degree in English and Education. I thought I would be in the classroom forever. I thought that that would be my life plan, and I taught for five years and realized that there was another way to approach education. There are  other ways to engage with the community and that broadening out could be that opportunity.

Aleshia: How does your education background play a role with community events?

Alex: When planning community events, I still think with the sense of the lesson plan. So, events for me are still about what do we need people to learn from this, how do we engage them, how do we know that they learn what we wanted them to learn from the opportunity; and I'm drawn to teach. I usually host events that are education focused. We want the audience to be more aware about a topic, be more empowered, be more able to be ambassadors and advocates.

Aleshia:  What do you think is one of the biggest mistakes nonprofits make when planning community events?

Alex: Defining community. We can be very broad and say it's for everyone, but it really helps to define who our target audience is. What do we want from them?

Are the right people going to be in the building, where are those right people? In what ways can they engage with our nonprofit? Does it align with the mission? Typically, when we say community, so many nonprofits want to be in that broad area, but it doesn’t advance the mission unless you’re more specific.

"Typically, when we say community, so many nonprofits want to be in that broad area, but it doesn’t advance the mission unless you’re more specific."

Aleshia: If someone was to say, “Well I don’t know who my target audience is. I want to serve everyone.” What advice would you give them to ensure they find out who their audience?

Alex: I think it all goes back to your mission. Focus on your mission. Who do you desire to serve? Who do you believe that you’re serving? Some events are for the people that you serve, and then some events are for the people who can support the work that you’re doing.

After that point, it’s research, and you need to drill down and on your target audience demographic and then understand what makes those audiences tick. So, if you know that you want to reach an audience for your event, you must go where they go and listen to what they listen to. It can’t be a one size fits all marketing approach. You have to find your people.

That's across the board, that's all demographics, that's all ages. I see a lot of groups miss the market, particularly around youth programs.

"I think it all goes back to your mission.
Focus on your mission." 

Organizations need to make sure their product is aligned with the audience that they want to serve.

Aleshia: Trust is a huge factor in getting the community to build a relationship with you. How would an organization go about building trust with their audience?

Alex: I think it gets back to spending that time with key contacts before you engage in the work. In the early parts of community engagement and still now if I'm working with the new partner, I listen first.  

I’m listening to what does that person want to bring to the table? What are they looking for? What are some goals that they have?

So, at the time when I make the ask about another organization getting involved, I already have a feeling. It might not be a fit for their schedule now, it might not be the right timing, but I already have a feeling that our two missions are in alignment.

Bringing people into a situation where it advances their goals and contributes to what they are doing, builds that trust, because then people don’t feel like it was a misuse of their time. I am specific about who I ask and when I ask them.

Aleshia: What mistakes did you make planning your first community wide event?

Alex: One was not knowing my audience as well as I should have. So at the time I was working with exhibits and connecting with audiences in the community, and there was an exhibit that was on display to reach a new audience, and its audience had not been a part of exhibit programming before.

Aleshia: It seems like nonprofits can tend to compete for the same audience for events. While I believe there will always be enough people to serve, it seems like that’s an area where nonprofits could learn. What advice do you have for nonprofits when it comes to establishing partnerships?

Alex: Bring people to the table that complement your mission but don’t compete. Some of the best connections that I saw when I  would host partner meetings, would be in organizations like, let’s say around women’s empowerment on young girls; that’s a field that has a lot of folks in it.

There would be a person who has strong speaking skills and has a message for young people and just wants to get that message out; but then there would be a person in the same room who plans a weekly event with the young girls. Those people together complement.

"Bring people to the table that complement your mission, but don’t compete."

Alex: Nonprofits shouldn’t go at it alone. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, don’t be afraid to ask for insight. And know that you can’t do it all, and that’s okay. Bringing in outside expertise can make the difference and free you to focus on your mission.

To connect with Alex, follow her on LinkedIn at Alex J. Stallings

Aleshia Patterson I Editor in Chief I Nonprofit Marketing Magazine

Aleshia Patterson is the Editor in Chief of Nonprofit Marketing Magazine. She has served in the nonprofit sector for almost a decade. She currently works as a Marketing and Communications Coordinator for a local nonprofit in Saint Louis, MO. In her spare time, Aleshia loves to travel, binge watch Netflix, and go on Office Depot excursions.