Photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash
May 29, 2024

What is the smallest viable audience for nonprofits?

Michelle Flores Vryn

Join Farra Trompeter, co-director, and Michelle Flores Vryn, CFRE, head of development at iNaturalist, as they discuss how to prioritize audiences and share examples of how being more limited in your approach to audiences ties to branding and communications. 


Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and worker-owner at Big Duck. In today’s episode, we’re going to ask the question, what is the smallest viable audience for nonprofits? And I am delighted to be talking to Michelle Flores Vryn. Michelle, who uses she/her pronouns, has been working for 15 years in the fundraising and communications world of nonprofits with missions focused on endangered species, disaster relief, and nature education. She has developed major gifts, institutional giving, and digital fundraising strategies, steadfastly advocating for Community Centric Fundraising or CCF. Michelle serves on the boards of Mission Capital and the Association of Fundraising Professionals, AFP Global, and co-organized the Texas chapter of the CCF movement. She holds a certified fundraising executive (or CFRE) credential and a master’s degree in cultural anthropology focusing on environmental conservation. This is Michelle’s second time on the podcast having previously explored the question of how can we bring radical honest data communications with Marisa DeSalles last year on episode 136. Michelle, welcome back.

Michelle Flores Vryn: Thank you so much for having me. It feels good to be back.

Farra Trompeter: You have a mantra of “Building tomorrow by investing in nonprofits today.” Can you tell us a little bit more about you and how this mantra guides your work?

Michelle Flores Vryn: Yeah, so I know that this episode isn’t explicitly on branding, but when I was thinking of my own branding for my consulting work, I really wanted to have some kind of grounding statement, underscoring the importance of nonprofits, but also having like this future piece of like these new worlds that we’re always creating with our missions. And I came up with this statement “Building tomorrow by investing in nonprofits today” because I think it allows us to live in both the future way of how we’re doing things, but also look to a future that, I mean, we hope is more equitable. You know, people are thriving more, we’re moving more from survival to abundance. And I genuinely believe that nonprofits are some of the best entrepreneurs out there. Oftentimes we don’t give ourselves that credit, which I always try to like imbue us with that energy. You know, we are great entrepreneurs and we’re very, very innovative. So I just want us to remember that like we are literally building the future with our work and through our missions.

Farra Trompeter: Love it. I love some inspiration to get us going. Now, when you first mentioned this topic to me, my mind went to Adrienne Maree Brown‘s Emergent Strategy. And the principle “small is good, small is all”. And then I wandered a bit to one of my favorite topics to rant about, which is that no nonprofit should list the general public as their primary audience. So trying to get every single person to know who you are is just too expensive and impossible. Now, I understand that Seth Godin initially inspired you with a concept of the smallest viable audience, and we’ll link to his post about that topic on our show notes at But in that post, he asked organizations to identify and nurture a specific community who’s deeply invested in its cause. And I’m curious, how is this smallest viable audience concept both a smart strategy and a bold move for nonprofits?

Michelle Flores Vryn: Yeah, I feel like my answer here is I’m gonna kind of reverse engineer like my landing on this. And as Farra, I know you personally know ’cause I see you on LinkedIn and social media, I’m on social media a lot too. And oftentimes it does strike me how generic some of our nonprofit content is. And you know, it’s a lot of work to post consistently. I’ll be the first one to admit that. But as someone who’s so steeped in nonprofit missions, you know, I’ve worked in six or seven nonprofits, I really know how amazing our people are, how our work translates or should translate so well to like social content. I find myself looking around on social media sometimes thinking like, where is that energy, that vibe? Like, the entrepreneurial spirits we already talked about of nonprofit leaders and the great things we’re doing and we’re out in the world doing important things and sometimes when I look at our content, I think like, geez, I’m not feeling that. And I had to ask myself like, why do, why am I not feeling that? And I think that kind of going from the end, moving back, I think a lot of it is we don’t necessarily really think about who are the most natural audiences for what we do. And so when we do have time to create communications content, it does come out like in this very run-of-the-mill way, which I feel like isn’t really at all representative of who we are.

Michelle Flores Vryn: And also like having my own freelance consulting stuff on the side: For anyone who’s ever started their own business, it’s a lot of work, I applaud you. But you also have to go through very specifics on like, how am I gonna market myself? Who is my client?

Michelle Flores Vryn: So, think about finding your audience in this way. If you were a designer, you know, you can build a website and just said like, “I’m a designer, I design things.” But people would want to know, what are you really good at? Logos, websites? What do you excel at designing? A good designer would say, I only design websites for social justice causes that are people-of-color-led, you know, and I do it in like a week or something. In the for-profit world, we know the more specific you get on who you’re for and like what you’re about, that really helps your audience find you. Because the more generic you are, people can’t really see what is it you’re doing, why are you special? And, of course, for nonprofits, like we’re the same way. We just don’t think about it that way. So then I began to think about like, why don’t we know who our audiences are?

Michelle Flores Vryn: And in the article, I did mention that there’s typically two audiences that we serve or communities. I mean, I consider them like full-on communities. One is the community that is actually receiving services from our nonprofits. Like, for example, if you’re a food bank, you know, it could be people that you’re serving. But then there’s this whole other community of just general stakeholders and supporters; people who are just interested in your mission and cause area. And I think that does make our communications a little more tricky than in the for-profit world because, in some sense, you have to be talking to both audiences routinely, and the content could differ a little bit between the two. So, that feels like it’s added work and it is. But if you know who your smallest viable audiences are, like who are your people? Who are the people who really find you special? Creating routine content for both of those communities becomes easier.

Farra Trompeter: Great. Now, a few months ago you wrote a post on this subject for the Community-Centric Fundraising, CCF content hub titled “Size isn’t everything, the power of targeted community building and social justice organizations“. Again, we’ll link to that in the show notes at I hope people read that. But we’re gonna pull some inspiration from that article and get into some of the topics. Now, one of the things that I loved about your article is that this isn’t just about marketing and communications, it’s about branding. And you said in that article: for people to find and align with you, you have to show them who you are, and who you are is not generic. And I know you touched on branding just a moment ago, but I’m wondering if you talk a little bit more about how do you see branding? How do you see that defining and articulating who you are connected to this idea of audience focus?

Michelle Flores Vryn: Yeah, for me, one of the best ways to conceive of branding is by going through what it’s not. And I know this will all be like music to your ears, but you know, oftentimes we have to say explicitly to folks who are non-communications people, branding is not your logo. While your logo is important, it’s not your logo, it’s not your typography, but even it’s not the products, services, your missions. It’s not that either. It’s none of those things. So, your branding is really about the result of interactions people have with you. So, in some ways, people do have very different brands or brand concepts because they may have very different experiences with you. Of course, you want that to be kind of galvanized into a central experience for the most part. But I think that interaction piece, that branding is the result of interactions that people have with you. And if you really, really think about that for your nonprofit, most people are going to interact with your content first, right? Like there will be some people who maybe walk into your office and you know, maybe they interface with the staff first, but by and large, most of your first interaction is gonna be external content you’re putting out. So your social media posts, content on your website, all of these things become really, really, really important. Way more important than I think we give it credit for. And so you wanna make sure that when you are creating that content that your audiences can clearly see like, “Oh, I know who that person is and I wanna support them.” Because you know, we all have very limited, very limited attention spans nowadays. So, the clearer you can be upfront, the more people can gravitate towards you and understand who you are. And on the audience piece, kind of going cleanly into the smallest viable audience, for us to be able to say in our nonprofits, our audience may not be everyone, I really feel like that is us standing in our power. Because it’s us saying there are people, maybe they’re smaller, maybe it’s not everyone, but there are people who really genuinely know how special we are and wanna support this. But when our content is so generic, I think we’re making it so much more difficult and hard to be seen.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I am forgetting now, and I don’t have time to look it up who said it, but there’s that famous, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for everything.” Do you remember who said it? Have you heard that phrase?

Michelle Flores Vryn: Yes. Yes.

Farra Trompeter: And it’s like if we don’t put a line in the sand, be clear about who we are and what we’re about, then to your point: we sound like everyone else, we don’t create impressions, we cannot get traction. We’re not building relationships with the right people and known for the right things. And so much of being clear about who you are is about being clear about who should know you and how you should show up in their minds and in their hearts and in their everyday life. As you noted earlier, I do love this topic. Now, in your article you mentioned that nonprofits have two key audiences. One to help communicate with the community served regarding programs and services, and another to build a supporter ecosystem. Now this is where, like me, you are both a communicator and a fundraiser. I’m curious if you could just break down this statement a little bit more for our listeners and talk about what you mean with this idea of these two audiences.

Michelle Flores Vryn: Yeah, let’s dig into this a little more, and I’m gonna give us a specific example. So let’s take the nonprofit Earth Justice. So, Earth Justice is a very well-known, well-established nonprofit that provides legal aid to environmental causes that need it, right? And so they’re very unique in what they do. So that’s a good example of unique messaging right there. But when you think about Earth Justice, they’re a great example of how there’s like these two communities. You have communities being served, which would be nonprofits that need some kind of legal representation in the conservation space that don’t have access to legal representation. So, that would be a community being served. But you also have this wider supporter ecosystem. So, these are people who maybe they do wanna donate, maybe they want to volunteer their time to earth justice and for whatever reason they’re interested in this mission of helping environmental causes have this legal representation and aid. And those could be two very distinct communities because on the first one, the communities being served, Earth Justice has to make sure that nonprofits working in the conservation space know who they are. Because if you don’t know who they are, you don’t know to go to them for help. But there’s this larger supporter ecosystem who you want their support. Again, this may not be just donations, it could be other things like resharing on social media, it could be volunteering, but this does include donors as well. So, you also need to be able to communicate to that supporter ecosystem what you’re doing, why it’s important, the value add, what the need is, et cetera. So, I think, that’s a real tangible example of the community being served versus the supporter ecosystem. They’re coming in from completely different places and that is something that’s like a unique added layer of work for nonprofit comms and marketing. But the quicker we can identify like, okay, these are distinct audiences, the better we can craft content for them.

Farra Trompeter: That’s helpful and I appreciate you named an example, and I wanna kind of ride that wave. So, let’s get tactical. If a nonprofit was to adopt this mindset and really hone in on the idea of the smallest viable audience, what does it look like in practice? I’m wondering, Michelle, if you can share an example or two of nonprofits you’ve seen who practice this more focused audience approach.

Michelle Flores Vryn: That is a great question. And I’m just kind of pulling from stuff I see on social media. There could be more, but I’ll name the board that I sit on––Mission Capital––which is a nonprofit capacity builder that has all its programming through a race equity lens. And so we are really just focused on Central Texas, which is awesome. We need Mission Capital and Central Texas. So a large part of our services are for nonprofits. So nonprofits can come to us for trainings, programming, we do one-on-one consulting, we do executive searches. So there’s all kinds of like options to engage with Mission Capital. So on one end you definitely need nonprofits to know what is it Mission Capital does. What can I go to them to? Oh, like I need an orientation training, I can go to them and help kind of create our own orientation training at our nonprofit. So that’s one example of the communities being served. In this case, we are like a nonprofit speaking to nonprofits.

Michelle Flores Vryn: But on the flip side, we have like this much larger supporter ecosystem. So we also have to think about, there’s going to be corporate audiences who really care about this work and they’re not gonna come to us for onboarding advice because you know, they have their own stuff, they. They don’t work in nonprofits. Corporations are interested in our work, though, because they wanna know how can they plug-in in certain ways to help ways this social change network in Central Texas. And so we have to talk about, what is it in it for them? How can they plug-in? How can they become a part of what we do? We do have some events that are more focused towards a corporate audience, and I think that’s a great thing because they’re part of this wider supporter ecosystem.

Michelle Flores Vryn: So that just gives like one example of you kind of have to talk in two different ways in your posts. Because some people, you’re trying to get them to sign up and register for the programs you’re providing. But on the other hand, you just have to have this wider audience who’s also interested in social change, know what you’re doing. And also is there ways for them to get involved? So those are two completely different things.

Farra Trompeter: Well, there’s so much here to think about and reflect on. And if you’re out there and you’d like to connect with Michelle, be sure to follow her on LinkedIn at mvryn. I will say this honestly, she’s one of my favorite sources of new ideas and people to follow on LinkedIn. She’s always got some great things to say and insights and even just some disruptive ideas, which are fun to get your mind going. You can also read her blog and get more resources on her website at We’ll link to all of these in the show notes at Now, Michelle, before we go, any other parting ideas you’d like to share with our listeners?

Michelle Flores Vryn: I would just want to underscore one more time that I know like nonprofit listeners, your work is not generic and I would just encourage you next time you’re in your team meeting, whether that’s development team or communications team, better yet, maybe it’s both merged together that you have a team meeting. I would look through your recent external content like social media, even your e-newsletter, and really ask the question, does this feel like it represents who we are? And I guarantee you, like who you are is not generic.

Farra Trompeter: Love it. And of course, you wanna dig into who you are and get into brand strategy, we’ve got lots of resources for you on that topic too. Michelle, thanks so much for being here with us today.

Michelle Flores Vryn: Absolutely. Thank you for having me back.

Farra Trompeter: Alright, everyone, have a great day out there.