Creating Community: A Q&A with Doug Kotlove, Division Marketing Director at CliftonLarsonAllen

by Jenna Sindle

It is undeniable that the digital age has changed how marketers approach community building. The prevalence of social media and the ease of communicating online allow us to connect with one another no matter the distance. However, there is still a need and a place for face-to-face interaction. Read on for a look into CliftonLarsonAllen’s Nonprofit Roundtable Series, a fantastic community and coalition building initiative that harnesses the power of the digital age while leveraging face-to-face interaction, headed by Doug Kotlove and Jean Gabriel of CliftonLarsonAllen.


Tell us a little about CliftonLarsonAllen and your role there.


CliftonLarsonAllen is a professional services firm that focuses on three main lines of business – the traditional audit and tax work that the firm was built on, along with outsourcing and wealth advisory. As far as the size of accounting firms go, we rank in the top 10 (8-10 depending on which ranking you look at and whether they determine size by number of employees or revenue). Our employee count is about 3,500 and our annual revenue is close to $600M. We are based in Minneapolis.


I’m the marketing lead (director) focused on the Public Sector Group, which consists of our traditional nonprofit practice as well as state and local government, federal government, higher education and employee benefit plans.  The revenue of this group is about $150M and the leader of the practice is Chief Industry Office John Langan (also DC-based). My role is to provide strategic guidance on the best ways for us to highlight our expertise to prospective clients, while managing a team of three that implements our major initiatives.


Why is it so imperative that the modern marketer engage in community and coalition building?


In a professional services environment, personal relationships are still critical if you want to be successful.  Some of the ways we interact with our key stakeholders (including clients, prospects and third-parties that help us make connections) are different thanks to social media, but the objectives remain the same.  By engaging with our key stakeholders on a regular basis, we are able to build trust and better understand their organizations – the opportunities and the challenges – allowing us to offer up solutions and services to help them be successful.


How has community building evolved over the past 5 years?


The ability to stay connected with your “community” is much easier, even when you’re not engaging with its members in a face-to-face setting.  Tools such as LinkedIn Groups allow you to set up a forum to exchange ideas back-and-forth whenever they come up, rather than waiting until the next time you actually meet.  No longer do you have to deal with a bulky listserv or an endless email string to get the answers or feedback you’re looking for.


Easy-to-use web tools also allow for virtual engagement, which can bring together community members who aren’t able to otherwise meet face-to-face. With a lot of the nonprofit clients we work with, there’s not always a network established for people in similar roles to share ideas and support each other.  For example, some national nonprofits don’t have forums set up for the CFOs of their local affiliates to communicate with each other.  CliftonLarsonAllen is able to come in and facilitate that community building rather easily thanks to tools available today.


Can you give us an example of your success with community building?


We’re about two years into a Nonprofit Roundtable Series in more than 20 of our largest cities/markets.  The idea was to build a community of CFOs, directors of finance, controllers, etc., in each of these geographies.  We found that CFOs of local nonprofits don’t have much of an opportunity to interact with their local peers, so a quarterly in-person series was built.  A central team provides the content for the sessions, and then the local office is responsible for implementing the program.

The local team chooses a CliftonLarsonAllen thought leader to lead the session and determines whether it makes sense to bring in an outside expert depending on the topic.  The local team is also tasked with inviting attendees and managing the event logistics.  Obviously having a strong local “network” makes it easier to fill the room. We encourage our nonprofit attendees to bring friends (others in the “community”) to future sessions, and the LinkedIn Groups option mentioned above is starting to provide a nice way for the group to interact between the sessions.


The primary objective is to provide a peer-to-peer setting for our audience, something they can’t often find elsewhere. We know we’ve been successful when the attendees keep coming back, and when they begin to engage with each other outside of the organized meetings. By providing the content and expertise to assist them, CLA believes the opportunities for new work will come naturally and we are very careful not to make these feel like selling sessions.


Our goal is to bring these people together for multi-day, national conferences, as we grow the networks.  Already we’ve successfully rolled out national conferences in the Foundation and Association/Membership Organization sub-industries.  The hope is to do the same for higher education and traditional social service groups.


If you could offer 3 best practices to the modern marketer looking to craft their own community building strategy, what would they be?


  1. Social media helps get the word out, but it alone cannot build a community. It takes a commitment of people within an organization to build relationships offline that allows a community to grow.


  1. Make sure you focus on giving the community what it wants/needs to be successful, rather than focusing on your company’s objective(s). If you try too hard to make it about you rather than helping them, you likely won’t be as successful.


  1. Don’t get discouraged if the community, or your events, start out small.  You need to start somewhere, and if you provide valuable content and relationship building opportunities, word will spread and you should see your numbers grow.