How we communicate with our membership, our community and the general public are all topics of strong debate and opinion in the best of organizations. The reason is simple: there is no single set of best practices that applies to all organizations. Among other things, we differ in size, governance, mission, and staffing level. It is no wonder that there are as many opinions on communications as people in a room when we discuss the next e-newsletter, website post, flier or community event.
Non-profits have a difficult enough time doing outreach online. With well-funded profit-driven corporate entities battling for the same space in people’s Facebook and Instagram feeds, how in the world can a small- or mid-size non-profit compete?
Setting aside organic reach in social media - which is another worthy endeavor - we can only be effective in reaching our target audience by defining appropriate target audiences, creating relevant content, and following a campaign plan - not just a random "boost" or share.
In times long ago, an organization could be visible in the community – be it physical or a served community – and that in-and-of itself would garner funds, a recognizable image, and supporters.
Perhaps these efforts would be bolstered by a once-a-year piece of direct mail or a small ad in a local newspaper. While the efficacy of these latter items has long been debated, there is no longer any doubt that all of these traditional methods have begun to fail.
How do we build engagement?
Let us start with the obvious: there is no one-size-fits-all solution that will make sense for every advocacy organization, faith community or service group. Whew! Got that out of the way. That being understood, let’s talk about a few strategies to reach people in their mind-numbed, sensory-overloaded, too-many-commitments reality.
- Social Media. Enough cannot be said for this form of outreach. Not even available as recently as 20 years ago, today we can send videos, event announcements, blog posts and more to the screens of people likely to engage with us. This is NOT a simple process – failing to market to your correct audience is like sending a donation request to Martin Skreli. If you can identify your target audience and create a series of ads that they are attracted to then you can certainly grow your support base and do so at great savings to a traditional direct-mail-only campaign.
- POEM – Paid, Owned, Earned Media. So often we settle for one form or another. To penetrate the minds of overwhelmed individuals we need to embark on a meaningful, integrated campaign that is planned and appropriately resourced. This means no more throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. It means ensuring press releases go out, social media ads are placed when appropriate, direct mail and email announcements are made, newspaper editorials and ads are placed, online forums are engaged, and (or course) that we are working in concert with partner organizations if appropriate.
- Use Existing Supporters. Recruiting supporters using existing supporters typically yields the highest return on investment. This does mean giving your current supporters something to recruit with! How often do we send out email newsletters that lack a “Share with a Friend” button – or one that actually works! And when was the last time we drafted a post on our website or created an event and forgot to add a share button? Recently we worked with a group that had a few hundred members. As a requirement to host a program for them, they were required to call through their entire membership roster – a task that had not been undertaken in years! The leadership divided the list up and conquered it short order. They achieved an 83% turnout! Sometimes asking things of your existing community can yield a fantastic return.
- Focus on the Relationship. This means the first thing you promote to a newer audience should not be a meeting. It means that after someone new comes to your event or donates for the first time, you follow up within a few days to a week. It means that someone is charged with forming a deeper connection with the new person and getting to know them better.
- Work on Cultural Competence. If you are engaging in work that involves communities that are not represented in your non-profit, be sure you have done the work within your leadership (both paid and volunteer) to ensure you have the cultural capacity to grow in a manner that is welcoming and supports diversity of experience and expectation. Often organizations execute their entire plan only to assume that the community they were trying to engage with simply wasn't interested. Usually there was simply no work done to understand the community and to 'de-center' themselves before launching the campaign.
- Have an integrated plan. An successful outreach plan is complex. It can make our heads hurt when we map out each component and then draw the connections between them. It is a LOT of work. And execution can strain relationships between coworkers and volunteers trying to implement this behemoth once we get going! The key is to plan it out ahead of time, divide the responsibilities, create a monitoring process and timeline and follow through.
This is certainly a simplified list of items to take into consideration. There are books that have been written on each of these topics and a number of others that go beyond the basics. This is intended as a starting point for those looking to grow their organizational engagement in a sustainable manner.
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