Monday, February 28, 2011

Communicating With Your Constituents

by Bunnie Riedel, Host, Nonprofit Conversation

I do a lot of benchmarking and needs assessment studies focusing on communication.  Whether you manage a nonprofit or a business, effective communication with your constituents (and prospective constituents) is essential.  However, for many, lack of time and resources (both human and financial) are major roadblocks to good communication.

I am fascinated by the results of a recent Focus Group I conducted in Massachusetts.  In the group was a sprinkling of small business people but mostly local nonprofits.  For the Focus Group, which takes about five hours, I go through a series of multiple choice questions and provide opportunities for narrative responses.  We engage in large group discussion and small group discussion.  The session is designed to get them thinking about how they receive information, whether they perceive their communications to be effective, what messages they want to deliver and what vehicles of communication they believe work best for them.

Seventy-two percent of the participants spent less than $5,000 per year on communicating with their constituents or prospective constituents.  In that seventy-two percent were the small community based nonprofits.  Eight percent spent over $25,000 per year, that group included a real estate agency, a tourism agency and a radio station.  Emails, phone calls, word of mouth and website were cited as the vehicles most used for communication.  However, meetings, phone calls, newspapers and word of mouth were rated high for effectiveness, while email and websites were rated low. 

When asked if they thought their communications were effective forty-eight percent answered “Maybe.” 

Again, this group was very local, very micro.  The opportunities to have meetings and word of mouth work for them as communications tools are greater than one would get from a larger organization, such as a national nonprofit.

They had very important, sometimes critical information to convey, such as availability of social services, assistance for problems, solutions for community building and even their own existence.  The group found that obstacles to communicating their messages included an inability to know if the constituent received the message, lack of return phone calls and emails, misunderstanding of what services they provided and competition from too many other messengers (information overload).

Friends, community groups and religious institutions rated quite high as ways they received information about organizations in the community.  While newspaper articles, websites and promotional advertising rated quite low. 

In mulling over these responses it struck me how the “personal touch” worked in this community and it made me wonder how does one take that personal touch and apply it in the larger sense?  Especially if you are talking about a larger regional or national nonprofit.  Could it be that our challenge is to find ways to take the tools we assume have a wide ranging impact, such as our websites, emails, Facebook pages, etc. and personalize them?  Can we make them work and feel like a community meeting or a person to person communication?

In theory, Facebook edges in that direction, it seeks “friends” and “fans,” people who have affirmatively selected to have some sort of an interest in what your organization is doing.  However, Facebook also has a way of de-personalizing messages.  Lost in the clutter that is Facebook, important messages risk becoming just more electronic background noise. 

How do we create websites that provide intimacy and personal interaction rather than simply act as placeholders for information?  Are our websites inviting and friendly?  Do any of us really update them enough that people want to keep coming back to see what’s new?

And those email blasts, like Constant Contact, do they behave more like pop ups intruding on one’s communication experience or can we use them almost like friendly handshakes?

I think smaller communities often have an advantage in communication.  There’s always the chance that you will run into your constituent at the grocery store or on the street corner and be able to pass on the latest information or affirm the personal relationship.  The challenge for all of us is how to create the personal when the geography is so large.

As always, I welcome your thoughts on this article.  Feel free to leave a comment or submit an article for Nonprofit Conversation by contacting me through my website

Thanks for reading! 


  1. Bunnie,
    Wonderful musing about the difference from working at a small scale to trying to create that community at a large scale.
    One of my former clients, Women's Voices for the Earth, has been working on Twitter parties and online chats with staff. They also have Green Cleaning Parties, with a kit you can request to hold your own, and lots of exciting ways to reach women not only to create relationships, but also to create women activists for safe products and a healthy environment.

  2. Such an opportunity for improvement! I think new social media and community building tools make it easier than ever to cultivate interaction once nonprofits take the bold step and allow themselves to get personal on platforms like facebook and twitter.

  3. Even in the age of "information overload" I still think that folks weed through it to get to what they want. Social media can provide a level playing field for small nonprofits - they still need to approach it though in a grassroots fashion.

  4. Great points and food for thought. I agree with Betsy - it seem that social media has a role for all nonprofits and can really almost level the playing field for smaller nonprofits. It's important to have a variety of communication strategies at organizations of all sizes.

  5. There's so much potential with social media - but it needs to be part of a well thought out plan with the support of a great database that can integrate all of the different approaches.

    Traditional communication models were very one-sided, but social media makes it so much easier to have two-way dialog. So I think the greatest opportunity with social media will be to more personally connected with our constituents.

    It will be interesting to see the long-term impact of social media on the way nonprofits operate - and communicate!

  6. Love this information! Great post, Bunnie. The listening and engaged communication part is often what get lost when using social media. Segmenting messages takes time, but the receiver feels more "heard" and seen when communication is directed at exactly what they are interested in.

  7. Good discussion you've started Bunnie. I think your summary points us in a good direction. "I think smaller communities often have an advantage in communication."

    If we can re-create some of the elements of a small community like introduction, events (mentioned as twitter chats, etc) or overlapping social (media) circles, an organization can start expanding a community to regional and national scenes.

    It is very challenging but I like to hope we can re-create a sense of community online.

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