On Becoming a Leader
September 12, 2016

How Charities Can Communicate With the People They Serve

On Becoming a Leader is a biweekly advice column in which Allison Fine, an author, consultant, and expert on nonprofit leadership and strategy, answers your questions about nonprofit careers and leadership. Have a question? Ask Ms. Fine using this form

Q: I lead an affordable housing coalition, and we use Facebook, MailChimp, and email to communicate with core members, allies, and the broader public. We’re mostly connecting with public and nonprofit sector folks, not the people who actually need affordable housing. Are there different products or creative ways of utilizing the products listed above that could help us enlarge the circle of people we connect with?   — Sally 

A: Hi, Sally. I’m glad you’re thinking about broadening the circle of people that your coalition communicates with because it reflects the importance, and possibility, of including lots of people in your conversations, not just the usual suspects.

The answer to your question is less about the communication tools to use and more about the nature of the conversation(s) you want to have. I am specifically focusing on social media — two-way conversational channels like Facebook and Instagram — and not digital communications like a website or MailChimp, which for the most part do not permit conversation.

The cardinal sin that most organizations make about communications (actually, about most things) is assuming they can or should know the answer to what people want. This malady is so widespread it should have its own name, like assumptionitis. There is no way to know what people want to talk about — or where and how — without asking them. So, Sally, the first step in your journey is to avoid this trap and start talking to the key constituents you want to reach.

These initial conversations don’t need to happen online; they can happen at a community meeting or even at a few small get-togethers in people’s living rooms. Find out: Do they want to continue to have conversations with you? About what,  exactly? (You should be prepared to explain how they would benefit from talking with you.) And, finally, where and how could these conversations continue to happen in the future? (It could be online or it could be at regular meetings.)

If the preliminary conversations indicate interest by the participants in an ongoing conversation, your job now shifts to creating an forum for discussion and facilitating these discussions.  For the purposes of this column, I am going to focus on the use of one social-media channel, such as Facebook, as a place where they would like to participate in conversation with you. You may already have one Facebook account for your coalition partners, but it is important to have another just for this very important, and underrepresented, constituency of residents.

There are several good habits of network leadership that will help ensure your conversations are relevant, robust, and authentic. (The staff alone doesn’t have to be responsible for these conversations. Volunteers can be trained as network leaders also.)

Here are the ways to get started as an online network leader:

  • Listen more than you speak. Communication techniques from the era before social media emphasize speaking over listening. We are accustomed to organizations using news releases as their primary vehicle for communicating with the world. Too many organizations continue this habit online, and you can see it when, say, their Facebook page is used as a billboard with a continuous stream of announcements and self-congratulations rather than conversations.

A good way to begin listening is to create a list of questions about issues and topics you are interested in hearing your community talk about. This will help you create content for the first few weeks of your effort.

What questions can you ask that will inspire people to chime in? What don’t you know or would you like to know? In your area, it may be something like “What was your experience the first time you went to the housing authority to seek help?” It’s important that these are real questions, not just window dressing. Your participants will trust you more if you are genuinely interested in their thoughts, experiences, and opinions.

It may take a few tries to find questions that resonate with people. Don’t be afraid of silence — it is teaching you something!

  • Create feedback loops. There is nothing worse than participating in a conversation that feels like a suggestion box, where information goes in and nothing ever comes out. When you get responses, it is important to thank the person for the input and continue the conversation by asking another question: “I see you said X. Does that also apply to Y?” The job of a network leader is to encourage people to share their ideas, feelings, experiences with you. Again, just like asking questions, responding to feedback makes the network stronger.  

  • Aim for co-creation. Staff members too often feel that their job is to have all of the answers. There is no better way to stifle creativity in a network than for staff to presume to have all of the answers and dictate all of the strategy. Online networks are powerful because they enable larger numbers of people to contribute thoughts and actions to a common effort. You should take advantage of all of this latent intellectual and social capital.

    What can you create together with the residents? Maybe it’s an advocacy campaign, a protest, or an educational event; the project matters less than how you organize it with your network. People need to be asked how they want to participate and in which activities they want to participate. They need to be encouraged to solve problems together, and their input needs to be honored.

Please note, Sally, that I used the word “honored,” which is not the same as agreeing to everything everyone says. Staff often feel that their expertise and responsibilities will be compromised if they co-create a program or strategy with a crowd of people; that they will be bound to do what people (particularly those with the loudest voices) want done, even if they disagree with it. This is incorrect.

It is incumbent on the network leader to be clear about which input is being sought and what is off the table. (And explaining why it’s off the table is crucial critically important as well). This is actually a really good exercise for organizations in thinking through their own approach to projects. But it is also an opportunity to push yourself to a point, potentially, of discomfort by opening up the possibility that you and your staff may not have total control of the process or outcomes of every effort.

A great example of a nonprofit organization using different social-media channels to have conversations with different people is VolunteerMatch. It has two Twitter accounts, one aimed at volunteers and the other at corporations.

Sally, I am excited for you and your organization to begin conversing with residents, to learn from them, and to work together online. People who benefit from services have a lot to offer in terms of intellectual capital, stories, opinions, and their own social networks. With a few starter steps, you will be on your way to engaging them and building a much more robust network than you have today.