Editor’s note: Last fall, I was introduced to Julia Rim Shepard when she was conducting research on the public relations, marketing and fundraising structures of nonprofit and charitable organizations, and their impact on public engagement and relationships. When Julia completed her academic research, I invited her to share her perspective on effective engagement with us by answering the following questions.

Expert interview with Julia Rim Shepard: how nonprofits can master public engagement

Mastering public engagement: Q&A with @juliarimshepard #NPMC Share on X

What does “public engagement” make possible for nonprofit organizations? Why is it important and what are the benefits?

There are many ways to describe public engagement, but it’s essentially the way in which you bring people together to get behind causes they care about. I am particularly fond of this definition of public engagement because it highlights how the certain segments of people are invited to contribute, and their perspectives, concerns and opinions help organizations make better decisions.

Without knowing what’s most important to those audiences and what kind of relationship they seek with your organization, you run the risk of losing their support and becoming irrelevant. And there are 170,000 other Canadian nonprofit organizations that could be ready to grasp the public’s attention where you left off. Some best practices and benefits of public engagement are highlighted in this article. Beyond this, by engaging the public:

  • You can create a shared responsibility with your audiences and these groups often become ambassadors for your organization and your cause.
  • You help your bottom line because research shows that when an organization enjoys a positive reputation, there are financial benefits. These include consumer preference, and the ability to better navigate reputation issues.
  • Your organization makes better decisions as multiple viewpoints help inform and improve business practice. Gone are the days when executives sat in a room and made decisions in isolation.

What role should marketing communications professionals play in two-way engagement?

Marketing communications professionals are central to two-way engagement since they have a pulse on the wider public audience (that contains certain segments) and because they have control of the communication, listening and response channels. They should be communicating, not only to the donor audience, but also to those audiences who are not for the purposes of fundraising such as policymakers, volunteers, and partner foundations and organizations.

Marketing communications professionals should also be responsible for testing of messages (does this message resonate more than another? Why?), and should be listening, responding and interpreting the public’s responses. Within, there will be nuggets of insight that needs to get to key decision-makers to help adjust a course of business.

What are some specific ways that nonprofits can allow their audiences more influence?

Nonprofit organizations can allow their audiences more influence in several ways. Recently I conducted academic research of human services nonprofit organizations. The research included a nationwide survey of public relations, marketing and fundraising professionals, in-depth interviews with CEOs and senior leaders, and a content analysis. Some learnings clearly emerged:

  • Communication touchpoints with the public need to be frequent. Research suggests that those who are aware of an organization’s activities will give them higher ratings on things like trust.
  • Engaging with donors should not be limited to the fundraising context: invitations to special events such as member appreciation initiatives, providing special news updates and sending more personalized communications all help deepen relationships. And repeat donations likely will occur, which is a bonus.
  • Key audiences, including beneficiaries, should have a variety of ways to give feedback. These could be focus groups, social media councils, private phone lines, face-to-face forums, volunteer initiatives and board member invitations. Through these you can invite input on reputational matters as well as testing out campaign ideas.
  • Public engagement is typically led by marketing communications professionals, but it’s truly a responsibility that should be shared by everyone. Advocacy teams, programs and evaluation staff, customer care etc. all have a role to play. Organizations should therefore focus their efforts broadly and supply training, rather than leaving it up to one team.
'Key audiences should have a variety of ways to give feedback.' #nonprofit #marketing #NPMC Share on X

What needs to be in place for this to happen?

To start, it’s important to have a functional leader on the senior leadership team who understands the value of public engagement in a holistic sense. This means it’s more than the number of eyeballs reached by a media hit or the number of click-throughs on a digital ad; it is not a one-way method of message promotion. The leader must also recognize there are important audiences in addition to donors, such as employees, government, media, board members, and other publics.

Secondly, training needs to be given to those engaging the public. They will need to know how to take in feedback from various publics, analyze it, weigh its value and importance, and finally escalate to senior leaders with key recommendations to affect change.

What would you say to overworked/overwhelmed marcom pros who are skeptical about adding to or changing their work?

Nonprofit organizations are facing fiscal challenges, so it’s imperative you move your public audiences into a relationship that supports your organization’s bottom line, regardless of whether your work is “responsible” for achieving those targets or not. To remain sustainable and relevant in the future, you will need to make changes to prioritize your key audiences. You need to make room to listen and to respond. If a potential supporter wanted to put support behind a cause, would they do so for an organization that partnered and shared responsibility with them, or not?

Can you share any resources on this topic for those who want to learn more?

Here are just a few resources and articles that may help in this area, as well as a one-page summary of my research.

One-page summary of Julia’s research (click to download PDF)

Julia Rim Shepard

Julia Rim Shepard

Julia Rim Shepard has worked in the non-profit and fundraising sector for more than a decade. She specializes in communications and business strategy and is currently the Director of Integrated Marketing Strategy for World Vision Canada. To reach Julia and to find out more about her MCM research, find her on LinkedIn, or on Twitter.
Julia Rim Shepard
Julia Rim Shepard
Julia Rim Shepard

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