How do you get to the heart of what’s true and meaningful to your constituents?
It’s very easy. It’s also very difficult.
The easy part is simply to listen. As the old adage goes, “you have two ears and one mouth; use them in that proportion.” Sadly, that’s also the difficult part. Because, too often, we think we know more than we do. So we don’t look too closely. We make a lot of assumptions. And assumptions lead to a closed door.
Too often we don’t genuinely invite response or commentary. So there is nothing for us to listen to. Opinion frequently trumps knowledge. We say “I know what our donors think and care about better than anyone.” Or the boss says “This is the way it’s going to happen. Period.”
Too often those around us let us get away with this sloppy, self-validating approach.
If you think this may be happening at your organization, read on to see why this can be so damaging to your long-term success.
Do you surround yourself with insiders who validate your opinions?
Pretty soon opinion becomes truth (or some halfway approximation thereof). If all you consider is your own perspective and your own side you can easily miss the forest for the trees.
The problem with living in a world of half-truths is that it blinds you. When you become so caught up in the purity and goodness of your mission (as you see it), you can miss the black swans that can have a huge impact on your very survival. When you concentrate on things you already know, failing to consider what you don’t know, you can fail to estimate, and therefore seize on, opportunities. You miss the boat, the plane and the train.
There’s no excuse for accepting half-truths in today’s environment. Never in history have so many had the chance to know what so many others are thinking on such a wide range of subjects. The digital revolution has fundamentally changed the equation. Markets are getting smarter, faster. If you’re not getting smarter, you’re losing ground.
Make it your business to search for the whole truth, and nothing but.
This is the heart of a culture of philanthropy and a donor-centered approach to fundraising and marketing communications. Look for what fundamentally matters to your constituents. Not what you think should matter.
It’s not your show. It’s your constituents’ show. You exist to serve. When you succeed, others will join you. As volunteers and philanthropists and advocates. Yet this won’t happen absent true communication and dialogue. And it won’t happen if you think what’s been written thus far in this article is just platitudes. This is about building genuine good will.
Rather than asking only what your supporters can do for you, what about asking what you can do for them? Heck, while you’re at it, what about asking what you can do for other staff on your team? Your entire team, not just your department. It honestly doesn’t take much to destroy your nonprofit’s reputation as a force for goodness in the world. And one of the surest ways to fail is through one-sided communication.
Communication should be an other-centered CONVERSATION.
Let’s dissect what is meant by communication. It’s fundamentally a two-way process of reaching mutual understanding, in which participants not only exchange (encode-decode) information but also create and share meaning. Words and commonly understood definitions matter. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum, absent input (exchange, creation and sharing of meaning) from all parts of the organization – from top to bottom, from inside to outside. And it doesn’t happen without exceptional strategic thinking and planning.
Take your nonprofit communications plan seriously. Both internally and externally. It should be about relating to something. Be authentic. Don’t respond to questions, comments and concerns like a robot. Don’t use canned messages. Talk to your audience like they’re your friends. And invite feedback and participation.
Don’t be a closed system.
Open your ears, hearts and minds. You need to be an information exchanger. It’s no longer about you – what you think, what you feel, what you do, and what you think others should think, feel and do. It’s no longer a monologue. It’s got to be a dialogue. And you need to put in place the tools that enable a flow of conversation and engagement.
The era of the consumer moron is over. The internet has made it possible for constituents to learn all about you, and all about your competition; they don’t have to hear it directly from you. They’re not blind, and you can’t pull one over on them. They’re smart, informed and discerning. They don’t care about you as an institution. They care about what you do, what you offer, and what you stand for.
Your brand promise is paramount. It’s the essence of your mission, vision and values all wrapped up together. The strongest brands embrace and reflect the current needs and aspirations of their supporters:
- Make a promise;
- Stand by your promise;
- Communicate what you stand for with a simple, clear message, and
- Motivate people to take action.
You can’t just tell your truth; you must be it.
Telling is only half of the story. The other half comes from your constituents. Those who rely upon you and support you. Unlike the time prior to the digital world of empowered consumers, you can’t simply decide upon your promise and then say this is who you are. Any more than you can pre-determine what your constituents care about and then attempt to deliver with half shut eyes. Not to mention closed ears. Half-truth-based thinking and communicating leads to mushy branding and inconsistent, often irrelevant communications.
Nonprofits don’t have needs; they meet them. Never forget this. And never get complacent. Constantly check in with folks to search for today’s truths. What do people think about how you’re doing your job? Is there something else they think you should be doing? What’s the full story for your organization’s mission, vision and values today, not yesterday?
There are right ways and wrong ways to search for the truth.
There is deliberative, and there is defiant. One way is thoughtful and according to a strategic plan; another is opinionated, rigid and often uninformed. One way seeks input from many sources; another makes self-aggrandizing speeches. One way is persuasive; another puts people on their guard. Which way does your organization, and your leadership, search for and tell its truth?
The whole truth will, as it is said, set you free.
What’s your biggest challenge finding the other half of the truth?
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