Nonprofits: What is your audience thinking?

02/08/2022 12:39 PM | Anonymous

By Emily Taylor, ACN Member

When people support your mission, you can make the world a better place. If you want to see a change for better in this world you can’t do it alone, you need collaboration with a variety of stakeholdersbe they donors, program participants, or other supporters. This type of complex collaboration requires listening. How often are you intently listening to your constituents? They hold a wealth of information that can help you build momentum for your work.

What do we learn by listening?

When you listen to your people, you can learn what motivates them, how they connect to your mission, and what gaps they have in understanding your work. It gives you context for all that data you’ve collected. Why did someone make that last donation? What competing priorities do they have that affects how they engage with us? How do they decide to participate with our organization? When you know this information, it can help you guide people closer to your organization in a more meaningful waybeyond email automations and TikTok videos.

What are some methods for listening?

Knowing the tools of listening can help prepare you for it—whether you decide to listen yourself or hire a professional. Below are some of the methods I use most that can be tailored to gather quick or more in-depth feedback.

Interviews: This is my favorite method. Have an in-depth conversation with people about your organization. Try to get to the “why” of how they made a decision that affects your organization. A survey can answer how well they liked a program but, in an interview, you have the opportunity to answer why they liked it AND why that matters to them. These can be done occasionally as convenient over a defined period of time or more in-depth with set questions with a strategic population.

Casual Conversations: Similar to interviews, this can be a few questions you ask at the end of another conversation, be it a coffee or program. It is an easy way to build on already having someone’s attention. They can be one-on-one or in a trusted group and is also a great way to build relationships with these stakeholders.

Surveys: Short, informal surveys allow you to capture people’s thoughts more frequently throughout the year, which is especially important during unpredictable times. Surveys are not great at predicting people’s behaviors, but you can gather a sense of what people are currently doing and preferences for new program ideas. Include open-ended questions to listen for perspectives you might not have thought to ask about.

A/B Testing: Not every way of listening needs to be through your ears, you can also observe how people react to two slightly different approaches. For example, you could initiate two fundraising campaigns, each with a different story or visual about your need, with one going to 50% of your audience and the other to the other half. Observe which story or message led more people to make a donation. Over time, you can see which stories, images, or calls to action are more impactful with your audience.

Observing: Similar to testing, observing how people behave in a situation can also tell you about them. Do they seem to be interested in only parts of your program (virtual or in-person)? Are they registering but not attending? These are forms of communication and if you need more information on why they are doing them, it might make sense to follow up with a survey or short interview.

Where do I start?

If you could reach into your audience’s brain, what would you want to know? If you don’t know the answer to this question, take a step back before you start listening and create a goal. For instance, if you want to better understand why someone isn’t engaging more in a program, you’ll want to ask them questions that help you listen for barriers to them attending or learning about it—not about their giving or other engagements.

Whether you go all in on listening to your audience or start slowly, the benefits to listening are great—a better understanding of how your audience views your organization and a clear picture of how to engage them. It lays the foundation for building your strong coalition to make the world a better place.

Emily Taylor is the principal of teenyBIG, which uses Strategic Listening to engage nonprofit audiences. Learn more at

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