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Imagine Canada

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Public Engagement and How to Get It Right

Tuesday, August 15, 2017
Guest Writers
Sector Research
Julia Rim Shepard

It’s not a surprise that organizations who engage key audiences in meaningful ways benefit from greater commitment and trust. True public engagement occurs when stakeholders’ views and concerns are used to help an organization make better decisions in conducting business. But how do we do it effectively and make the most of our ever-stretched resources?

There are several reasons to engage stakeholders, including the enhancement of an organization’s reputation, and various writings detail to how to do it well.  Lessons can also be borrowed from for-profit business strategists, particularly in how to balance various stakeholders’ needs against your own organization’s to achieve stronger, better outcomes.

As we try and grow the number of people engaged with our causes and increase financial and non-financial support in this current competitive climate, effective public engagement and the building of trust is not optional, but a requirement. Within public engagement one finds an inherent openness that can help meet the demand for transparency often required of nonprofits, helping diminish the chasm of distrust.

Nonprofit professionals believe they are doing engagement well

Recently I conducted surveys and in-depth interviews with almost 130 public relations, marketing and fundraising professionals and senior leaders and found that the majority – as high as 95% – felt their engagement with key audiences was effective (download the findings below, available in English). Measures of success varied: positive feedback, more volunteers, and raising more funds were all mentioned. Eighty per cent indicated their organizations invested a considerable amount of time hearing from key external audiences. Ninety per cent felt they enjoyed high trust from key audiences and a large majority said their audiences were committed to them.

True public engagement?

The most striking finding was in the area of mutual influence, a form of two-way engagement. While many practitioners said they spent time on public engagement and were doing it well, few were letting audiences influence business decisions. The percentage was as low as 30% in some cases. According to public relations scholars Hon and Grunig (1999), power imbalances are recognized but influence should exist for all parties. It appears that what leaders may believe is real engagement could merely be a peripheral or cursory level of interaction.

Therefore, to practice effective engagement, here are a few tips that may help:

  • Know your audiences well. Almost all the interviewees named donors as an important audience to engage, as well as governments as a close second. Employees, volunteers, policy-makers, the media, board members, and various other segments should be included as well.
  • Make sure everyone is trained in public engagement. Some believe that only the CEO and communications or marketing functions are responsible for this, but relationship management should be embedded everywhere. Creating ambassadors inside out is the most effective way to go. Supplying key messages to staff and helping them understand how to receive, analyze and escalate feedback is a must.
  • Establish listening channels. This means creating several ways for audiences to tell you what they think. Consider mail drops, website surveys, face-to-face interactions, call centre phone lines, focus groups, social media councils - aided or unaided, the feedback is what matters.
  • Do more than ask for money. Research shows that when key audiences know what an organization is up to, they generally trust them more.  Tell them what you’re working on, invite them to special events, let them celebrate your successes and maybe even help them understand your challenges.
  • Get your house in order. Those engaging the public can’t clearly articulate the organization’s vision, mission and values if they’re not sure what they are. Stewarding organizational resources responsibly and showing positive results is also a must. Don’t forget to follow professional standards so that you can show your audiences you’ve done your homework.

Into the Future

We need to remind ourselves that while the economy seems to be picking up, the future isn’t fully rainbow-bright. To cultivate lifelong supporters, we need to find ways to keep audiences walking alongside us. Research shows community engagement can start in early years and continue as young people pursue work opportunities in the nonprofit sector, consistent with their values. Organizations can shift their focus to engage this audience as well as many others.

Many of the CEOs I spoke with highlighted qualities necessary to be successful in engaging the public in the future. “Collaborative”, “outward-focused”, and “the ability to listen” were some that stayed with me. A good reminder for us all as we think about engaging our audiences and fostering more trust.

Download the report (EN)

About the Author

Julia Rim ShephardJulia 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 find out more about her MCM research, you can reach her on LinkedIn, or on Twitter.

Guest contributions represent the personal opinions and insights of the authors and may not reflect the views or opinions of Imagine Canada.

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