Outreach for Non-Profits: Best Practices for Beginners

Digital Outreach Strategies

Update: This post has an update at the end of the article. Please do check out the questions sent in by readers and my responses to these. Thank you!

As a web producer for a non-profit organization, one of my primary responsibilities is to reach out to our constituency and help them make use of information we produce. I work with an advocacy initiative promoting digital accessibility for persons with disabilities and our demographic includes persons working with non-profits, government departments and ministries, disability rights activists, ICT / accessibility and assistive technology experts, along with CEOs and program managers of Fortune 500 companies – from around the world.

The information that we disseminate to our readers and supporters is a mix of case studies, reports, white papers and publications, country data, telecommunications statistics, and blogs written by experts in the industry. It might sound simple: send the data to all our stakeholders and encourage them to support our cause. In practice, this outreach requires strategic planning.

I define outreach as:

“a custom plan designed and deployed to reach out to all stakeholders of an organization with a view to amplify organizational presence across multiple channels over a sustained period of time leading to measurable change in reputation, reach and impact”

Here’s my list of top 5 best practices for digital outreach for non-profits: 

1. Map Your Audience

Non-profit constituents: conceptual map

Without a keen sense of “who” you are reaching out to, your message is as good as lost. Its akin to sending out radio signals in space, hoping that some alien species will receive the code and communicate with you – across the time, distance and space!

When I began work with my non-profit organization, my first plan of action was to draw up a map of our constituency. This requires a fair of time and discussions with the head of your organization, communications director, PR / marketing and sales team (if you do have these additional resources). Typically, a constituency database is drafted on an Excel worksheet and features names, preferred mode of contact, country, detailed contact information, area of expertise, and social media handle.

  • The list needs updating every 6-8 months. In the digital age, contact information changes at the speed of light.
  • Check for relevance, Are people on your list still operating in the same field and working with the same subject.
  • Cross-link individual stakeholders. Persons who collaborate with your organization can be drafted in to work with you on multiple levels and across several channels.

Beginning with the organization at the center point, a constituency map connects outwards to take into consideration various target audiences: readers, potential website visitors, supporters, donors, collaborators, partners, peer and industry network, experts, corporate sponsors, and media relations.

2. Support Your Supporters

The adage, ‘Don’t just talk, listen,’ is the first commandment of social media marketing and outreach for all stakeholders in digital media. We know that one of the first rules of embarking on a social media strategy for your organization is to not just post news and links about your work, but also taking the effort to listen in to the community who supports you. I am asking you to go a step beyond that: be the cheerleader of your supporters!

It’s not just enough to follow them back on all the social media platforms that they are on. The most that organizations do is Retweet a message or say a generic ‘Thank you to all our new followers’. But that doesn’t lend any measurable credit to your sponsor, expert blogger or donor. It also doesn’t provide any value to the new follower.

In case of collaborators, sponsors and donors, support their work, amplify their voice, highlight the projects that they are investing in. In short, be the wind beneath their wings. This involves taking an active interest in your stakeholder’s work and promoting it in a relevant manner. Supporting your supporters (work) is the most efficient – and easy – way to earn their respect. You can definitely expect their support when you want to promote a specific event, blog or report.

In case of new followers: thank them, of course, but also let them know how their follow or support is helping you push your cause. Also, take the opportunity to highlight a latest report that could be of use to their specific background and ask them if you can help support their work in any way.

3. Design Your Data

All the content of your website and your offline resources are not to be dumped via newsletters to your subscribers! Design your data to suit specific stakeholders. This is especially applicable if you are a non-profit with multiple campaigns on your roster or if you have multiple programs catering to varied demographics. The best way to go about this is to ask all website visitors whether they would like to sign up for updates, and if yes, would they prefer generic news or more specific issues that focus on one of the several programs.

For instance, if you are an organization working on human rights, it would make sense to have categoric, weekly emails on child’s rights abuse, or labor rights abuse, or violence against women issues – and a general one clubbing all the three into one, offering only crucial updates. Not all your supporters and subscribers would be interested or be dealing with the larger topic of  human rights. Since you already have a segmented subscriber list now, you can work on these issue-specific newsletter once a month or as a quarterly.

The weekly email round-up could feature news, events, reports, and special publications that all your subscribers would be interested in. This newsletter would be more organization-centric, that is, focused more on the events or reports your organization organized, news from partner / sister organizations, how your sponsors have supported your endeavors, and mainly, an editorial highlighting important news that week.

Yes, as a non-profit, resources are scarce, budget is tight and there isn’t enough time to personalize data for every group on your list. But think about this as an investment towards a future where you can count on supporters who have chosen to support a particular program; you have already built a relationship with them by catering to their interests. You can be sure to count on their support too!

4. Make Your Experts the Brand Ambassadors

Brand ambassador

I learnt this the hard way. I am the only resource handling social media outreach for my non-profit and at one point, I had the unpleasant feeling of being in the head space of an octopus! I believed I had to be everywhere, monitoring all channels and conversations, be on top of the feedback-response loop, and also manage new visitors and digital partnerships. An assistant would have been a welcome addition to our outreach efforts, but I got saved by the next, best thing: brand ambassadors.

A couple of months into my job, I saw that a few of my organization’s seasoned collaborators and contributing experts went out of their way to champion our cause. These are industry pros – experts who have been in the field for decades, who understand the subject, have huge followers, and know how to leverage a platform to highlight information.

When we brought them on board as ‘unofficial’ brand ambassadors, we experienced visible increase in our followers, increased sharing of our information and more vocal support of our organization’s work. In return, we cross-promote the work of our ambassadors and ensure that they play a prominent role in the events we organize. Win-Win deal!

5. Contextual Interventions: Time, Place and People

Context is King

Knowing when to promote what information with the right audience is key to a successful outreach plan. This best practices neatly ties up Point 1 (Map Your Audience), Point 2 (Support Your Supporters), Point 3 (Design Your Data), and Point 4 (Make Your Experts the Brand Ambassadors).

  • WHAT + WITH: Take an effort to know your followers, email subscribers, collaborators, and supporters (donors, sponsors, partners). This best practice is analogous to the one I highlighted in my post on ‘Social Media Strategy for Non-Profits: Best Practices for Beginners: read as much as you can about your industry, so that you know what information to promote. In the same way, knowing as much as you can about your followers, would allow you to tailor your content to what they want. This isn’t a vague and generic best practice, but an absolute must-do for any social media strategist and non-profit who would like to have loyal supporters.
  • WHEN: Maintain an events calendar for your social media outreach efforts. Keep up-to-date on the anniversaries, important days and annual celebratory and festive occasions so that you can promote specific content on the special days. For example, World Health Day, International Day of Persons with Disabilities, World Telecommunications and Information Society Day are some that apply to my organization’s and audience interests.
  • I don’t lend much credence to the practice of tweeting at particular times of the day or posting updates on Facebook on certain days. However, I do make an effort to schedule tweets twice a day, as you cannot predict when your target audience decides to log in and share news. With many NGOs having global constituency and worldwide partners, it doesn’t make sense to stick to a time zone for sharing information, especially if it’s current or live. That is why the weekly newsletter is your BEST FRIEND when it comes to reaching out to all stakeholders.

Do share some of your Outreach for Non-Profits Best Practices in the Comments below. Thank you for reading and spreading the word!

Stay tuned for the next installment in this series: Social Media Strategy for Non-Profits: Advanced Guide, where you can read about event promotion, soliciting feedback from audience and measurement on social media.

Also see: Social Media Strategy for Non-Profits: Best Practices for Beginners

Question from Reader 1: Nilofar, thank you for the valuable summary. Besides mapping your audience, what kind of research do you do at your organization to understand your audience?

My response: As a non-profit, we also conduct periodic surveys of our supporting organizations to understand their expectations from us and our content. This survey includes multiple choice response-based questions based on whether they have attended our events, or downloaded reports or interacted on our website.

Secondly, Google Analytics has helped us tremendously to understand where our audience comes from and how do they engage with specific sections of our online services. We can now tailor specific portions of our website, highlight content and group related material on webpages because we have analytics report giving us insights into audience behavior.

There have been cases where it’s difficult for us to reach out to certain target audiences because they are not on any of the most widely used social communications channel (including email!). For these audience, we have to rely on partner organizations in the region to pass on the word.

Question from Reader 2: Nilofar – very nice piece of work – have you had specific experience with LinkedIn vs Facebook and for non-profits can you advise on pros/cons for each?

Thank you for your comment! Yes, our audience interacts with our services and content on Facebook and LinkedIn differently. Both these platforms have different kinds of readers and different expectations. I have observed that Facebook readers want news-worthy, heroic, sensational, quote-worthy, inspiring feature stories, basically content that is more human-interest oriented so that it is worth sharing among friends and friends-of-friends. Facebook is a space to interact with and keep track of your hobbies, interests and news relevant to sports, celebrities, weather, politics, etc, so case studies, reports, statistics, and other dry content doesn’t garner many views or engagement.

On the other hand, when users log on to LinkedIn, they expect it to reflect a professional, serious, international-news based platform where they can share information with industry peers. Users would like to have content that they can leverage to showcase their interest in current affairs. Therefore, LinkedIn users are more receptive of data-heavy information, advice, presentations, and downloadable content, guides and polls.

Based on your mission and the kind of audience you want to reach out to, I would advise a non-profit to make its presence felt on both the social media platforms. On LinkedIn, you could kickstart a group and post discussions – which you would not (and should not) post on Facebook and Twitter. On Facebook (and Pinterest), focus on images / photos, inspiring stories of your organization’s work, team members, testimonials from your community, and other related news about your cause.

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