8 min Read
August 18, 2021

Improve your communications through research and reflection

This blog is adapted from Sarah Durham’s book, The Nonprofit Communications Engine: A Leader’s Guide to Managing Mission-driven Marketing and Communications.

Thoughtful reflection — taking the time and space to learn — helps us learn and grow. It’s a chance to step out of the details and look around, ask ourselves if it’s time to adjust course, stop activities that no longer yield results, and make improvements. For nonprofit communicators and others who manage fast-moving work, a discipline of consistently both looking ahead and looking back helps ensure we stay on track.

Asking the right questions to gain perspective

What do the 30,000-foot, 20,000-foot, and 10,000-foot views of any communications project or initiative look like at your organization? Is it clear where these projects or initiatives are heading? Do they align with the organization’s strategic or annual plans? Do patterns, milestones, and benchmarks emerge? What must be reviewed on a weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annual basis to ensure they stay on course? Bigger-picture questions like these help communicators stay focused and course-correct faster.

Planning, such as writing a project brief or formulating a strategic communications plan, lays the foundation for effective reflection because it articulates goals and desired outcomes. Communications plans can support the organization’s largest goals (typically articulated in its strategic plan), departmental objectives, or specific projects. Many organizations combine something in writing (a brief, spreadsheet, dashboard, or other tool) with interpersonal moments of connection (regular review meetings, debriefs, and other conversations) to reflect on the implementation of and progress against plans.

Once you’ve got a clear plan in place and folks are aligned around it, you have a useful and specific way to reflect on what you set out to achieve and how things stacked up over time.

Nonprofit thought leader Beth Kanter suggests asking the following questions to spark a moment of reflection:

  • What worked well?
  • What did we do really well that we don’t want to forget the next time we do this?
  • What could be improved?
  • What could we change?
  • What didn’t we do that might have worked better?
  • What did we learn?
  • What surprised us?
  • What still puzzles us?
  • What questions are not yet answered?

Questions like these remind a team to revisit its strategy and plans, capture and integrate lessons into its systems for future work, and course-correct if needed. They can also be useful in contexts where there is no plan.

Using research to inform communications strategies

Research helps nonprofit communicators uncover new strategies to achieve their organization’s goals and objectives and illuminate key variables that might otherwise have been overlooked. As social media scientist and marketing expert Dan Zarrella says, “Marketing without data is like driving with your eyes closed.

Consumer companies use all types of data to shape every major business function, from product development to advertising to customer service. For nonprofits, insights about their audiences can help them create needed programs and communicate more effectively.

Effective nonprofit communicators use research to learn about the people they are trying to engage. What inspires them to act? How do they behave? How can we reach them most effectively? Why should they care? While some organizations budget annually to conduct market research, others do so chiefly around strategic planning or other inflection points.

Types of research nonprofit communicators typically use

Effective research begins by challenging your assumptions. How is your organization seen and understood by the people you need to engage to advance your mission? How will they interact with you? What realities impact what they want or need from you? These assumptions are often stated (explicitly or implicitly) in the plans and project briefs communicators develop at the start of a new project, and can be an excellent basis for conducting research.

Research can yield powerful results. Gearing up for a game-changing election in New York City’s mayoral race, the New York City Campaign Finance Board (CFB) engaged Big Duck to conduct a comprehensive mix of qualitative and quantitative research in advance of the June 2021 mayoral primary elections. Big Duck’s research examined how both the Campaign Finance Board and municipal elections generally are viewed by New Yorkers. By listening to and centering the voices of New Yorkers who have historically been underrepresented in local elections (including first-time voters, young voters, recently naturalized citizens, and more), the CFB’s brand strategy and subsequent communications would help all New Yorkers engage more deeply in the 2021 elections. After analyzing the insights and findings from this research, we learned that organizational awareness, ease of access, and information availability among voters were major hurdles. We addressed this by crafting a cohesive brand strategy to more effectively position the organization and its prominent subbrand, NYC Votes, moving forward. The research also helped lay out a clear path for brand architecture—the strategy for organizing and expressing the relationships of an organization’s brands—that could inform the creation or consolidation of related brands, programs, and messages in the future. (Read the full case study here).

If you’re new to conducting research and don’t have a budget to hire an expert like Big Duck, Just Enough Research by Erika Hall (2013, A Book Apart) is a straightforward, easy-to-read guide to research written for communicators. Hall articulates the types of research communicators typically conduct:

  • Generative or exploratory research, which helps you identify ideas and insights, such as field observation, literature review, or interviews
  • Descriptive and explanatory research, which helps you understand how people behave, often in qualitative ways
  • Evaluative research, which helps you test what’s working and what’s not, such as usability testing or benchmarking
  • Causal research, which helps you theorize why something is happening, such as looking at your website’s analytics to explore where visitors are coming from

At the start of any significant new initiative or at key junctures along the way, pressure-test your team’s assumptions (which may be rooted in implicit or explicit bias or misinformation) with research. Use it to confirm or debunk your team’s assumptions, define the intangible, and illuminate the best path forward.

Testing, a powerful form of evaluative research communicators often use, can also improve results by helping you incrementally tweak the elements that inspire people to respond and engage. Will more people complete your donation landing page when there is a photograph at the top or if there are no photos? Will their average gift size change as a result? Do more people open your e-news when the subject line of the email features topic A or B?

Turning data into insight

When Suzanne Shaw, director of communications for the Union of Concerned Scientists, sought to expand their engagement team, she hired a data analyst who reports to the director of engagement. Having in-house data analysis allows the communications team to regularly review and report the results of their work. In an organization that includes many scientists, this analysis increases the communications team’s credibility with peers in other departments.

Not all organizations need data scientists or people with advanced technical skills who can build complex algorithms on staff, however. Communications staff and their peers in programs, development, and other departments can collaborate to ask key questions, make sure that the data they capture and use is stored and maintained effectively, and create moments of reflection that yield insights. They might also collaborate with internal or external evaluators.

Your organization’s programs, development, and other data can be used to:

  • Compare your organization’s results to peers’. Are your outcomes comparable to, greater than, or less than those of other organizations? Are you crushing it or falling short of the industry? One great resource you can use to see how you stack up is the M + R Benchmarks report.
  • Measure results. Did you achieve what you set out to do? Is the work moving the needle?

Enlisting communicators to assist with data analysis can help your organization gather insights from a specific department’s work and leverage them organization-wide. Effective communicators can translate these lessons into audience profiles and mindsets, craft brand assets that are more compelling, and share lessons learned with other departments.

Aggregating data into scorecards and dashboards

Each department in a nonprofit has its own key performance indicators (KPIs) and metrics. Fundraisers track retention rates, lifetime value, and other data that illuminates donors’ behavior, commitment, and engagement. Program staff track how many people apply, accept, attend, and return. Communicators, whose success is dependent on other departments achieving their goals, are uniquely positioned to share insights organization-wide and to report on overall engagement with the mission. Communications may also track external awareness of the organization and its mission more generally, measuring how well-known and understood the brand is.

Dashboards and scorecards provide perspective for moments of constructive reflection by revealing patterns and shifts in KPIs over time. By reviewing measurable data about how people are engaging on a weekly or monthly basis, your team can identify what’s working well and where improvements could be made, and spot trends when things change.

CFLeads helps community foundations build strong communities by advancing effective practices, sharing knowledge, and galvanizing action on critical issues of our time. They track engagement with their mission in a multilayered dashboard built in an Excel spreadsheet using data from event RSVPs and attendance, new and returning funders, and content performance. It’s a simple, low-tech tool that’s fast and easy to maintain. (Read more about our work with CFLeads).

The communications team at the American Friends Service Committee developed a digital dashboard that pulls data from varied sources throughout the organization and expresses engagement visually. Quantifying how people build mindshare and take action on behalf of AFSC helps them identify strengths and opportunities for growth organization-wide. American Friends Service Committee’s communications and programs teams also hold quarterly meetings to review their KPIs, reflect together, and make new plans or adjust their communications for the upcoming quarter.

Nonprofit communications dashboards typically rely on data from owned media (website, social media, and email activity in particular) and fundraising and programs CRM systems. An abundance of free dashboard templates from Google, CRM systems, and other software companies can jump-start the process of setting up dashboards.

Make evaluation a regular practice

Effective communicators define their organization’s most important engagement indicators collaboratively with each department, then track and report on them regularly. Creating a discipline of weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual measuring and reporting within your communications team will help ensure that everyone is clear about how effectively their work is reaching and engaging the people who will advance the mission.