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3 min Read
February 28, 2020

Strategies to avoid bias when defining your nonprofit’s audiences

A core part of smart communications is defining the groups you need to reach to advance your mission. Audience profiles or personas do just that. They are tools that define a segment of your audience––who they are in connection to your work, what they care about, how to best reach them, and more. For example, a university may have a profile for a first-year student whose motivations, behaviors, and communications preferences differ from a third-year student. 

Audience definition is powerful. But in creating a profile of a specific group, we open ourselves up to the potential for bias––conscious and unconscious attitudes and stereotypes towards people or groups. Senongo Akpem summarizes the connection between audience definition and bias, particularly in the case of creating website personas:

“They can reduce complex communities and motivations down to a few lines, and since they are created by designers, can be weighted toward answering the problems we want to solve, rather than the problems actual audiences have.” 

There are a few specific steps you can take to reduce bias, be objective, and create profiles that  are truly reflective of your community. 

1. Base your profiles on research––and ensure you’re researching a sample that substantively reflects your community. Often, creating personas or profiles starts with a bit of research to hear directly from your audience about who they are. Who you choose to include in the research impacts who gets represented in your audience definition. Ensure that your profile is based on more than one person––ideally at least five––so that it reflects themes, not one person’s voice. Your research should also include several perspectives––if you’re learning about donors, be sure you’re not just speaking with those who make large contributions. 

At Big Duck, we’re also proponents of using surveys to hear from a broader base. Interviewing a few people connected to your work is a start, but a survey ensures that the themes you hear from a few people hold up––or don’t––when you ask a larger group of people. 

For more tips on conducting research that is inclusive, diverse, and equitable, check out this post by Big Duck’s Director of Strategy, Ally Dommu. 

2. Remove opportunities for bias within the profiles themselves. A typical template for an audience profile will include things like age, gender, race, location, and more. The  goal of including those things is to help communicators “picture” who they’re writing or designing for. However, including them allows the communicator’s bias about specific demographics to creep in. For example, a communicator may assume that a younger persona will be more tech savvy than an older persona––even if our conversations with audience members don’t confirm that. To avoid this, we suggest…

    1. Using psychographics instead of demographics: focus on psychographics––values, motivations, and beliefs––as these not only leave less room for bias, they are more effective in compelling communications. We know  that people’s beliefs and values are often what drive them to take action, so defining audience groups with those in mind can lead to engaging communications.
    2. Removing photos and names: audience profiles often include names for the persona (e.g., First Year Student Sally) and a photo to help you visualize your audience. Like demographics, these can lead to the racial bias, gender bias, and more that we’re striving to avoid. Get rid of your photos and use a non-gendered name (e.g., First Year Student).

3. Check your assumptions by having others review any audience definition you land on. Everyone brings individual bias to work they create, which is why having more than one set of eyes on something can help to ensure its as objective as possible. Consider running any profile you create past other staff members––perhaps those that interact most with the audience you’re defining. You can also circle back to the audience group themselves and invite them to weigh in on the general themes in your audience profile to confirm or deny if they feel reflective. 

Ultimately, in defining your audience it’s important to listen first and be open. When we create communications tools that are rooted in what we hear from our community and allow our assumptions to be challenged, we not only create something that reduces bias, we create something useful––because it’s truly reflective of the people connected to us.