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Unfettered opinions abound in this fast-paced, connected world. It seems as if everyone has a blog, a Twitter, a Facebook page, etc., each platform acting as a host for one's thoughts on everything from coffee to healthcare reform. And even more importantly all of these perspectives, thoughts, and insights can be instantaneously and broadly shared. The ability to share and connect has undeniably proved to be an incredible asset to social movements, especially movements that lack a privileged institutional voice. Communities – no matter their social standing – are able to mobilize and unify on large scales like never before.
On the other hand, every organization, institution, and individual is now up for public debate at any time, and nonprofit organizations are not exempt from this public scrutiny either. In fact, I’d argue they are some of the most likely to endure it. Supporters, advocates, and donors are dedicating energy, effort, and funds to your organization, and their commitment to you demonstrates their commitment to the change they’d like to see you make in the world – it’s no wonder that they want their voice to be heard. However, sometimes it can feel like too many cooks in the kitchen.
Your organization wants to make an impact on the world while serving your constituents and your supporters, but this connected world often demands that you accommodate an incredible variety of perspectives and hopes – some of which conflict with one another.
The core constituency of an organization is comprised of those directly connected to the cause, but each constituent arrives with vastly different experiences and thus, vastly different priorities about the impact they’d like to see the organization make. To illustrate, there’s a specific dynamic that I’ve encountered with various client organizations, typically in the health space:
For many illnesses, patients are placed on a spectrum that represents the severity of their illness, are diagnosed at different times in their lives, or become ill via different causes, causing multiple segments within one group of impacted individuals to surface.
This dynamic of a divided constituency can show up in various ways and in all types of organizations – even those outside of the health space – and can make creating a concise, inclusive, and inspiring message very difficult.
Each segment may have their own agenda and priorities for the organization. This difference in opinion transcends your constituent pool and applies to your donor base as well, which is why it is crucial to remember that your donors are not blank slates. Each donor has a preconceived idea of your organization’s values and priorities. In order to best serve your constituents, it is imperative to understand their starting point in the conversation. It is powerful to put yourself in their shoes, especially when they are upset.
Take time to understand why the different groups in your constituency feel the way they do. I’m looking at you, front-line communications and development staff. It can be easy to fall into the trap of seeing critical feedback of your organization’s work as an annoyance. I urge you to suspend that judgment in order to better understand the people you serve.
Know that you don’t need to speak to, or for, all groups, but you do need to be sure you’re not being hurtful. It is not your duty to speak for all groups that care about the issue your organization is focused on. In fact, you’d probably do a pretty poor job if you tried. But as an advocate and ally for your constituents, it is your duty to be sure you’re not being hurtful. You do not need to dilute your message to the point where it has no impact or power, but you do need to know the stories, mentalities, and priorities of your constituents well enough to avoid doing them harm. This may seem obvious, but having tunnel vision around one segment of your audience without being aware of the varying perspectives within your donor base, can often cause you to unintentionally exclude, and sometimes offend, those outside of your focus.
Your success as a fundraising professional depends upon your ability to establish more relationships with new donors, rekindle relationships that have cooled, and most importantly, to continue the development and nourishment of relationships that are healthy and effective. This path to creating strong and engaged relationships is paved with intention, understanding, and a consciousness for your donor's perspectives and needs.