Trend Spotters: Raising Awareness for Your Nonprofit Organization

Richard M. Clerkin and Joanne G. Carman
Richard M. Clerkin and Joanne G. Carman

Joanne G. Carman and Richard M. Clerkin

November 19, 2012 – The Institute for Nonprofits at N.C. State University has launched a new project called Trend Spotters. The purpose of Trend Spotters is to gather real-time information about the issues facing small and medium sized nonprofit organizations in North Carolina.

The first survey of Trend Spotters asked the more than 200 participants what it was like to raise awareness about their nonprofit over the last two years. The responses were decidedly mixed. Sixty percent of the nonprofit organizations reported that it was easier (or about the same) to raise awareness. These organizations were more likely to rate electronic media, such as Facebook, email, websites, electronic newsletters and Twitter as being highly effective strategies for raising awareness for their organization.

Many noted the “cost prohibitive” expense of mass mailings, graphic design and other print services they can no longer afford. “We are limited to what we can get done free of charge,” wrote one Trend Spotter.

They were also more likely view hosting events for the public as a highly effective strategy for raising awareness. “We have had a great response in getting the people to the agencies we serve through personal tours,” wrote one respondent. “Our mayor has been a great support and to date we have taken over 50 people out to our agencies, who in turn are spreading the word.”

Not surprisingly, the organizations reporting that it has been more challenging to raise awareness described a number of challenges, including the lack of funding, staff and time to devote to outreach and public awareness. “We don’t even have a budget to do annual reports,” wrote one agency, while another lamented that it lacks “staff to even keep the website up to date.” Echoing a common theme, another Trend Spotter wrote that “so much time is spent on serving those in need, there is no time to spend on raising awareness about our cause.”

They also described challenges associated with having greater competition in the marketplace, the need to differentiate their organization from others through brand awareness, complexities associated with sending targeted messages to different audiences, and challenges in finding support for their cause. “There is a large part of our community that [isn’t] connected to us electronically and who also don’t read the paper or listen to the radio,” noted one agency. “Can’t figure out how to connect to them.” Another wished for “a media outlet that reaches all of our clientele.”

Among all of the survey respondents, few identified television coverage, radio coverage and disseminating annual reports as being highly effective for raising awareness about their organization. For some, it was lack of media located in their small or rural communities; for others, it came down to cost. “With budget reductions, we’ve been forced to reduce administrative staff, which means those of us working have taken on more responsibilities,” wrote one organization. “Prioritizing funding for outreach activities with reduced budgets is an added difficulty.”

“Unfortunately, while raising awareness is one of those things that should rise to the top of the to-do lists,” wrote another, “it is often the last thing that is given attention.”

In a report issued last week on donor perspectives, Blackbaud states that it pays for nonprofits to make increased awareness a top-of-list priority. “By making it easier for donors to learn about their organization, keeping them informed about their donation’s impact and providing multiple methods for donating, nonprofits can potentially improve their fundraising,” said Dennis McCarthy, Blackbaud’s vice president of strategy.

In “Getting the Word Out,” Christopher Keevil (2012) describes how it can be hard for nonprofit organizations to attract interest and support, especially those trying to address complex problems and providing multiple services. He suggests a four-pronged approach that involves:

  1. Identifying the core element (or central issue) at the root of the complex problem and creating a brand around that core theme.
  2. Enlisting and actively engaging major donors in the work that you do (e.g., He suggests that you seek out their opinions and expertise, or involve them in work groups).
  3. Developing a board with influential people who help connect your organization to the people and institutions you need to engage. (e.g., One way to do this is to establish a board development committee to identify influential new board members).
  4. Building visibility among a targeted audience and focusing on those who are most likely to be interested in your organization and provide support (i.e., Government agencies, other service providers and community leaders).

While nonprofit organizations seem to have more opportunities to get the word out, given the rise of digital age and social media, they should take Keevil’s advice:  Remember to use a targeted approach and deeply engage your supporters to help foster long-term interest and support.

Keevil, C. (Spring, 2012). Getting the word outStanford Social Innovation Review. 19-20.

Joanne G. Carman is an Associate Professor in the Political Science and Public Administration Department at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. Her teaching and research focuses on program evaluation and nonprofit management, and she is the Coordinator of the Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Management. Richard M. Clerkin is an Associate Professor in the Public Administration Department at N.C. State University. His teaching and research focuses on philanthropy and management and he is the Director of the Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Management.

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