What Are Your Stakeholders Saying Behind Your Back?

Keeping your backers and advocates “on message” can be challenging

You may feel confident and comfortable about who your nonprofit’s stakeholders are. After all, the members of the Board of Directors did not obtain those slots by accident – what with the legal, fiduciary and ethical obligations involved and all. And your trusty volunteers passed an application, background check and training process with flying colors.

Your stakeholders may love your cause and champion everything the organization stands for. But if the thought of what they may really be saying about your organization keeps you awake at night – then, Houston, we have a problem.

Understanding the Audience

Developing tunnel vision about who your stakeholders are can happen naturally. Sometimes, that myopia comes about as a function of the job. If most of your interactions are with internal senior leaders, then you may begin honing in on them as the sole – or most central – stakeholder. Similarly, someone who works in development likely views donors as her core target stakeholder. Likewise, programs staff may see volunteers in the same light, while most internal departments likely agree that the Board is certainly among the vetted stakeholder ranks.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines stakeholder as “one who is involved in or affected by a course of action.” Thus, while each stakeholder group may represent slightly different interests or be compelled by distinct appeals, each is important and invaluable in their own right.

Marketing and public relations professionals have the benefit – and expectation – of seeing beyond these functional boundaries. Ideally, communications teams should view the stakeholder audience as a pie, with each group getting a slice proportional to their priority status and sphere of influence (or levels of presumed engagement) pertaining to brand, advocacy, reputation and any outward-facing initiatives.

What this means, of course, is that stakeholder audiences are varied and dynamic. Each may be optimized for various objectives. But herein lies part of the messaging conundrum.

Mixed Messages

Multiple stakeholder groups and mixed messages go hand-in-hand. This makes sense when you consider that members of each group may seldom, if ever, cross paths. Stakeholder audiences often operate in a de facto vacuum, wherein key messages are highly specific and customized according to their respective roles, but not focused on the bigger picture. Each may be hearing something similar, at best, or altogether different, at worst.

Those corresponding themes usually manifest, in layman’s terms, as:

Donors: “We appreciate your generosity and thank you for your contribution. Now, please, give us more money.”

Volunteers: “We know that your time is invaluable. Your skills and talent help our operations, programming and services in ways that matter. Now, please, can you spare some additional time serving our organization?”

Executive Management: “Policy, policy, policy. Procedures, procedures, procedures. Budgets, grants and funding. And, oh, by the way, the annual gala is coming up.”

General Staff: “I know what I do, and I realize that Anne in the next cube is working on a major spreadsheet project. But I am out of the loop about other departments’ activities and how all of this gels together for the organization.”

In essence, key stakeholder groups all too often receive – or hear – messages filtered according to their practical functions. They may be hearing the same message differently, or they may, indeed, be receiving different messages. On the latter note, stakeholders may get news that relates centrally to what they do, or what their titles are. But perhaps the dots are not connected to the bigger picture and what it all means as a unified front.

When this happens, the messages these individuals share with external people – friends, coworkers, family members, neighbors, constituents – can get jumbled. The risk inherent in this is the development of an unclear, poorly articulated brand identity and organizational mission.

Start Off on the Right Foot

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. That’s why equipping employees, board members and volunteers with the right tools to communicate effectively on the front end sets the best messaging tone from the start. Incorporate key organizational messages in employee onboarding as well as orientation for volunteers and Board members.

Share interesting anecdotes and stories that propel your nonprofit brand promise effortlessly. Intersperse these with meaningful metrics that show how your organization makes a difference. Make sure your history, vision and mission are articulated, and connected to their functional roles. Provide opportunities for feedback through exercises, group discussions and personal storytelling. Such training experiences, though often required, go far in embedding and sustaining your organization’s message, while building affinity among stakeholders.

Empower Personal Voices

You may have key points that you want stakeholders to memorize and recite, but that’s not always how conversations and communication take place in the real world. Real-life chatter tends to be more organic and extemporaneous. Scripts and Teleprompters do not apply.

After providing your stakeholders with the experiences and tools to communicate well, entrust them to share your organization’s gospel. Empower your stakeholders to carry on your strategic mission and voice, but extend to them the freedom to do so in their own words. “It’s more authentic and passionate, which impacts those with whom they are communicating,” says Vanessa Wakeman, CEO of The Wakeman Agency.

Speak from the Same Hymnal

When various stakeholder groups are getting different messages, communication becomes disjointed. Messaging that is disseminated only by interest group and crafted according only to their particular roles results in the big idea getting lost in translation.

Everyone positively affiliated with a nonprofit should be grounded in its purpose, ideals, goals and vision. No matter their role or title, a shared sense of understanding should be at the heart of what stakeholders think, do and say regarding the organization.

Multiple tactics can be employed that lessen the risk of message confusion and get your stakeholders on the same page. And this can be done without sidetracking them from their respective role-oriented duties and goals. A messaging architecture audit, for example, can help clarify the key points that all of your stakeholders should rally for and be able to communicate effortlessly. Developing persuasive, clear messages that stakeholders are empowered to share goes a long way in maintaining favorable impressions of your nonprofit’s story.

To learn more about messaging and message architecture for your organization, contact The Wakeman Agency at [email protected] or call (212) 500-5953