You Are Not Your Target Audience

Putting aside for a moment whether we should call them “target audiences” or not, it’s always good to remember that, as a nonprofit communicator or fundraiser, you are very rarely the kind of person that you are trying to communicate with. Even if you match the demographics, the fact that you are employed by your cause sets you apart in major ways from those who are not. Therefore, what you personally think about your fundraising letter, or your e-newsletter’s design, or what so-and-so wants to put on your nonprofit’s Facebook page is not nearly as important as what the people on the receiving end will think about it.

Always, always, always do your best to put yourself in their shoes. It’s tough. It takes research, and listening, and practice.  But you can do it. And when you have people around you who are a closer match than you are to that kind of supporter, listen and trust your peers, even if they have less nonprofit experience than you do.

Take, for example, the case of a small nonprofit that is thinking about hosting a fundraiser that will appeal to younger African-American women, as this is a demographic that the group would like to be able to connect with more for numerous reasons, including advocacy, education, and fundraising. This particular organization is blessed to have younger African-American women on its board of directors who are chairing this event.

Now, there are several others on the board who are not members of this target audience, primarily white men and women of various ages, most significantly older. Some are questioning whether this event makes sense at all. Will anyone come? Are we charging the right amount? Does the program make sense? In a nutshell, they are worried, because they can’t see themselves or anyone they spend much time with attending this event. They are afraid.

Should that matter? Should it affect the decisions that are made about the event?

All too often, I think it does end up mattering, and entirely too much. I think well-meaning but ultimately culturally clueless people end up squashing the marketing and fundraising ideas of people who are actually much closer to those target audiences — ideas that could work really well were they given the full support of the organization.

In this case, I would argue (and have in the real life version of this scenario) that it’s better to trust the judgement of people who are closest to the target audience to make the big decisions. Certainly there are lots of tactical and logistical questions where age and experience are extremely helpful, and those words of wisdom should always be shared. But on the big, core decisions about an event or a marketing campaign, I’d say empower the people who are most like — or who have invested enough of themselves to truly understand — those you are trying to reach.

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  • Guest

    Timely point for us–our long-standing non-profit is marking an anniversary, and our Board wants to make this a major feature of our fund-rasing strategy this year–but why should anyone care besides those of us who work here? It doesn’t change what we do or what we’re known for. I can just hear our constituents saying, “so what?”

    • The Chronicle of Philanthropy is doing a chat on anniversaries tomorrow:

      Maybe that will help. I agree, though, they are usually self-love fests. You have to be careful about what you are actually celebrating and make sure it resonates with your current supporters.

  • True not just for non-profits but can apply to small business and community organizations as well. Thanks for reminder.

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  • Alexandra Peters

    Yes, you are so right about this. And it isn’t just about what you write or what event you’re putting on, it’s often a style issue. Different groups just go about things in a different way. They pay attention to, or notice, or hear things differently. (Start with music, movies, books…) Fear does get in the way (“This isn’t the way I would do it – can this be right?”)

    I think an openness to new possibilities and considering other ways is probably a good plan for al of us, whatever we do. And maybe a nice dollop of trust , too!

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  • Great post! As a designer who serves mostly the nonprofit community, I can attest that researching and identifying with the “target audience” is key to any communications or fundraising effort. And the most successful designs aren’t the ones we (designers & nonprofit leaders) personally like the most, but the ones that communicate the right message in a reliable way.

  • Great reminder, Kivi. This is probably why so many volunteer committees can run successful fundraising events. When those committed, passionate volunteers are closest to an organization’s target audience, they really do make all the right calls for an event.

  • Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE

    Can you say this over and over again? I can’t tell you how many times I hear volunteers, or even staff who know better, start a fundraising critique with the words “I hate…” or “I never respond…” thinking that they are their target audience. And many a sound strategy unfortunately gets derailed as a result of this thinking.
    In the graduate communications class I teach, I reinforce continuously with my students that they need to pick their target audience carefully and do the research on who they are, what they think, what they respond to, where they are on the ladder of change and where they turn to for information.

  • Betsy Baker, MPA

    Very graciously put, Kivi. It makes much more sense to listen to representatives of the target audience than to those who “think” they know better and loudly make their opinions known. (We’ve all encountered those folks, right?) 😉

  • Tammy Zonker

    Great reminder of the “Platinum” rule, Kivi! Treat others the way THEY want to be treated….and I’ll add, when in doubt how they want to be treated: ask them!

  • Very well stated. An organization with quality leadership will ask (or at least listen to) those who self-identify as being part of the “target” audience to provide input from their perspective as a member of that audience – setting aside, for a moment, their work role/identity.

  • Sandy

    Oh my gosh, I have argued long and hard with people about this very topic! Usually, it’s a program director who doesn’t know anything about direct mail, but wants the nonprofit to stop doing it because they don’t like it. “You’re not the target audience!” If I had a nickel for everytime I’ve said that….

    Sandy Rees

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  • Very well put, Thanks for the post.

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