Public, Nonprofit Sectors: We Have a Failure to Communicate with Clients

By Katherine Kerr, APR

Nonprofit communicators spend a lot of time trying to figure out the right message and channels for reaching donors, volunteers and the ill-defined “general public.”

But how much time is spent trying to communicate with potential and existing clients? You know, the ones who are supposed to benefit from our services?

When it comes to human service nonprofits and governmental agencies, we often fail to use public relations best practices:  Research, Plan, Implement and Evaluate.

Two recent examples I’ve encountered involve a school district trying to inform the community about proposed rezoning and a government program to provide low-income individuals with vehicle repair and replacement grants so they can continue to work.

In both instances, the clients or customers are blamed for not participating and/or accessing services.

For example, a school district with over 11,000 students sends fliers home in folders to parents about a town hall meeting at 7 p.m. on a weekday at one particular school. Only a couple dozen people showed up. In addition to the small turnout, many of those attending are Latino/a and either don’t speak English or English is their second language. The fliers were not translated nor was a translator available to speak to those constituents during the meeting.

When questioned about the low turnout, district staff defended the use of the fliers, adding the information was posted on the website and in the district’s e-newsletter. And, a story had been placed in the local newspaper.

It was up to the parents to get that information and get to the event. That was the expectation on the part of the district.

A big-box store that pays its marketing staff or agency would not accept that explanation  (excuse) for customers failing to come through the door. That is a poor return on investment.

For-profit marketing staff would be expected to figure out why the message didn’t work and what channels are appropriate. They also would be expected to examine whether the timing and location for such events are appropriate for the target audience.

In this case, the marketing staff should know that since nearly 44 percent of the students are Hispanic, one side of the homebound flier and the on-site handouts should have been translated into Spanish.

Since 44 percent of all children in the district are also eligible for the federal free lunch program, marketing staff should be mindful of the reading and verbal comprehension levels of parents. In print pieces and in public presentations, district staff should avoid education jargon that is confusing and possibly intimidating.

The school district staff should have tested the messaging and explored the best channels for reaching parents and taxpayers. They also should have researched whether having a community meeting on a week night at a school on one side of town was the best time, date and location.

Planning based on the research would have dictated a refined message, the appropriate channels and the time, date and location of a single or multiple forums if the district truly wanted and valued citizen engagement.

After Implementation of the plan grounded in the research, the district would want to evaluate whether the district achieved its goal of effectively informing the public about its plans for rezoning. Metrics for success would include turnout and feedback surveys of attendees.  The results of the evaluation would inform future efforts and help the district examine its existing message and channels and refine them as needed.

In the second case,  I learned during a county commissioners court session of a program that was started at the federal level and has trickled down to local levels that would provide low-income individuals with grants to repair or replace vehicles so they can continue to get to work.

It was the first I had heard of the program and I know several nonprofits that serve individuals who would benefit from the assistance.

I set to trying to find out more about the program. The first challenge was its name: the Low-Income Repair Assistance, Retrofit and Accelerated Vehicle Retirement Program or (LIRAP). That is a mouthful of a title and even college-educated citizens are going to have a tough time grasping what that means.

To add insult to injury, in Texas the program is known as “AirCheckTexas Drive a Clean Machine -Vehicle Assistance Program.”

If a client is fortunate enough to secure the equivalent of a Golden Ticket that reveals the name du jour of a program a computer search takes you to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality where information is even more confusing.

There,  the webpage instructions casually drop that adjusted gross income is a factor and states that eligible vehicles “Must be certified to a federal Tier 2 Bin 5 or cleaner Tier 2 Bin standard or to a federal Tier 3 Bin 160 or cleaner Tier 3 Bin standard (see the list: model year 2017201620152014).” What?!:!

In other words, to even figure out if a person is eligible for the funds, she has to spend a significant amount of gathering data and documents.

Bear in mind that the possible clients for this program is likely to be a working mother juggling two minimum wage jobs, transportation, childcare and life. She is just trying to get by each and every day.

She does not have the luxury of spending a lot of time on the phone or sitting in offices with government employees to figure out what she needs to bring to get funds so she has reliable transportation to get to work, kids to school and to buy groceries for her family.

In doing informal research, I learned that there is almost no effort dedicated to getting this information out to social service agencies that serve clients who would benefit.

Couple that with a high rate of staff turnover in the nonprofit and public sectors, institutional knowledge about the program is lost.

For a relatively small investment by the public and/or nonprofit sectors on marketing and refining messaging, this program could make a dramatic impact on the ability of low-income workers to stay off public assistance rolls.

Professional communicators for nonprofits and governmental agencies have just as great a responsibility to communicate effectively with their clients as they do to other stakeholders, including donors, volunteers, partner agencies and voters.

Otherwise, we continue to have “a failure to communicate.”

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