5 Communications Lessons I Learned from Girl Scouts
Over the past week, my daughter’s Girl Scout troop has hosted two big events. On Monday, August 21st, we collaborated with Edmonds Community College to teach girls our solar system and watch the Great American Eclipse. Then, on Saturday, we hosted a showing and discussion of Finding Kind in an effort to end girl-against-girl bullying. It was a full week.
That meant that I didn’t have much time to write a blog post. On the other hand, I had a lot of time to think about what I have learned from my nine years as a Girl Scout volunteer leader!
Being a Girl Scout leader has reinforced communications lessons that I learned academically long ago. While I have often repeated these lessons to clients in the course of communications planning, my hands-on experience with girls and their parents drove those lessons home.
Communications Lesson #1: Most people don’t read anything long.
We live in a Twitter world. People want short and sweet.
This is a problem for me. After all, I published a book in 2013, the ultimate long message! I’ve moved to a blog format for professional writing, but my posts are still much longer than 144 characters.
I am also not a fan of email boxes cluttered with hundreds of emails that could have been condensed into a single, well-organized message. So, when I started my daughter’s Girl Scout troop, I used a biweekly email to communicate details to families.
After 9 years, I now know how many people will read the full email. Interestingly enough, these people also tend to love reading books. I also know that this group of email readers (and perhaps book readers) is in the minority.
The lesson for nonprofits is to take a look at your own communications. Donor letters, newsletters, member magazines, and other communications pieces are filled with wonderful information and ooze enthusiasm for the organization’s mission. However, it doesn’t matter how compelling they are if no one reads them.
In some cases, I have proof that readership is low. We have done market research studies on readership for a number of organizations relative to their communication pieces. Almost invariably, the information indicates that their longer format communications reach a small percentage of their audience. If this is the only way they are communicating, their message isn’t going to have the impact they want it to have.
This brings me to Communication Lesson #2.
Communication Lesson #2: You need to say it in different ways to reach the entire audience.
I’ve learned that my one email every two weeks won’t reach everyone. I need to say it in different ways, using different channels, to reach the entire troop. In addition to my email, our troop has a printed newsletter at each meeting. I communicate verbally in periodic parent meetings. I talk to parents one-on-one via email, in person, and via text. And I text with the girls, too.
Communicating using this diverse platform of communication channels and tools means I spend a lot of my time talking to people. And this troop only has eight girls and their families!
If you’re a nonprofit, you can expect communications to take more time, and more investment, than you think it should. With the proliferation of social media and online media outlets, there are just too many places people look for information. And we have a society that is accustomed to having communications tailored to their needs.
Video, print, social media, direct communications, traditional media, newsletters, and in-person gatherings should be among the channels you consider in your communications plan. Just remember that you will need so say the same thing, over and over again, in different way, to reach your entire audience.
Communications Lesson #3: Generational differences aren’t rules.
My troop communications go out to grandmothers (Baby Boomers), older parents (like me, on the older cusp of the Gen X crowd), younger parents, other relatives (including Millenials), and our newest generation, my Girl Scouts. Given what is published about communications and the generations, one would think that it would pretty predictable who would read which format. For example, Baby Boomers and Gen Xers will read the longer-format emails and print documents, while the younger set won’t read anything longer than 300 words.
That turns out not to be true. Some of my Girl Scout girls read and prefer the longer-format documents, and some of my older family members prefer very short emails, texts or in-person conversations.
I have also found that the girls and families who are most engaged in our troop and its activities tend to read everything, read it more thoroughly, and remember it. Families whose involvement is primarily limited to transporting their daughter to meetings, and families with significant competing demands for their time (like multiple children with multiple activities), read and remember less of what is distributed. They read or absorb my communications in passing, and I need to make what I say a constant repeating refrain in order to be heard. In other words, the level of interest, life priorities, and personality are more important than generational traits in determining whether communications make an impact.
For nonprofits, this has significant impact. It means that your die-hard supporters are very likely to read whatever you send. People who are less closely tied to your organization are less likely to do so. For those people, your communications will need to be more likely constant elevator music … constantly playing in order to occasionally be heard.
Communications Lesson #4: You need to say things over and over.
We planned these two summer events long ago. And we’ve talked about them and worked on them ever since. I’ve also communicated about them.
And yet, when the events were just a few weeks out, two families had scheduled conflicts for the same day as the event. Both told me the same thing: they didn’t realize that the event was scheduled for that weekend.
I thought I was saying it over and over and over. But apparently, it wasn’t enough. Some parents lost the message between scheduling (with parent calendars involved) and the actual event.
The same thing happens in the community, of course. I had several people tell me that they had heard about our bullying event, but forgot about it over the summer. We just didn’t remind them frequently enough. Since people make weekend plans at the last minute, it needed to be a constant stream of reminders in order to remain a top priority.
Nonprofits need to keep frequency in mind, too. In a world that is increasingly last minute, nonprofits need to keep beating the drum so that their organization, events and activities remain top of mind.
Communications Lesson #5: If they don’t get the message, it’s your fault.
This spring, one of the parents in my troop told me that he felt out of the loop. I wasn’t doing enough communicating. He just didn’t feel like he knew what was going on.
I said I was sorry he felt that way, and asked what kind of communication works best for him. His answer was one I was already using. Clearly, I wasn’t repeating messages frequently enough, at the right time, or using the right words.
In the long run, if I want my audience to hear me, it’s my responsibility to communicate in a way that is effective. In other words, it’s my fault, not his, that he feels out of the loop.
This doesn’t make me happy, but it’s the reality of the situation.
Nonprofits suffer through this same communications reality. If you want people to listen to your message and they aren’t hearing you, don’t wag a finger at them for their failure to pay attention. Find another channel or another way of saying what you want to say. The alternative is to write them off as an audience you don’t necessarily need to reach.
Implications for Nonprofit Communications Planning
None of these communications lessons are new information. Being a Girl Scout leader has just driven them home in a more profound way.
I don’t have the luxury of prioritizing audiences. I need for all of my Girl Scout girls and parents to pay attention to what is going on in the troop. If I don’t, a girl may miss out on something that is important to her growth and development. Of course, I also have a relatively small audience: 8 girls and their families. Fortunately, my Girl Scouts are getting older and can take a greater degree of responsibility for their own schedules. Soon, I will be able to communicate with them primarily, and rely on them to communicate with their families.
Nonprofits typically have a larger audience. You can (and should) prioritize communications based on expected returns. For example, communications targeting new donors should not exceed a small percentage of the donations you expect to receive as a result. (The exact percentage will vary depending on the size of organization, how established it is, etc.) Similarly, the cost of communications related to changing behaviors should be weighed relative to the impact the outcome has on your mission. Once communications goals and a budget figure have been established, communications channels, frequency, messages, and related strategies can be identified.
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About the Author
Heather Fitzpatrick is a management consultant who focuses on helping organizations create thoughtful, strategic plans to achieve important goals. She provides strategic planning, marketing planning, financial planning and business planning expertise to a broad range of nonprofits. An active community volunteer, Heather has also served on 10 different boards of directors. She is the author of Marketing Management for Non-Marketing Managers: Improving Returns on Marketing Investments, published in 2013 by the AICPA’s publishing division.