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Seven tips for becoming an audience-first charity

9 November 2021

As comms professionals, we all know understanding our audience is vital. And we all know something about the audiences we aim to engage.

But is everyone working in the same direction to respond to audience needs? Or do colleagues’ pressing requests get in the way? Do you ever find yourself broadcasting messages that feel at odds with the overall sentiment you’re trying to portray?   

Sound familiar? Don’t worry, it’s like this for most of us.

Only 18% believe that audience research and insight very much informs their external engagement and communications work.

(Source: CharityComms member Survey 2019)

But as comms professionals, we can inspire the change. With kindness and know-how, we can illuminate the way ahead.

Notepad with text - Shifting Perspectives - from us.
Points with a cross through:
- Let's get this message out there
- How can we reach the masses
- How can we convert them?
- Let's shout about what a great job we've done!
To them:
- Who is our niche?
- What do they do and say?
- What problems can we solve for them?
- Let's make it 'with them' (not for them).

Here are seven ideas for sparking an audience-first culture in your organisation.

  • Work in the open

Being human-centred is an essential component of your charity’s DNA. Chances are your colleagues know this.

But it becomes more difficult to live by this principle when people need things now, as in NOW, NOW.

So, talk openly about the shift you’d love to see and why – in bite-sized chunks – so that people see the overarching benefits for themselves … regularly.

Demonstrate what will happen when your charity gets it right. And encourage colleagues to share their stories about great audience experiences. This will help everyone to recognise what being audience-centred looks like.

We’re lucky in the charity sector. We’re in the habit of sharing our work. So, can you share what you’re doing more widely to seek external input?

You can learn more in this Catalyst blog post and this Open Working Toolkit. The context is digital, but the principles are easy to apply to any project.

  • Make insights visible

Change management consultants agree on this: people contribute when they feel informed.

And in Who Cares: Building audience-centred engagement strategies in the non-profit sector (highly recommended!), Joe Barrell ‘encourages us all to make the most of the unique knowledge we bring to the table as engagement professionals.’ 

‘Your toolbox might include … channel and brand performance, competitor activity and so on, compiled into regular reports to make sense of it,’ writes Joe

Which audience insights could you make more visible? Avoid swamping everyone with metrics. Rather, carefully choose a mix of insights that will add the most value.  

And instead of creating more routine work for yourself, could you partner with your IT team to connect all colleagues with service user feedback, for example, via your organisation’s collab tool (e.g. Slack)?

  • Be the coach

Showing empathy with why audience needs have fallen down your colleagues’ lists and letting them know you’re all in the same boat helps people be more open to change.

Why? Because by getting things out in the open – without blame – you’ll be making it safe for people to explore how knowing your audience will lead to better outcomes. 

So, try to meet people where they are, wherever they are. Listen and gently question to unearth the roots of actions that are at odds with an audience-first approach.

Then by supporting colleagues to overcome any fears and roadblocks, inspire colleagues to think things through.

Illustration of a group of people with text - It's about enabling people.

We need to tread carefully though. Because when we’re eager for change, we can inadvertently come across as superior. We’ve all done it. And as soon as we do, our colleagues switch off … in an instant.

So, try this exercise.

Draft some notes about the ways you’d like to inspire change, then make them visual and keep them handy to develop your own, authentic style for enabling people.

Here is an example of some visual notes I created in my notebook:

My mantras for inspiring change.
1. Be less knowing. Understand, empathise, be more me!
2. Language! Stamp out gobbledygook.
3. Ditch email. Embrace collab tools.
4. Question gently to unearth niggles.
5. Accept it: people adapt at different speeds. with an illustration of a change curve
6. Co-create with people (not for them). 
7. Be more open! Spend more time sharing what we're doing.
8. Manage my energy before time.
  • Champion social media as a listening tool

We all use social to engage our audiences. But many charities use it as a listening tool too.

For example, Kidney Research UK funded university researchers to pioneer a new way to understand kidney patients’ concerns with social media.

With permission, the team anonymously analysed posts and comments from a private Facebook Group for kidney patients.

The study identified many patient concerns that never come to light through traditional methods. This led to the charity co-creating resources to address patients’ unmet needs.

Social media groups are insight-rich because people feel comfortable posting concerns in a group of like-minded people.

Think about which groups exist in your niche? Could colleagues and partners use them to unlock golden nuggets to propel your charity’s services forward?

  • Adopt an agile approach

While a robust market research study sets you off on strong footing, there is plenty you can do to progress while you’re waiting or, if you don’t have the budget.   

Here’s a useful agile exercise we can borrow from business consultants.

  1. Collectively, define and prioritise your audience

    It sounds simple but re-defining your organisations’ audiences – with colleagues – can open people’s eyes to new possibilities.

    In a workshop, ask colleagues to write down potential audiences on post-its.

    Can you ask the team to think about less obvious audiences too? For example, who are the people that lurk on your website but don’t become donors or advocates?

    Once you’ve listed your audiences, collectively prioritise them according to your charity’s purpose and goals – into low, medium and high groupings?
  2. Complete empathy maps

    The Empathy Map Canvas, developed by visual thinking consultancy XPlane, is available to download and use with guidance notes. Templates are also available for use in virtual whiteboard apps Miro or Mural.

Completing this exercise collectively, for priority audiences, will help people go on to think about what problems you can solve for the people.

I also like to ask a group of participants, who represent the audience segment, to complete it. Comparing the two often reveals dazzling insights.

  • Embrace sector insights

Research agencies, Think Tanks and Universities publish a cathedral of behavioural science data that is easy to access.

For example, Women In Sport found this golden nugget in research by Newcastle University in Australia (aka 3rd party research):

Fathers don’t tend to acknowledge their role in fostering their daughters’ physical activity behaviours. Yet, those who do have a positive influence on their daughter’s self-esteem.

Women In Sport explored this theory by running pilots and tests. Then, they went on to create a successful Daughter’s and Dad’s community scheme and a campaign to boost Dad’s confidence to be role models for their daughters.

  • Embrace a human-centred, co-creation processes

How many of us start with good intentions of doing things ‘with the audience’ but inevitably, end up doing it ‘for them’ (based on our instincts.)

Do you still undertake user research and testing when creating comms materials? If I’m honest, it becomes harder for us to do this, the more we believe in our own competencies.

That said, many brands are going one step further and co-creating with their niche to nurture engagement. A current example being the fantastic ‘Lonely Not Alone’ campaign by the Co-op Foundation. Grounded in research about how young people feel, it helps young people take positive action to tackle loneliness for themselves and for others.

Can you explore how colleagues could introduce more collaborative approaches in their roles?

Here are some tried and tested frameworks for charities wanting to adopt human-centred principles:


I hope you’ve found one small thing in this post to inspire positive change in your organisation.

It takes time.

But with kindness and resilience, you can support colleagues to become more audience-centric, one step at a time.

Learn more

Mel Mallinson is publishing A handbook for charities on becoming more audience centred on DigitalSimplicity. Read more in: 6 Signs you might not fully understand your audience (as an organisation)

Banner Image: Gioavana Thayane on Unsplash

Mel Mallinson

coach and consultant, freelance

Mel Mallinson spent over 20 years in charities and business in senior comms and digital roles. Mel is now a freelance coach and consultant offering the help she wishes she’d had. She supports charities to stay true to human-centred principles so that they can connect more deeply...with more people.