The Third Sector.
In 2008 the National Center for Charitable Statistics counted 1.57 million organizations that had obtained federal tax recognition as a non-profit organization. Of these organizations some of them may “advocate for public policy on behalf of people they serve” (Broom 449). These organizations are defined as nongovernmental organizations (NGO’s).
In the 1990s, the number of nongovernmental organizations grew from 6,000 to 26,000 (The Economist cited in Li 11). The growth of both kinds of organizations shows that they are a growing segment of society worth examining. In addition to the social functions they serve, non profits have an economic impact that makes their success important to the nation as whole.
Non profits are an economic tour de force in the United States. In 2000, non profits held assets of $2 trillion and had income of just over $1 trillion. Additionally, non profits employ one twelfth of the American workforce (Carr cited in Dyer et. al 13). While the economic impact is substantial, practitioners can expect to make $5,000-$10,000 less than their corporate counterparts at entry level. For many, the reward is personal, knowing their work delivering a message made an impact (Jaye 1996).
Whether an organization is classified as a non-profit or nongovernmental organization, they fill a void in American society. “More so in the United States than in any other country voluntary nonprofit organizations provide many of the social, educational, cultural, and welfare services vital to society”(Broom 437). Each organization caters to unique segments of a variety of publics which makes public relations a critical component of any third sector organization. Still, as in the corporate world, many organizations may overlook the importance of public relations to their organization.
In comparison to literature on public relations in the enterprise sector, there is less written about the role public relations plays in non-profits and nongovernmental organizations. The role varies greatly from organization to organization.
While the literature may be limited, the consistent themes are clear. The role of public relations consistently comes back to a central theme focused on effective communication of the organizations message and purpose. The additional roles of public relations are heavily dependent on a successful comprehension of the organizations purpose among it’s various publics. Two sub hypotheses are tied to the central hypothesis as the contents of this research. In addition, this paper contains case studies that will support the hypotheses presented including a less formal, final case study on the authors work as a Communications Director for a Minnesota non profit.
Throughout literature the role of public relations in nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations comes back to these two functions: maintaining and building behavior in the form of organziation membership, both volunteer staff as well as those that use the services of the organization as well as maintaining and building a favorable fundraising environment. A second function is to adapt to competition and changes in technology. Those two sub activities are only successful when the main function is achieved effectively, to clarify and deliver messages on what the organization is, what it does, and how it does it to the organizations various publics.
A 2002 survey published in Public Relations Quarterly found, in addition, that many times the role of a PR practitioner in the third sector is as a sole practitioner, and individuals are responsible for “ making decisions about the whole range of communication activities of the organization ”(Dyer et. al 16). In other words one person does it all and they are expected to “do a lot with a little” (Jaye 32).
This concept is illustrated in a 2010 article about Minnesota’’s newest and largest charity organization. The Star Tribune cites the role of public relations in this organization, created with legacy funds from the Cargill family, as being the sole spokesperson for the billion dollar non-profit. One public relations practitioner is the main contact for billions of dollars in grant funding.(Star Tribune)
It’s worth noting that while not all nongovernmental organizations are nonprofit organizations as well, and while the two have their differences, for the purpose of this analysis, they will be examined together. (Coombs and Holladay 105). Nongovernmental organizations can include political factions and corporations in addition to non profits (Throughout literature, both types of organizations note similar functions of public relations, with communication at the core. Successful communications with targeted publics is the foundation on which the other roles of public relations can be successful, that understanding allows an examination of the core hypothesis,
H1:The paramount role of public relations in the third sector is to maintain effective and clear communication of an organizations purpose to its various stakeholders. This function is the foundation on which the other roles of public relations can thrive.
Communication, Are we clear?
In the 2005-2006 edition of the Top 100 Case Studies in PR, PRNews documents Morgan Roth’s work as Vice President of public affairs at Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic. The case study claims that when Roth took over the vice presidency “she walked into a situation common among many charitable organizations: A rough mix of good intentions and chaos” (PRNews pg106). The case study supports the hypothesis that a clear understanding of the organization’s mission was “job one.” PR News calls it branding, others in literature will call it by a plethora of names: awareness, image, and communication ,to name a few. Regardless of the term used, they all agree that it consistently is priority number one. Roth notes that getting the board of directors to agree on the organizations message set the stage for the campaigns. She states that “Everybody has to agree to what the message is. You can negotiate strategy, you can debate strategy, but you have to agree on the message” (qtd in PRNews 107). Once that message was focused it was able to be delivered effectively to defined publics. The case study notes that her campaigns made 104% of its fiscal year 2003 goals. The success of the campaign also strengthens the hypothesis, as the campaign was founded in clear communication of the organizations mission and goals. Roth cleared the air with her internal public first to deliver a successful message to external publics with focus like a laser beam.
Part of laying the foundation for effective communication is targeting an organization’s message. In Roth’s example above, she told PRNews that “You have to really pick your target audience. There is no such thing as a press release that is going to recruit members, recruit volunteers and recruit donors”(qtd in PRNews 107).
In the 1970s Raymond Simon wrote about the role of public relations in the world of philanthropy and social welfare. Like Roth and the PRNews case study, Simon supports the hypothesis that communication is a mission critical function of public relations in the third sector noting that
their [ volunteer organizations] importance on the American scene is impossible to assess solely in terms of figures but is recognized as being considerable, far reaching, and lasting. How well these agencies are understood depends to a considerable extent on the public relations function. . . without such awareness. . .most social and welfare agencies would have to curtail operations drastically or simply cease to be (Simon 293-294).
Simon expands on Roth’s notion that knowing the target audience is paramount. Simon poses three broad areas in which a third sector organization should examine its publics. He argues that an organization needs to discover what it’s various publics know and think about an organization while identifying where the public gets their information. In essence, Simon champions the importance of research in the four step p.r. process. (Simon pg 297) After research exposes the answers to those three questions, communication can be effectively engineered to shape an organizations public image.
Baskin and Aronoff cite a survey conducted among nonprofit organizations in the 1980’s that shows the most frequent area of concern among these organizations is their public image ( Baskin and Aronoff 279). Results of research published in Public Relations Quarterly, 2002, show similar results among nonprofit leadership (Dyer et. al 15). The Dyer survey notes that “a major target public of nonprofits should be donors” (Dyer et. al p g15). Frequently though, that public is overlooked, something that research and following Simon’s recommendations on self evaluation, would prevent. Along with Simon, Roth and Dyer; Baskin and Aronoff support the hypothesis placing critical importance on the communication function of public relations stating that “communication with members, government and other publics is the bottom line for many nonprofit organizations” (Baskin and Aronoff 276).
Likewise, nongovernmental organizations place high importance in the ability to articulate publics and effectively communicate organizational goals with those publics after helping an internal public focus its message. Peruzzo connects nongovernmental organizations with nonprofit organizations under the umbrella of the third sector and argues that
communication in the third sector does not have a single meaning. These different connotations occur in work-related settings as well as in social movements. . . nongovernmental organizations, and other nonprofit institutions . . . communication in the third sector focuses on social action and human development on behalf of the community (Peruzzo 664).
As stated in the introduction of this review, nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations are not homogenous, what they share Peruzzo argues, is a goal “to promote changes that place a premium on human development ”(Peruzzo 665).
Peruzzo, like Broom, places a high importance on the role of third sector organizations both, nonprofit and nongovernmental. Peruzzo argues that communication in the third sector takes place in two realms. First, through direct interaction that will rally publics and second by providing “institutional messages to the public aimed at building reputation, image, and . . .ideology of a particular organization” (Peruzzo 666). She argues that on the first level a communication professional develops the tools for proselytism. In other words, a professional creates the “interactive processes” in which changed perceptions occur (Peruzzo 666). Peruzzo cites specific examples such as video clips, blogs, and face to face contacts. Communication, Peruzzo claims, is developed in a stronger manner in realm one than realm two, where “practitioners create the communication channels” citing websites, photographs and media relations as examples (Peruzzo 667). Sriramesh and Vercic expand on the examples Peruzzo cites stating that
the globalization of media and the fast development of information technology make it possible to communicate globally. Delivering the message . . . becomes easier in light of those trends. NGOs have become sophisticated communicators and instigators of change (Sriramesh and Vercic 817).
Heath agrees with the understanding that NGOs become agents of change, something Peruzzo uses to describe both the nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations that make up the third sector. Heath asserts that “nongovernmental organizations have . . .become authors of public agenda and policy. . .organizations use technology to put their causes into the public agenda”(Heath 396). Heath, Peruzzo and Sriramesh and Vercic go a step further than Roth , Simon and Broom by connecting the power to shape public agenda and the importance of organizational communication with internal and external publics. In doing so they continue to strengthen the hypothesis that clear communication should be at the foundation of a P.R. practitioners job duties in the third sector.
Roth and Simon have established the importance of defining publics, and articulating a clear message of an organizations purpose to those publics. The research cited by Dyer and Baskin and Aronoff proves that in the working third sector public image is vital importance. The tactics, as Roth states, can vary but what Peruzzo , Sriramesh and Vercic claim is a two part communication method that frequently includes the rapidly developing world of technology. They also cite the ability of third sector organizations to change the public agenda, organizations want to be sure they are communicated appropriate changes. With the advancement of technology and the speed at which communication goes from local to global, it’s of utmost important with every technological advancement that an organization is communicating a targeted message. This leads to the first sub-hypothesis.
H1A: Increased competition and rapidly changing technology impact the tactics of communication used by public relations professionals in the third sector. Tactics now seek larger audiences and engage two-way asymmetric or dialogic communications with those audiences allowing for interaction with publics. as such H1 is important to ensure messages are received as an organization intends.
When it’s time to change
Broom asserts that “intense competition for limited resources in recent years has led to profound changes in how public relations is practiced in nonprofit organizations” (Broom 442). Broom argues three specific areas of focus that other literature expands on. Firstly, with technology and it’s “selectivity and reach of communication” he cautions that it “has raised questions about ethics, privacy and legitimacy”(Broom 443). Second, Broom discusses the importance of partnerships with both media and corporate donors. The third claim he makes will be discussed later as H1B and its direct connection to our core hypothesis, that communication lays the foundation for public relations success in the third sector and a direct connection to behavior.
Sandra Beckwith is a 25 year, award winning veteran of public relations and has written an entire book on the role of publicity in the third sector. Beckwith elaborates on Broom’s comments about the importance of technology asserting specifically that a “web site is an essential tool for even the smallest nonprofit organization. It isn’t optional. It’s a must-have” (Beckwith 123). Beckwith also connects this sub hypothesis to the core hypothesis with an understanding that in order to be successful in publicity and technology, step one for a public relations practitioner in the third sector should be to “begin the planning process by summarizing your organization’s communications situation . . .[then] list your target audiences” (Beckwith 3,4). This assertion is consistent with what Simon and Roth also claim. It also supports H1A’s connection to H1, that in the third sector clear communication is a paramount function of public relations. Beckwith’s writings speak to the function of publicity in the third sector and as such an online pressroom takes priority in what Beckwith describes as critical online strategies (Beckwith 125).
Holtz expands on both Beckwith and Broom’s claim that technology is vital to competition and successful communication for the third sector. Holtz clarifies the difference between traditional tactics used by public relations professionals in the third sector and the onslaught of new media defining the change in the communication model. Old methods include distribution of material that rarely engages an audience. Put simply, the old model speaks at. With the changes in technology, audience now have the opportunity to talk back. The old method of communicating a message could take days, now it happens in a matter of seconds. Feedback is equally as fast. Because of the ease of internet publishing it’s vital that a message is clear. Holtz argues that
everybody is a publisher on the internet. . . . the internet provides anybody with the means to publish high-quality material that is available to a global audience. There are no editors. . . [and] neither good taste nor accuracy is required (Holtz 176).
What Holtz essentially is describing, is Grunig’s two-way symmetrical communication model. Based on that model, technology creates a dialogic environment, Kang and Norton provide a content analysis of third sector websites that gives a roadmap for successful communication online. Kang and Norton support Jaye’s assumption as well that public relations in the third sector is done on a budget, they argue that “ the[internet] offers these organizations the unique opportunity to interactively reach multiple publics without enormous financial burdens”(Kang and Norton 279).
In their content analysis, Kang and Norton found that most organizations operate websites that offer an easy user interface (Kang and Norton 280). In other words, website are easily navigated and many offer key information about what the organization is and does. Where they struggle is maintaining the dialogic environment. They lack interactivity with the organization and the ability to interact with a third sector organization’s message online, a break down can be seen in figure one.
Kang and Norton argue the importance of adding this interactivity stating that “these organizations need to be integrating relational communication elements into their website, both to meet the needs of their publics and to maintain standards for effective reciprocal communication with their publics ”(Kang and Norton 282).
As Broom noted, competition drives communication changes and with the increase of technology the tactics continue to change. Along with the world wide web, Genevieve Sadler-Trainor argues that television has also shaped our societies method of receiving information. She claims that society has shifted from the written word, to a visually impacted society.
Sadler-Trainor is a public relations specialist for the American Cancer Society. She cites research from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. The claim is that public relations practitioners not only have to be affective communicators of the written word, but also take on the role of advertiser and use images to effectively spread the word of what an organization is all about (Sadler-Trainor 7-9).
Broom’s second point regarding partnerships with corporate donors and the media is echoed by Rabin, Simon, Wilcox and Beckwith. Wilcox goes a step further tying H1A back to the core hypothesis regarding awareness and communication stating that “because raising public awareness is the first task, cause groups often stage events to generate media coverage” (Wilcox 28).
Many of these events are the result of strategic partnerships with media and or corporate donors. Rabin reinforces these partnerships and clarifies that they are not about charity. Rather, Rabin argues, “a partnership is a two-way relationship: the partners pool their resources in order to share mutual benefits and achieve common objectives” (Rabin 32). Rabin also cites a case study between Kellogg Co. and The National Cancer Institute.
Kellogg Co. was looking for an endorsement from a well known health organization while The National Cancer Institute wanted to emphasize the benefits of a high fiber diet, to cancer prevention. Two organizations with mutually beneficial objectives led to a campaign that promoted both organizations (Rabin 32).
Olsen cites a case study involving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that also supports Broom’s assertion that partnerships are key to adapting to competition.
The church was facing an image problem and misunderstanding of what “Mormon” was. Part of their campaign used strategic partnerships with media. Olsen argues that in the case of the church, “good working relationships with the media [provided] a steady useful flow of information, features, and other materials” (Olsen 27).
Broom and the others argue that partnerships with media are to be courted, contrary to this thought, Marston claims that “the American press is also unusually kind to the publicity which emanates from social welfare sources, sometimes almost too much so” (Marston 107). While it appears that Marston is the minority, it allows the opportunity to tie it all back to the concept that a clear message is the bottom line of the organization. Whether online with thousands, or on the air with a 15 second sound bite opportunity, a message must be consistent and receivable so that in a dialogic environment, when the audience responds, they react in way that benefits the third sector organization. Which leads to the final sub hypothesis.
H1B: Once people are informed accurately, messages to engage and maintain behavior can be affective whether the behavior is volunteerism, service use, or fundraising. The more people that are properly informed on an organizations purpose, the larger the pool to draw beneficial behavior from.
From informed to active in 60 seconds?
Cantor and Burger dramatically infer that in the third sector “communications activity often represents the continuum between idea and achievement – the essence of the organization itself”(Canton and Burger 106). While the claim may seem far reaching, Canton and Burger support it by stating that
the very existence of a nonprofit organization often depends on effective membership development, favorable public recognition, and outside support for its programs and polices – all of which require effective . . . communications (Canton and Burger 106).
What they claim is that to move into impacting behavior, regardless of what kind of behavior it is, communication must be clear, supporting the core hypothesis.
Sriramesh and Vricic agree with Canton and Burger’s assertion, albeit in a more passive manner, noting that “ after the public becomes aware of the NGO’s purpose . . .the second step is connecting with the people at whom the service is aimed” (Sriramesh and Vricic 818).
Logically it would follow that in order for people to use a service provided by a third sector organization, they must first accurately know what the organization’s function is. While the use of the service may seem like a logical connection to an informed public, what about those who volunteer or donate? Marston claims that
big donors are important, but thousands of little donors and volunteer workers actually carry forward the activities of these organizations. When the public is informed, urged, and encouraged, it gives to the tune of about a billion dollars a year in drives alone (Marston 107).
To achieve fundraising success Edwards and Yankey definitively point to the benefits of a successful public relations campaign. They claim that a strategic plan to “spreading the word about the importance and success of an organization’s . . . services can dramatically enhance its fundraising activities” (Edwards and Yankey 65).
Whether the behavior is to use a third sector organizations services, to fund its services, or support its service through volunteering, an informed public is the starting point. Simon hones in on a key component in relationship to behavior of an informed public. He notes that “ people in a community can and will ‘tell’ an agency’s story if given half a chance to do so” (Simon 315). Simon scratches the surface of the adage, if you build it they will come.
Moore and Canfield expand a bit further stating that organizations in the third sector have to explain their cause adequately and succinctly to publics they wish to engage in some form of behavior. “The rivalry between agencies emphasizes the need for greater interpretation of their services through better communication” (Moore and Canfield 393).
The research in action
In the Spring of 2008, the author was approached by a budding Minnesota nonprofit about coming on board as communications director. The organization was in its infancy, to be precise it was mostly just an idea. The hypotheses explored in this literature review were implemented over the course of two years at the helm of the organizations communication and provide a remarkable real life case study of the notions mentioned by many of the authors cited here.
Similarly to Roth’s situation in the PRNews case study, the Minnesota non profit was filled with good intentions, but the function or brand of the organization was unclear. There was no behavior to maintain as the organization was relatively inactive. It’s online presence was little more then a template. What existed was a logo and a loosely written mission statement.
In the PRNews case study, Roth notes that when leading a nonprofit in clarifying its communication goals and messages, a communicator needs to pick their battles. Similarly to Roth, as Communications Director for this organization the author patiently worked through eight months of meeting with the board of directors to develop all aspects of communication both internal and external. Prior to 2008, the organization was on press release overkill. As Roth noted there is no press release that will do it all.
Once the board of directors was rallied behind a coherent consistent message, the next step was to pool the organizations online strategy. When the author took the reigns of the organization, they had a template website with little opportunity to interact with the organizations mission’s brand. Like Kang and Norton recommend, a new site was developed that offered interactivity for a variety of publics including chat rooms and discussion boards for those using the service of the organization, and internal blogs and donation opportunities for those support the organization. The best interactivity came from the social media campaign that allowed followers of the organization to “donate” their birthday to the cause and encourage their own friends online to donate on their behalf. Around $2,000 was raised this way.
After the message was clarified and the online strategy created a dialogic environment the next step was partnerships for the organizations inaugural gala. The gala took place in the depths of the recession and proved to be a struggle. But with a clearly defined mission and audience, the use of both the written word and visual communication helped achieve the organizations goals. A well tailored media relations campaign netted just under 800,000 impressions around Central Minnesota and strong corporate partnerships would lend immediate credibility to the organization. The gala was sold out within a month of running the media relations campaign and the gala itself raised over $30,000 for the organization.
The research cited in this article lays the ground floor supporting the core hypothesis that communication is key. Establish a clear message intended to be delivered and get an organizations internal publics on board, then move that message to external publics with carefully crafted partnerships and technology tools. Once the public is informed moving them to action is a natural next step because like Simon notes, when there is a cause that is believed in, people want to help.
The case study of authors own work shows that the research in action also supports the hypothesis. In two years the organization went from a group with good intentions but not clear mission, a well funded and well understand organization that consistently was getting around 800,000 media impressions a year. The success began with a very lengthy brainstorming meeting between the communication director and the board of directors in which the message and what was to be communicated was clearly identified.
It’s worth noting that the very job of a P.R. practitioner frequently is rallied around communication. What sets the third sector apart is the lack of “for profit” motive. As many authors cited have noted, most involved in running third sector organizations do it not for financial gain, but satisfaction of being. They do it, for the lack of a better saying, from the goodness of their hearts. Good intentions can sometimes cloud a mission. That’s when public relations comes in to remove the cloud and rally the good intentions behind a cause. Art Feinglass supports stating that “ effective PR doesn’t have to be about big budgets. It can also be about heart”(Feinglass xvi).
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