We’re Outreaching; Are We Succeeding?

We’re Outreaching; Are We Succeeding?


29 March 2022


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


If there is one word in land trust language that would benefit the most from tighter definition, it’s probably the word “outreach.” We have Outreach Committees, Directors of Membership and Outreach, Outreach Strategies, Outreach Events, and so on.

I’m certain that the staff, Board members, and volunteers involved each have a pretty good idea what “outreach” means for them. But it’s not consistent across the community because each person brings their own personality and comfort-level to the question. When the actual definition is this ambiguous, what counts as outreach work becomes “whatever I feel like doing today,” or “whatever I feel most comfortable doing.” Some organizations are focused on public events. Others on social media.

But is it working?


My bias here is that our communications work should be measured. “Success” implies that we have established goals and that we are able to show we are moving in those directions. Communications would then be considered “successful” when our metric changes in the direction we want. Usually that requires some sort of response from the person with whom we are communicating.

Eye contact. A nod of the head. Someone saying “Mm, hmm” every once in a while.

Specialized communication requires specific, defined responses. Marketing, for example is a specialized communication – the response we are looking for is the conversion from people not giving to people giving. This can obviously be measured. The more people responding (by giving), the more effective the marketing.

For much of our other communications, the results are not as clearly measured.

In my work, I am most interested in Donor Communications. And I would hope that when donor communications is effective, it would be reflected in things like renewal rates, regular upgrading, and increasing five-year values. Presumably, the more donors know about how their investments are paying off, the more likely they are to increase their investments over time.

We could also ask them.

An underutilized technique (in my opinion) for communications is to ask questions. Our newsletters often read as newspapers – one-way communications. But they don’t need to. They could include one-question surveys, invitations to special events, links to more information about this and that – responses that can be measured to help us understand how we are getting through.

Our invitations to engagement events serve this purpose, but we tend to stop at the counting. Eighty people came to our field trip or lecture event. But is that good? Is it increasing or decreasing from our previous experience? And most important from an evaluation standpoint: Is it the SAME people? or are we attracting a new set altogether?

We know from behavioral science that the more “channels” someone engages in the more likely they are to identify with the organization and become loyal. Are we measuring how many current donors are engaged? What percentage of our current donors participated in a field trip last year? Is that percentage growing or shrinking?

We could ask these same questions of our annual meeting, lecture events, social media likes and shares, and so on.

The point is that we have ways of evaluating whether our communications strategies are working or not. (Our willingness to use them to change strategies if they are not working is another story altogether.)


The point is that our “outreach” programs need this same kind of measuring work. What is the point of outreach? Social media “likes” and Mail Chimp “open rates” are the metrics everyone points to, but how do these relate to whether something is “working” or not?

It’s like counting the number of cars driving down the freeway underneath a billboard and inferring that X number of people see your message every day.

So what? If the same people see you, or open you, or like you, or attend your outreach events over and over, does that satisfy the Outreach goals?

If the answer is Yes, let’s not ever confuse these activities with fundraising.

If the answer is No, how will you measure whether your outreach is working?


And consider this: At some point you will want to move your billboard. The people who were going to see it, have seen it. The people who were going to notice, did. Your return on that investment is diminishing. Time to move the billboard.


Cheers, and Have a great week!




PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.


Photo by World Wildlife courtesy of Stocksnap.io.


Share this!
  • David Lillard
    Posted at 07:36h, 30 March

    I liked this post a lot. It got me thinking that outreach isn’t really a program; but a set of strategies.

  • Jim Perry
    Posted at 12:21h, 29 March

    This is an exceptional post. We often think we know we are doing well without evidence, in complete contradiction to our philosophy. And asking our members what their opinion is something we should all be doing. Personally, the more engaged I am with an organization, the more I support it.

  • Kate Patton
    Posted at 08:15h, 29 March

    Moving the billboard makes me think of grocery stores. They rearrange to get people to stay on the store longer and spend more money. It’s a strategy.