Nonprofit Marketing Research Personae Non Gratae

Villain in the Kathakali dance symbolizes nonprofit marketing research on personae non gratae.

By Simha Rosenberg
An earlier post in this series defined false narratives; described some of the ways they’re structured, and provided principles for minimizing the harm they do. This post describes how nonprofit marketing research can help you gain insight into the people who oppose your nonprofit’s work.

According to the Pew Research Center, members of different political parties view the other party more unfavorably than ever before. What’s more, we increasingly choose to surround ourselves with others who agree with us. So NPO’s have a couple of stark choices. Either appeal primarily, or even exclusively, to supporters. Or also develop messages for personae non gratae. In other words, speak more effectively to people whose views are unwelcome or hostile.

What are personas and personae non gratae?

Personas are fictional representations of different audiences. Usually, a nonprofit develops one for each group of supporters in order to better understand their reasons for being interested and wanting to help. Developing personas makes it possible to understand what these supporters care about most deeply. And that enables nonprofits to describe their work in ways that engage them on a more personal level.

In contrast, personae non gratae literally means people who aren’t welcome. They represent audiences that have an unfavorable view of your nonprofit, or are even opposed to your cause. That includes those who dislike your nonprofit’s mission, issues, clients, methods – or all of the above. So why spend limited resources – and even more limited time – to explore what these individuals care about and what messages appeal to them?

There are three good reasons to pay attention to unsupportive audiences:

Your clients / your cause

Personae non gratae may represent those who have a negative effect on your work. For example, suppose you work with clients who are vulnerable or marginalized. Individuals who harbor negative stereotypes may discriminate against them, make them feel invisible, stigmatized, unwelcome, or unsafe. To give a second example, if your issue is related to the environment or climate change, you may be affected by those who want to continue to make choices that contribute to pollution. Understanding the motivations and views of those who oppose or undermine your efforts will inform your strategy to address them.

Your funders

All of us are affected by the views and conversations around us. Your supporters may well be related to, working alongside, or socializing with people who are skeptical or opposed to your work. Their views may make your donors feel ill at ease, on the defensive, or even start to doubt their commitment. It may not be enough to reinforce donors’ and volunteers’ reasons to stick with you. They may also need your help to understand and be able to respond thoughtfully to the personae non gratae they encounter.

Your community / region

Your nonprofit might be a service provider rather than an advocacy group. Even so, some public policy decisions may have a very adverse effect on your ability to fulfill your mission. In such a situation, being effective depends on influencing the views and decisions of officials and other constituents in your area.

How do you do nonprofit marketing research on personae non gratae?

The first step is qualitative research about your opposition’s perspective and emotions. This doesn’t have to be overly time-consuming or costly. For one thing, some data may already exist. Academic institutions in your area may have done some work that would be helpful – or they might be willing to do research for you pro bono. In addition, elected officials who support your work may be willing to share some insights based on any opposition research they’ve conducted. However, even if neither of those options are open to you, there is a lot you can learn by reading what your opposition publishes / says.

Understanding your opposition’s stories, emotions, and values is every bit as important than learning about their positions, ideas, and assumptions.

How do you better understand your opposition’s perspective?

Take, for example, a nonprofit that works with clients who are mentally ill. Some people may oppose your work based on a news story about a crime committed by someone with a mental illness. Statistics about the rarity of violent acts committed by the mentally ill are probably not going to change the feelings about a community residence in their neighborhood.

Alternatively, if your organization works with immigrants, particularly Muslims, the news probably affects your clients even more. Spectacular events reinforce memory. So does repeated media coverage, even if we see the same exact clip multiple times. As a result, the impact of media coverage of a terrorist event can last for years. These news stories may be the sum total of what people in your community know about Islam. In their information universe, rather than being seen as aberrant or exceptional, extremists who are Muslims typify the whole group.

Ironically, the impact of terrorist attacks carried out by right-wing U.S. citizens has a totally different impact. This is because to most Americans, Christians are familiar or “normal.” So, violent perpetrators from this background are viewed as exceptional or aberrant individuals. Your opposition doesn’t see their actions as typifying their religious or national identity.

Pay-offs for nonprofit marketing research for personae non gratae

The best possible, if least likely, pay-off is that you will gain insights that will enable you to turn detractors into supporters.

However, even if that doesn’t happen, you may be able to limit how much influence your opposition has with those who are undecided about your cause or your clients.

Finally, you’ll also be better positioned to reinforce your stakeholders and equip them effectively speak out against the personae non gratae in your community.

Check back in coming weeks for more posts on Upholding Truth in an Age of Lies. Meantime, here are some helpful resources: