Public relations, marketing or fundraising: Who is best at public engagement?

publication date: Mar 8, 2017
author/source: Julia Rim Shepard

Julia Rim-Shepard

Many of us who work in the nonprofit sector understand that that size of the proverbial charity pie is not growing and in order to be successful, organizations must find ways to increase their “slice.” Competition is high as there are 86,000 charities in Canada (CRA) —a number that rises to 170,000 when you include nonprofits (Imagine Canada). Organizations looking to be successful for the long term will need the ability to build effective relationships with their key audiences. To do this, they must reimagine and reengineer the ways in which they engage with their target audiences.


Over the last 30 years, the quality of an organizational-public relationships (OPR) has been measured by a number of scholars but it was Hon and Grunig (1999) whose research resonated most. They identified a number of measures to do so, including trust, commitment and control mutuality, or what is better described as mutual influence.


To unpack this, and to understand whether public relations, marketing or fundraising was best poised to carry out public engagement, I set out to get some answers as part of my recent master’s thesis and zeroed in on human services nonprofit organizations  - those concerned with the financing and delivery of welfare services. My research included: a nationwide survey where responses from 115 public relations, marketing and fundraising professionals were collected, eleven in-depth interviews with CEOs and senior leaders, and a content analysis examining organizational charts. Here were my findings.


Financial sustainability is a primary concern

Regardless of whether your work focuses primarily on achieving non-financial targets, you need to understand your organization’s fiscal challenges and help move your public audiences into a partnership that ideally supports the organization’s bottom line. Nine of the eleven senior leaders interviewed spent most of their time and visited most frequently with the fundraising function within their organizations. Measures such as volunteer hours and online engagement can all be part of the equation, but these should not be conducted independent of helping your organization achieve its business goals. This is particularly important with the increasing polarization of wealth, which means there will be less money in people’s pockets for charitable causes.


The senior leadership table includes fundraising and communications

In both qualitative and quantitative data, the fundraising and communications functions were found to be most often part of leadership teams.  Marketing? Not so much. While fundraising teams were strikingly larger in organizations that raised more than $1 million in annual donations, the important decisions were made by the separate-but-equal functions of both fundraising and strategic communications. Again, this speaks to the need for all functions to have a broad understanding of business challenges.


Relationship management is everyone’s job


While the CEO and communications function were found to typically lead in terms of public engagement, my research showed that successful relationship management needs to be a part of almost every role: advocacy, member services, research and development, youth engagement, programs and evaluation, staff, volunteers and so on.  All of these teams need to be swimming in the same direction, making excellent relationship management a priority, and enabling the movement of key audiences into deeper engagement with their respective organizations.


Who leads?


My research showed no clear link between the way organizations were structured (amongst public relations, marketing and fundraising) and successful engagement, but what became clear is that organizations should focus their efforts more on approach, rather than structure.

Practitioners in this sector were generally an optimistic group, enjoying high levels of engagement, trust and commitment from their key audiences, but they really fell short in the area of mutual influence, a form of two-way engagement.  This means allowing key audiences to be more than passive recipients of your messages but more, partners.

Organizations should allow key audiences more influence

I’m not speaking of the kind of influence that enables a donor or Board member to cause mission drift - the prioritization of initiatives that do not align with an organization’s core mission or goals - but allowing key audiences the opportunity to help organizations as they wrestle through important business decisions. This kind of engagement further promotes trust, engenders loyalty and enhances organizations’ reputations, which are clearly valuable in this competitive climate.

Practical steps to foster trust, commitment and mutual influence

Here are a few suggestions:


      Ensure that the senior leadership team includes a functional leader who understands communications and engagement in its holistic sense, and is able to engage with a range of publics in addition to donors, such as employees, government, media, board members, and other publics.

      Help equip all external communicators with training so they not only understand how not only to promote messages, but also how to take in feedback and escalate it to key decision-makers to affect change.

      Ensure that communication touchpoints are frequent as research suggests that those who are aware of an organization’s activities will give them higher ratings on trust, commitment, and control mutuality than those who are not aware (Hall, 2006).

      Communicate with donors outside of the fundraising context: inviting them to special events, giving them news updates and sending them more personalized communications are likely to result in more repeat donations (Waters, 2009 and 2010).

      Allow audiences, including beneficiaries, a variety of ways to give feedback, such as focus groups, social media councils, private phone lines, face-to-face forums, volunteer initiatives and board member invitations, to help wrestle through tough reputational matters as well as testing out campaign ideas (Sargeant, 2013).


In the charity and nonprofit space, there is the obvious need for organizations to have a “fundraising first” position, but effective two-way engagement is the way to reach key audiences in a way that allows them to come alongside us in our causes.


About the Author

Julia Rim Shepard has worked in the non-profit and fundraising sector for more than a decade. Currently she’s Director of Integrated Marketing Strategy for an international development agency. She specializes in communications and business strategy. To reach Julia and to find out more about her research, find her on LinkedIn, on Twitter @juliarimshepard or email



Like this article?  Join our mailing list for more great information!

Copyright © 2011-Current, The Hilborn Group Ltd. All rights reserved.

Free Fundraising Newsletter
Join Our Mailing List