Listening Literacy for Nonprofits Part 2: Listening Skills

Dec 02, 2009 No Comments by

This is a guest post from The A-List podcast guest Beth Kanter. Beth is the author of Beth’s Blog: How Nonprofits Can Use Social Media, one of the longest running and most popular blogs for . She is a frequent technology trainer and speaker and in 2009, she was named by magazine as one of the most influential women in technology and one of Business Week’s “Voices of Innovation for Social Media.” She is the 2009 Scholar in Residence for Social Media and Nonprofits for the Packard Foundation. A frequent contributor to many technology web sites,blogs, and magazines, Beth has authored chapters in several books, including the ROI chapter in “Managing Technology to Meet Your Mission: A Strategic Guide for Nonprofit Leaders,” edited by NTEN published in 2009. She is currently co-writing a book with Allison Fine to be published by Wiley in 2010 called “The Networked Nonprofit.” You can read Beth’s complete biography here.

Far more important than our choice of tools for the task, are your listening literacy skills. These include composing and refining keywords, pattern analysis, and synthesis of findings. There’s also a fourth skill:  Effectively engaging. Listening is not just quietly observing, sooner or later you need to interact with people and build relationships. Working out when and how to respond is an important technique that needs to be mastered.


An alley in Old Strathcona.

Source: flickr: runran / CC BY-SA 2.0

At the very least, nonprofits organizations that want to do effective listening should set up searches on the basics. Some refer to this as “ego searches.” These may be obvious, but it also helps to have them listed and even better to create a one-pager and get input from other staff members.


  • Nonprofit Name
  • Other nonprofit names in your space
  • Program, services, and event names
  • CEO or well-known personalities associated with your organization
  • Other nonprofits with similar program names
  • Your brand or tagline
  • URLs for your blog, web site, online community
  • Industry terms or other phrases

Setting up a basic listening post and honing your listening skill is a great way to begin exploring the world of social media. As a nonprofit organization begins to listen on a regular basis,  it is a good idea keep a spreadsheet of phrases or words that people actually use to describe the nonprofit organization. It provides a reality check and avoids assuming that the audiences uses the same words as the nonprofits’ staff.

Carie Lewis, Social Networking Manager for the  Humane Society of United States suggests keyword searches on current issues that people are talking about as well as the issues your organization is working on. She adds, “Don’t forget to search the names of individuals who oppose your issues.” Danielle Brigida, National Wildlife Federation adds, “It is important to listen to people based on their interests. For example, I create twitter searches for the phrase ‘kids outside’ which is related to our program Green Hour and  is about encouraging parents to have their spend more time outside enjoying nature. I compliment parents.”

Another valuable source of keywords is to run a search engine referral report (the words that people type into Google or other search engine to find an organization’s web site). Analyze the keywords that people are using to tag or identify the organization’s web content or blog posts in social bookmarking sites like delicious or Stumble Upon. Apollo Gonzales, Social Media Campaign Manager for NDRC,  conducted an analysis of keywords used to tag his organization’s blog posts on environmental issues and was able to identify a lexicon of words used by people pro or against the issue. This helped NDRC hone their social media keyword searches.

Finally, as Wendy Harman, Social Media Strategist for advises, “You may not know what is not worth searching until you try searching on it and revise it based on what you see. Don’t assume that you’ll get it right on the first try, either. It takes fine-tuning of those key words before you get it right.”

What key words do you use? What’s your participation policy?

Now that your organization has mastered the skills, it is time to take a look at the tool box. That’s explored in the next post, : .

Look for Part 3 in this series, Listening Tools: A Starter Kit, to be published here on Friday, December 4th.

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About the author

Jennifer Neeley is a leading global Social Media Management Consultant and Web Strategist, as well as author and speaker.
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