Do you understand your constituency?

This past weekend, a terrible fire in Brooklyn, NY tragically caused the deaths of seven children and severe injuries to one more sibling and their mother.  The fire was started by a hot plate that the Orthodox Jewish family had put out before sundown in order to keep Saturday’s food warm while observing religious prohibitions against cooking and lighting fires on the Sabbath.

While reading about the fire in The New York Times, I was struck by the actions that New York Fire Department officials reportedly took in the hours following the incident.  NYPD representatives went through the surrounding Orthodox Jewish neighborhood on Saturday to distribute pamphlets which did not reflect an accurate understanding of religious observances, and also attempted to hand out fire safety information and smoke detector batteries to people who could not take them without violating religious requirements for the Sabbath.

My goal is not to criticize the FDNY here; rather I want to point out an important lesson to be learned from their actions: Understand your constituency.  In working with nonprofit leaders and social entrepreneurs, I have often observed their strong desire to help people in need, which is admirable.  However, I have also often observed that many people fail to link the actions they take with the specific needs and values of those they aim to serve.

Periodically do a self-checkup to see if you understand your target population.  Write down a profile of someone your organization is trying to serve.  Can you describe that person’s gender, religious beliefs, cultural attitudes, financial status, core values, etc.?  If not, it is time to implement a plan to really get to know your constituency and find out what is important to them, as described in their own words.  If so, it never hurts to confirm your understanding by asking for more information.  Next, see if your programming matches up with the profile you wrote.  If there are discrepancies, address them.  Tailoring your work to your constituents’ needs means improved use of resources and better outcomes for your programs.

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Please note:  This blog is intended as general educational information only, and should not be considered legal advice or a substitute for consulting a lawyer.