The messages your nonprofit uses to communicate with target audiences matter no matter what your organization does.

Whether you’re helping kids learn to read or finding ways to keep teens out of trouble with the law you need to understand how your audiences think and talk about your issue in order for your communications to resonate.

I saw the value of this lesson at firsthand in my work with Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative established by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that helps communities break the cycle of drugs, alcohol and crime.

One of the first challenges my team tackled we took on was to understand what members of the public thought about juvenile justice and drug and alcohol treatment for young people.

Here are four important opinion research findings we uncovered in six focus groups for Reclaiming Futures. While this information is especially valuable to those creating juvenile justice messages, the conclusions are also helpful to any nonprofit communicator as an illustration of how the messaging research process works.

1. Describe the link between substance abuse and crime

Data has long shown that teens who use drugs and alcohol are more likely to break the law, behave violently, or fail in school. We learned, however, that many people don’t understand the link between substance use and delinquency.

You not only need to make that connection, but you also have to point out that most courts aren’t set up to detect or treat substance abuse. Many people told us that they believe all courts screen for drug and alcohol problems and provide treatment on demand.

2. Include all types of kids

The people we talked with thought that most teens in the justice system were male, minority, and lived in poor neighborhoods.

How do you change this stereotype? Include all types of kids in your presentations, online and printed materials, and photographs. The people we interviewed responded positively when we shared these kinds of examples.

3. Show how teens can help themselves and others

Our focus groups told us they need to see that teens in the justice system want to change and are ready to take steps to help themselves.

Not surprisingly, programs we shared that gave young people opportunities to grow personally and make a contribution to the community were well received in our research.

4. Don’t blame the community

People want to help kids in the justice system, but talking about this work as a “community responsibility” can actually cause some to turn away.

Don’t put the responsibility on the community. Instead, suggest involvement with phrases like “communities in action” or “communities that care.”

Want to learn more about the focus groups that produced these messaging secrets as well as hear more about communications tools any nonprofit communicator can use to reach its publics?

Join me and my colleague Jessica Williams for a free webinar sponsored by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges tomorrow.

Our session, Two Tools Every Court Needs to Tell its Story in Two Minutes or Less, takes place from 10:30 AM to 12 PM PT, Tuesday, June 3, 2014. Advance registration required, so sign up now!