Marketing & Communications 2017-01-06T00:52:01+00:00


Marketing and Communications

For many nonprofits, marketing and communications take a backseat to program activities. We get it. You’re driven by your mission, not by marketing. But effectively communicating about your organization will advance your mission. It’s how you get people behind your cause, raise political awareness, engage volunteers, stimulate giving, access institutional donors and, most importantly, connect with your beneficiaries.


Marketing & Communications FAQ’S

You want to raise awareness and funds for your cause. To do that, you need to get your message out, to engage and motivate your audiences. But how do you cut through the information clutter to ensure your voice is heard above the rest? In today’s competitive market, your approach to communications is key.

Thinking strategically about communications will help you tailor your activities to meet your constituent needs. It’ll help you budget for the tools and strategies you’ll need to use. And, it’ll help you link communications to your goals and mission, to ensure you’re getting the right results.

Without exception, effective communications strategies are built on a solid foundation of research and planning.

Research to get a true picture and establish a baseline for measuring success.

Research is critical to getting a clear picture of who you are as an organization and where you want to go. It’ll also help you learn who your audiences are and more clearly see the landscape in which you operate. Getting this kind of insight is necessary to develop a plan based on fact rather than assumptions.

To start, you’ll want to conduct an audit of your organization. Take an objective look at your mission and goals, and your current communications activities. Who are you? How are you perceived in the market? Who are your donors and why do they give? Is your mission clear? Are your goals in line with your mission?

Outline the communications activities you’ve implemented and the results you’ve achieved. Ask staff for input. Tap constituents, board members and other keys stakeholders for an outsider’s perspective.

Once you know who you are and how you’re perceived, you’ll want to look at your organization in relation to your peers. What are peer organizations doing well? What challenges do they face? Whom do they serve? And what makes them unique?

Knowing how you compare to others that serve your mission will allow you to unlock your specific strengths and communicate the unique value your organization contributes. This will help you drive a clear, focused mission that will resonate with your constituents and allow you to stay relevant to them.

Here are four tools you can use to make research easy and cost-effective:

  1. Surveys. Use web survey tools like SurveyMonkey and Constant Contact to develop and disseminate questionnaires to staff and constituents about specific issues. Use phone surveys to elicit even more revealing results.
  2. Focus groups. Conduct short sessions with donors, volunteers, colleagues, board members and other key stakeholders to test the effectiveness of your communications materials and get in-depth information about how others perceive you.
  3. Communications audits. Generally conducted by a consultant, an audit is typically an in-depth analysis of your current communications strategies. It provides feedback to help you identify gaps and learn which activities are working and which aren’t.
  4. Secondary information sources. Already existing nonprofit-related research, such as statistical reports, news items, trend reports and the like, is readily available (often online) and usually free. This kind of sector-specific information can help you better understand the nonprofit landscape and your competitors.

Once you’ve completed your research, here are eight questions to answer:

  1. Do you know your mission and goals?
  2. Are your communications strategies oriented toward your goals?
  3. What communications challenges are you facing today?
  4. What marketing and communications strategies are popular in your service area?
  5. Who are your audiences (constituent groups, partners, funders)?
  6. What do your target audiences know about you?
  7. What is your staff skill-set?
  8. Does your budget adequately support your communications activities and can you afford to hire additional resources if needed?

Create a roadmap to guide you to your goal.

Once you know who you are and where you want to go, you’re going to need to develop a plan of action. Now, the business of writing your plan begins. When writing your communications plan you’ll want to:

  • Outline your objectives and goals. Think general and specific, short and long term. Link goals to your mission to keep you on track. Make objectives measurable and achievable.
  • Identify your audiences. You may have more than one. (Consider constituent groups, potential partners and funders.) If so, segment and prioritize them.
  • Highlight your unique position among your peers and tie this to your constituent needs. What makes you stand out and why is this important to your audience?
  • Identify key messages that resonate with each audience. Think of the most important things you want your audience to know about your organization and what it does to help them.
  • Describe the strategies and tools you’ll use to reach your goal. Will you focus on creating partnerships to get your messages out? Will you use social media or direct mail? Donor cultivation and fundraising? If you’re unsure of your options, do an Internet search for nonprofit marketing or communications strategies for ideas.
  • Outline your budget. You’ll want to look at the output you have available for communications activities, upgrading staff skills or hiring additional resources. If you’re low on dollars, you’ll also want to describe how you’ll find the funds to implement your plan.
  • Describe your implementation plan. What’s your timetable? How will you prioritize the launch of each strategy?
  • Develop a strategy to measure success. Identify what success will look like and evaluate your progress as you go. Determine what’s working and what isn’t. Then, you can modify and refine your strategies to make the most of your resources and budget.

How do we establish the values and attributes that describe our brand? And what’s a brand anyway?

Think of your brand or organizational identity like your individual identity. It’s who you are in your entirety. It’s your organization’s DNA.

In the corporate world, brands rule. But program-focused nonprofits often overlook the value of creating a brand or organizational identity, not fully recognizing the power brands have. A strong brand not only helps to position an organization at a desired level in their service area, but it can also move constituents to action. It helps develop trust and, in turn, loyalty, allowing organizations to create sustainable relationships with their constituents.

A brand is what makes you unique

It’s the most important tool you have, to build confidence in your organization from within. Branding helps you clarify what you stand for and, in turn, helps you communicate your position to your audience in a way that resonates.

How do you develop yours?

A brand is often communicated through three elements:

  1. A brand purpose,
  2. a brand personality and
  3. a brand promise

Think about your organization’s purpose. Start by defining what you do and what makes you unique. Develop a purpose statement (like a mission statement) explaining why you exist strategically and what you do. By defining your purpose, you’re developing a foundation on which you can build focused goals and consistent communication.

Describe your brand personality. Your brand personality is an expression of your core values and the relationship you have with your constituents; it’s described using human traits. Are you innovative or traditional? Friendly? Approachable? Responsive? These traits will give life to your organization on the inside, guide your approach to communications and help you define your graphic identity.

Develop a brand promise. A brand promise is about benefits. It’s the emotional part of your brand purpose. It’s what gives your employees, colleagues, board members, constituents and other stakeholders confidence in your organization. Tap into your strengths and develop an informed promise based on constituent and competitor research.

Get buy-in

Once you’ve developed your brand, you need to get everyone in your organization to support and steward it. This includes management, staff, consultants and your board.

Remember, your organization already has a brand. The key to success is to manage it. Manage your brand right and you’ll carve a niche in your market, create a clear-sighted organization, build consistent communications and instill confidence and trust at every touchpoint.

Keep in mind!

A brand is more than a logo and a tag line. Your logo and tagline reinforce your brand, but they are not your brand. Your brand is the sum of all you do. It’s reflected in your corporate culture, the way you communicate, the relationships you build, and the promises you make to your audience.

Simply put, messaging is a term to describe how you talk about who you are and why you exist as an organization. It communicates key points you consistently make when you reach out to your audience. And it always ties back to your brand.

Different messages can be developed for different purposes, such as speeches, fundraising campaigns or presentations. They should also be developed for different audiences. You may want to consider crafting a set of short, standard phrases or paragraphs to describe your organization, programs and services. Then, as you need to reach out to specific audiences, implement new campaigns or communicate programs, you’ll have standard language ready to tailor to your purpose.

A well-crafted message will highlight your unique benefits, target your audience, support your mission and often include a call to action. Follow these three steps to develop messages that motivate.

  1. Think about what you want people to know about your organization and your cause. What do you want them to say about you? What do you want them to do?
  2. Develop a few core messages that connect the dots between what you do and how it relates to your audience. Develop messages around a single idea. Keep language simple and use analogies or personal stories to get your point across. Make your messages believable. Provide evidence such as numbers to increase credibility.
  3. Be consistent with delivery. Each message you deliver should reflect your brand – that is, who you are. Highlight what is relevant to the issue and your audience, but be sure to include a consistent statement about your organization. This makes your messaging memorable and helps position you in the market and in the minds of your audience.

One of the most important things nonprofit leaders can do, especially when they’re the spokespeople for their organization, is to develop an elevator speech. Being able to sum up your programs and services and communicate them clearly and quickly, are the most effective ways to reach out at any encounter.

An elevator speech is simply a short description of what you do and why it’s important. You should be able to deliver it in the time it takes to take an elevator ride (typically 30 seconds or less).

An elevator speech should say a lot in a few words. It should be an overview of your organization and its programs and services. And it should grab a listener’s attention and make him or her want to know more.

Let’s say you run a health clinic that provides services to young children from low-income families. Your elevator speech for a funder interested in child health or community development might look something like this:

The Impact Clinic provides critical health services to low-income children under the age of 2. In 10 years, our volunteer doctors and nurses have delivered check-ups, immunizations, screenings for developmental delays and health issues, and medication to over 30,000 children. We work on a sliding scale basis that covers 70 percent of our costs. We’re the only clinic of our kind within 10 miles and we serve more than half of the area’s low-income families.

Parents tell us if Impact Clinic didn’t exist, their children wouldn’t receive the care they need. That’s exactly the problem the Metro neighborhood has. Impact is the nearest clinic and it takes two hours to reach us by bus. Children there are 25 percent less likely to receive on-time immunizations as kids in our service area. That’s why we’re partnering with the Metro Community Foundation to build a new clinic in Metro. I’d love to talk with you more about our partners, our approach and alignment with your funding interests. May I have your card to schedule a meeting?

In this example, we’ve highlighted why our fictitious organization is essential to the local community, quickly conveyed what the organization does and for whom, pulled out key stats and used the data as a lead-in to an expansion project.

Note that we’ve also included a specific call to action at the end that makes the nonprofit responsible for following up. This puts the speaker in control of next steps, which is important given that your ultimate goal should be to get an opportunity to share more detail.

When developing your elevator speech:

  • Think about your market and the problems you’re trying to help solve.
  • Think about solutions. What does success look like?
  • Highlight your organization’s unique differences. What makes you stand out in the market?
  • Consider using stories. Can you incorporate a personal experience that illustrates your impact in the community?

An elevator speech helps to reinforce your brand. It allows everyone – staff, management and the board – to speak with one voice and tell a concise, compelling story.

People remember stories. They engage, inspire and encourage people to act. For nonprofits, they can be used effectively in just about any method of communication.

All nonprofits have stories to tell about how their constituency was impacted through their work. But many organizations don’t fully recognize the power their stories have to help them connect with their audience. Storytelling is one of the most important devices in your communications toolkit. How better to illustrate your impact than to “show” your constituents a successful outcome?

How storytelling can benefit your messaging:

  • Stories “show” your reader rather than “telling” them. They help position you as an expert and build trust among your audience.
  • Stories are memorable and touch readers in a personal way.
  • Stories help you focus your message to avoid communicating too much unnecessary information.
  • Stories help you bring independent pieces of information together into a coherent message.

Think about using storytelling in annual reports, on your website, in newsletters, fundraising campaigns and direct mail. Keep stories short and relevant to your audience, and make them about a single person or group of people. And don’t forget to deliver an underlying message that ties back to your mission and goals.


“Storyless” narratives rely on dry data and program descriptions without ever bringing the content to life. The result is a lost audience. Instead … tell a great story!

The best stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. They establish heroes and villains, create conflict and use an emotional hook.

Source: Cause Communications Toolkit

Budgeting for communications starts with your communications plan. Once you’ve outlined the communications strategies and tactics you’ll undertake to achieve your objectives, the path toward developing a budget should be quite a bit clearer. Just as with your organizational budget, you’ll want to plan for and track expenses by category (e.g., advertising, salaries, design, special events, to name a few).

When you write your communications plan, you should be allotting a dollar cost to each strategy you include. Make sure you do your research. Be realistic about resources and timelines needed to create, implement, monitor and evaluate each strategy. A delayed project, for example, can eat up resources, significantly affecting costs.

When you transfer these costs to your communications budget, you’ll want to list out each project and detail all associated costs. You also may want to consider adding a line item for contingencies. If you allow for unexpected expenses in advance, you won’t be forced to abandon a strategy if its associated costs are more than you anticipated.

Another important factor is to distinguish between your organizational communications budget and those of specific programs. Of course, this is worthwhile in terms of understanding and managing your overall budget. However, it’s also important because integrating communications into overall program planning (and related grant requests) demonstrates a sophisticated, holistic approach to realizing your mission.

Funders understand the return on investment associated with communications activity that supports mission-related goals. By ensuring communications is a core function across your organization, you will position your organization as a far more attractive and strategic investment in the eyes of funders. Indeed, support for communications should be built into your grant requests as a matter of course. Doing so will set the stage for you to deliver on your own goals, as well as those of your funder.

How can you raise money for your cause if no one knows about the good work you’re doing?

Successful fundraising is founded on making a strong case for your cause. In fact, recent data shows that when an organization’s communications strategies are clear and focused, its fundraising dollars increase substantially.

How marketing communications supports your fundraising activities:

  1. Strong communications help you build awareness for your organization and cause. This foundation builds a pipeline for fundraising activities and facilitates the “ask.”
  2. Clear, consistent and targeted messaging gives your staff and board the tools they need to create fundraising programs that get results.
  3. A strong brand identity helps your organization speak with a single voice, delivering a clear message that resonates with current and future donors.
  4. A clear call to action ensures that your target audiences know what to do after being motivated by your message.

When communications and fundraising are in sync, one supports the other through simple, consistent, compelling messages, delivered in a way that builds trust. Trust makes people want to get involved, support your cause and donate dollars.

Effective communications for fundraising is transparent, delivers on your brand promise and always reflects your organizational identity. This ensures messaging is believable and memorable, helping you to build trust among new donors and loyalty among donors you already have.

Here’s how you can get started:

  • Tie communications to fundraising initiatives. Ensure messages are in sync with fundraising goals. Determine what you want to achieve and when. Use tools and vehicles that target the audience, clearly communicate what you want people to do, and always tie back to your brand.
  • Use stories to support your efforts. Stories make your cause personal. They touch donor emotions and “show” your audience the difference you’re making. They can also be used over a period of time to draw an audience in and keep them coming back for more.
  • Release good news as soon as it happens. Keep your audience informed and excited about your cause. All staff should be looking for good news stories. Try using press releases and case studies on your website and in email communications to get the word out about the work you’re doing before the information gets old. Need help? The Center for Civic Partnerships has compiled a variety of free resources to help nonprofits develop their media and public relations efforts (, click on “tools and resources”).

How can they be effectively engaged?

An organization’s communications are only as strong as the people who deliver them – this includes a nonprofit board. Your board is key to your communications and fundraising activities, as it embodies your brand and tells your story to raise dollars, create strategic partnerships and cultivate resources.

Ideally, you’ll have board buy-in to your brand purpose, personality and promise. And your board will fully understand the relationship between clear, consistent and compelling communications and the ability to move your mission forward. Developing a comprehensive strategic communications plan that illustrates how communications will help the organization achieve objectives will help in this regard.

Once you have board buy-in, you’ll want to engage the members to support your efforts. Here are some ideas to grow board involvement:

  • Position your board as ambassadors for your cause. As stewards, your board should be able to convey key messages and drive your brand forward at the community level. Provide board members with the tools they need to do so by keeping them informed of the good work you’re doing. You may also want to consider bringing in a consultant to provide communications training and help board members become comfortable in this role. If funds are a challenge, seek out pro brono services through organizations such as Taproot Foundation ( You’ll also want to research local organizations that provide grants for nonprofit capacity building. State associations for nonprofits and regional associations of grantmakers can serve as useful resources for such research. And don’t forget, as ambassadors, your board members are also ideally positioned to watch trends in the community and report this intelligence back to staff
  • Form a board communications committee. Developing a formal committee can be an easy way to encourage board involvement on a regular or on an ad hoc basis. A committee can review communications materials and identify gaps, or even provide suggestions for capitalizing on resources and trends in the market. Ideally, you’ll have a board member with expertise in the area that can serve as lead. If you don’t have an existing board member with expertise in this area, make a priority of recruiting one. Be sure to use the opportunity to reach out to colleagues and partners in the communications industry to grow board participation.
  • Ask a board member to lead a high-profile project. When staff resources are stretched, and key projects could have significant community impact, an expert, connected board member may be an ideal project lead.
  • Use board connections. Ask board members to reach out to their networks to connect you with communications professionals who can help you meet your goals and objectives. Be sure to keep detailed records of all new connections to help you build relationships over the long term.

Simply put, social media is an umbrella term used to describe the myriad of web-based and mobile technologies that facilitate social interaction and the sharing of words, photos and video. Blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube are popular social media tools.

As opposed to broadcast media (TV, newspapers, print and the like) which pushes information out to an audience, social media relies on audience participation as a driver, allowing individuals with common interests to quickly and easily use technology to interact and exchange information in the electronic world.

Social media should be part of your strategic communications plan, simply because it’s a fast, cost-effective way to monitor and build your brand and grow relationships with your audience. The key is being ready to use it. It’s possible to do more harm than good to your brand and communications objectives if you leap into conversations too soon.

Here’s how you can get ready to join in:

Know who you are and how you want to position yourself online. A strong organizational identity will help you do this. Appoint one or two social media ambassadors to keep communications consistent. Be sure they understand the approach you’re aiming for and what’s off-limits for online discussion.

Be realistic about your ability to manage your social media strategies. Start slow. Small steps will help you assess the time and resources you’ll need to dedicate to social media to benefit from it.

Before you start talking online, listen carefully. Get a sense of who your audience is and what they’re talking about before you chime in. This will ensure you offer relevant information that positions you as an expert.

Engage people in meaningful interactions. It’s easy to simply talk at people, but effective social media strategies are about building relationships with your target audience.

Consider posting questions that invite feedback and opinions about issues that matter to your organization. When users post comments that are relevant to your organization, acknowledge them. Use social media as one of the ways you thank individual donors. Most of all, be creative. There are many ways you can build affinity with your audience. Embrace them.

Once you join the conversation, protect your brand. Be proactive rather than reactive. Follow conversations about your organization, programs and services. Don’t wait to respond if discussion turns negative. The intimate nature of social media encourages open dialogue, and sincere exchange is welcomed.

To learn more about social media, read Technology & Facilities.

In an ideal world, you’d have a department dedicated to communications, staffed by experts in the area. But in the nonprofit sector, employees often wear many hats, simply taking on responsibilities as tasks arise. So, whether you’re able to hire an employee or consultant who specializes in communications, will probably come down to what you can afford.

To make the best use of the resources and budget you have, first, look at your needs and then assess your staff skill set. Determine the ability of your current employees to develop and tackle the communications strategies you need to meet your goals. Can your in-house resources be diverted to communications work without sacrificing other programs? Do you have a staff member with skills and interest in the area? If so, consider training current staff and prioritizing strategies to what you can manage with the resources you already have.

If you don’t have the right skills in-house or you can’t sacrifice staff time, you’ll want to consider hiring an employee or consultant for the job. Hiring an employee is, of course, a long-term commitment, so to start, you may want to bring in an expert on a project basis. It may be tempting to engage an intern for communications functions, particularly in social media, given how adept young people can be in that space. However, it’s important to remember that communications is what drives your organization’s external presence so those responsible for it must possess the right skill set.

Project hires can be a cost-effective way to develop a strategic communications plan or implement a single communications campaign. Sometimes, an outsider’s objective point of view, especially during research phase, can also bring a fresh perspective to a project.

If you do choose to hire a consultant for a specific project, you’re going to want to find the right fit. Look at track records and creative processes, and always check references. To avoid confusion and maximize time and budget, ensure the scope of the project is clearly defined, with a beginning, a middle and an end. And along the way, be prepared to provide the consultant with the support he or she requires to get the work done effectively.

Still not sure? Here are six good reasons to hire a consultant:

  1. No one in-house has the expertise you need.
  2. You have the know-how but not the time.
  3. You’re too close to the issue and can’t be impartial.
  4. The project is confidential and inappropriate to assign internally.
  5. You need an expert’s credentials to help you sell your board.
  6. You need help on several levels, so it’s not cost effective to hire a single person.

Source: Cause Communications Toolkit

To learn more about hiring a consultant, read Managing People.