It’s been said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” I like to say, “the road to prosperity is paved by planning.” Today, I’ll share five key steps to get NPOs on the “right road.”
Why are these directions important now?
Many nonprofits are contending with mailbox clutter, increasing costs, along with a growing marketplace of new organizations that, in many cases, offer similar services. These circumstances often lead to lower response rates, higher donor acquisition costs and, most importantly, higher costs per dollar raised, which leaves nonprofits with fewer dollars available to support their mission and programs.
So what is the answer to help nonprofits today?
Unfortunately, there is no “magic bullet.” Rather, the answer is to develop a portfolio of interlocking tools that work together to raise an organization’s awareness and donor revenue. In order to maximize the effectiveness of a nonprofit’s portfolio, there must be an overarching message that weaves it all together.
The foundation that helps nonprofits weave a coherent story is Communications Planning. Communications Planning, when you reduce it to its core, is the “ATM” of future success. What the heck is ATM? Well, it goes like this: Awareness equals Trust equals Money. Actually, it is really quite simple: if people are not Aware of an organization and what it does, they will never get to a level where they can Trust it enough to give their Money or time. This is true whether you are dealing with the general donor population or with potential corporate or foundation donors.
The key to developing a good Communications Plan is simplicity. All of us have heard of the “elevator pitch,” where we have sixty seconds to explain what our nonprofit does and why it is worthy of support. This simple and impactful statement of an organization’s essence is the key to your communications strategy, whether you are talking to potential donors, the media, current stakeholders, volunteers or key influencers.
Developing an NPO’s brand essence statement is done by pulling together a group of representatives, from all departments within an organization, to deal with the outside world. Typically, this includes the NPO’s leadership, marketing, online and communications staffs, along with key program staff and, if desired, a few key clients of their services. I strongly urge that NPOs do so, as these people understand at a personal rather than professional level the impact a cause has on the real world and on real people.
There are five steps to accomplish as you begin the communications planning process:
1. Develop an inventory of every communication channel your organization uses. It’s important to also cite whom you are talking to and what you are trying to accomplish through each channel. Typically, this inventory would include channels such as Leadership Events; Web Activities; Social Media; Direct Mail; DRTV; Events; Public Service Announcements (PSAs); Issues and Program Briefings; Cause Marketing or Corporate/Foundation Outreach; Media Relations and Government Relations Activities; and, if you have an in-bound call center or internal staff that handles inquiries, please do not forget them, as they are a key part of your organization’s “voice.” This list is by no means exhaustive but just designed to get you thinking in the right direction.
2. Identify all the current messages you communicate using these channels. Don’t despair if it looks like there are dozens of different messages. This is not uncommon. In fact, in many instances, what you are seeing are those secondary messages that ultimately serve to strengthen your core message, and they will be highly effective as a means to enhance the core message, depending on future target audience make-up. Make sure that you capture all of them before you leave, as this will most likely be the first time you see, in one view, everything you are telling the world about yourself. You may want to categorize them by type—e.g., informational, programmatic giving, etc.—so they will be easier to access in the future.
3. Have an open and honest conversation about the effectiveness of your current messages. Set goals for what you want them to accomplish in the future. During this exercise in communications planning, your goal is to try to quantify how well each of these messages works, which is the most effective for each audience and set yourself up for Step Four. Try to gauge the impact of each message point and give it a ranking. Remember, these will be used to support your core message but, in order not to detract from the core, you will want to use only one or two, based on the make-up of your audience.
4. Take all your varying messages and look at what they have in common. This is the key step in developing your organization’s core message. What have all of the different channels been saying, and what is the common theme? Capture all of the messages that are the same or very similar. Look for the “action” words; look for the messages that have emotional or “human” content. It is key to remember that people “give”—money, time, press coverage—to people, not to causes. From this distillation, the group can now draft the elevator speech. A few tips to keep in mind: Keep it short! Ideally it can be spoken in less than 60 seconds and written in one paragraph or outlined in three to five bullets. Make sure that it speaks to how your organization impacts people and the world. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect; they never are. What you have accomplished is certainly better than the fragmented approach so often found in nonprofit communications activities.
5. Achieve buy-in from all participants that the core message is a good first step. Then each of them will take it back to their operational area and communicate it to others and use it in any and all communications. As you integrate the core message into your marketing channels, please remember to test before rollout.
After you have begun implementation, your organization must also measure, at least qualitatively, and report back the impact of this core message. Once you can get a sense of how the core message is resonating and whether it is helping raise awareness and build trust, the initial brainstorming group needs to reconvene and discuss what is working within the message and what is not. By developing a formal feedback loop, your nonprofit will be able to refine the message over time by listening to what your audience has to say. Just like your organization is dynamic and always evolving, so too should be your messaging to the world.
While those who don’t know where they’re going might end up anywhere, those who begin their communications planning with these five steps will certainly be moving forward.
Dawn Brelsford is Vice President, Chief Strategist at Innovairre, which supports more than 500 nonprofit organizations around the world. For more information about channel attribution or Innovairre, contact us at Answers@Innovairre.com.