Creating an Effective Communications Plan for Your Nonprofit Organization

Your message is what it’s all about. Your nonprofit’s message is what gets people interested in the work you do, inspires them to donate to your cause and keeps them invested. As part of your fundraising planning process, you’ll want to evaluate your nonprofit’s messaging to ensure that it’s on-point, focused, accurately reflects the work you do and inspires people to act.

This is a step-by-step guide to creating a plan for your nonprofit that works and will help you refine, focus and integrate all of your nonprofit’s channels of communication.

The Importance of Your Messaging: What’s Your “Why”?

There’s a TED Talk by author Simon Sinek called “How great leaders inspire action” that I watched a several years ago. A line he repeats in this video has stuck with me as I worked for animal welfare groups and forged a career in marketing and communications: People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

Your message communicates your nonprofit’s why. It creates an emotional connection that pulls people in and gets them involved. That messaging needs to be at the root of all of your communications to keep your why at the forefront.

To see a real-world example of why your messaging is so important, just turn on your television in the month of December. It’s fundraising season for nonprofits, and you’ll see lots of larger organizations airing direct response television (DRTV) ads. While you’re watching “Home Alone” on cable TV, you can watch a master class in nonprofit messaging during every commercial break. When you watch DRTV from, say, the ASPCA, it’s impossible not to come away with a crystal clear idea of why they do what they do. Even if you turned off the sound (because Sarah McLaughlin’s “Angel” combined with sad animals is just too much), or turned away (because you don’t want to look at the sad animals), you’d still have no doubt about why these nonprofits exist because their messaging is so present and so powerful in every aspect of their ads.

These ads are expensive for the nonprofits, but as someone who worked at an organization that airs these ads each year (The Humane Society of the United States, sorry about all the sad animals!), I can tell you that the reason you see so many of these ads is that they work. They pay back the cost of creating and placing those ads many times over by bringing in new donors.

Why? Because they leave no doubt about their why. They move people. They inspire them to act.

Your nonprofit may not have money for DRTV, or a team of communications professionals to fine-tune your message, but you can learn from the bigger orgs who do. The first step is coming up with a plan.

Simplifying Communications Planning

Writing a communications plan might sound like a daunting task. If you look up templates online, they all seem so long and extensive and like so much work. But I’m going to make it easy for you.

You really don’t need an MBA-level strategic communications plan in order to streamline, focus, and refine your messaging. You can put together something uncomplicated and easy to read and still get great results. If you have the time to sit down and do a SWOT analysis and follow a traditional template for creating a strategic communications plan, great! But you don’t need to do that to start refining your nonprofit’s messaging. Even though the type of plan I’m proposing is simple, it works and can really help your nonprofit motivate more people to act.

Here’s what you do:

Define 3–4 key messages about your nonprofit.

You may be tempted to list all of your programs and services, or rattle off numbers, but you’ll need to keep it simple to keep your messaging effective. Pick messages that focus on your why. Keep them big-picture and evergreen. Think about what motivates you to come to work every day, why you chose to work for your organization. What pulled you into this nonprofit?

If you work for a hunger relief organization, you may want to list something like, “We believe that every person should have access to life’s basic necessities.” Your key messages, as defined here, are broad and profound statements that fuel your organization’s work. These messages are the ideas that are at the root of the work you do.

It’s important not to get lost in the weeds and forget to consider what moves your supporters. As an example, if I’m working for an animal rescue and I spent the past year developing a low-cost spay/neuter program, I’ll really want to include that spay/neuter program on my communications plan. I worked hard on it and it took a year of my life to get this program off the ground!

But wait — what does spay/neuter mean to the average person? Heck, does the average person on the street even know what “spay” and “neuter” mean? As someone who spent years on the front lines at animal shelters, I can tell you that many people don’t, and even if they do, they are not going to be as invested in the subject as someone who works for an animal rescue. When I’m thinking about my spay/neuter program and its importance, I’m using a lot of knowledge and context about why this is important that people outside of my field usually don’t have. I’m assuming that everyone else has the same base of knowledge I have, but they do not.

This is a common mistake nonprofits make with their messaging: We spend so much time consumed with the issues our work addresses that we can forget what it’s like to live outside of a world where you spend 40+ hours a week with your cause (and, if you’re like most nonprofit workers, you even take it home with you when you leave the office at night). We need to reach outside of ourselves and meet the public where they are in order to communicate with them effectively.

So when thinking about my key messages, I’ll need to snap apart my spay/neuter program and boil it down to its core. And here are the key messages I could extract from my hypothetical spay/neuter program:

  1. We help animals in our community.
  2. We help pet owners provide veterinary care for the pets they love.

These are simple messages, but remember, they are going to run through all of your communications efforts so they need to be broad.

Define 3–4 timely messages about your nonprofit.

What’s changing about your nonprofit this year? Are you hitting any milestones or anniversaries? Your key messages are the broadest, most simple messages about your organization and you can use these timely messages to funnel those messages into something more specific.

For instance, if I work for a food bank that’s celebrating its 15th anniversary in 2017, I can take one of my key messages (“We believe that every person has the right to life’s basic necessities”) and merge that with one of my timely messages (our 15th anniversary) to get a message we can use over and over again in 2017: “We’ve been providing the people in our community with one of life’s basic necessities for 15 years.”

Set communications-specific goals.

I wrote about goal-setting for 2017 in my post about creating a fundraising strategy, so you don’t need to retread territory here. These goals should be specific to implementing, refining and improving your organization’s messaging.

An idea of the kind of goal you should set for your organization would be weaving at least one key messages into all communications from your organization. You can check your progress on that goal by examining your campaigns, your social media, your emails, your mailers — can you clearly identify one of your key messages?

Another goal to set would be integrating all of your communications channels so your messaging is consistent. Speaking of which…

Integrating your communication channels

Nonprofits can fall into compartmentalizing the different aspects of our fundraising: Our social media, our emails, our events, our direct mail. It’s easy to build walls between your channels of communication — you may have different staff members handling these things, you may be working with email templates or direct mail templates that you have to work within, or there may just be a different process in place for getting these things out. However, all of these puzzle pieces should fit together if you want to communicate and fundraise successfully.

Planning for multichannel communications.

You’ll most likely have some fundraising efforts with hard deadlines and firm dates, like direct mail and events. These are the “corner pieces” of the puzzle, if you will. When you’re putting together your puzzle, identify these first and then work on fitting in the other pieces.

For example, if your nonprofit sends a mailer out on a quarterly basis, you know when that will go out. To complement that mailer, you can also plan for an e-blast, social media posts, and a fundraiser page on Razoo. Repetition is a vital part of making an idea “stick,” so if you’re sending out a message on one channel, make sure you’re hitting it on all channels to make it “sticky.”

Brand consistency.

It may feel a little strange to think of your nonprofit as having a “brand.” You’re not trying to sell products, after all, you’re trying to create change in the world. But in order to be a successful fundraiser, you’ll need to think like a marketer, and good marketing requires brand consistency.

So, what’s brand consistency? It means that the emails I get from your organization, your social media posts, your mailers, your website, and even materials like fliers and brochures have the same look, feel and messaging. Good brand consistency means that when I get your e-newsletter, I can immediately tell it’s from your organization just by glancing at it.

Brand consistency builds trust. Just like you might be confused if you walked into a store you thought was a Target only to find that everything was blue instead of their signature red, donors can find it confusing when they get an email or see a social media post asking for donations but it looks, feels, or sounds different than what they’re used to. If your emails, social media, mailers, and website are pretty much always inconsistent, they may choose not to donate at all because of that dissonance.

In 2017, pay attention to brand consistency. You don’t need to make everything look exactly the same (your Razoo page, after all, is a template and so is your Facebook page) but make sure the images you use, the language you use, your logo, etc. are consistent across all channels.

Step up your social media game in 2017

One of the best, most effective ways to grow your online community and engage with your supporters is through social media. Social media platforms are, at the end of the day, free marketing tools your nonprofit can use to increase your visibility, further your cause and connect directly with your supporters. Sometimes social media can seem like an afterthought, something fun and silly, but you’re squandering an opportunity to connect with people about your cause if you’re not being serious about utilizing social media.

Here’s a few ways you can improve your use of social media in the new year:

  • Think like a marketer: Social media platforms all provide tools like ads and analytics, so learn how to use these to place ads, boosts posts, promote tweets, and evaluate your efforts.
  • Include CTAs: You wouldn’t send out an email or a mailer without a call to action, would you? Of course not! So start applying that rule to social media as well — make sure you include a call to action in each post.
  • Install Razoo’s Facebook app: Collect donations right on Facebook! To install, simply go to your page’s admin panel, click on the “Share” tab and then click the “Embed on Facebook” button.
  • Innovate: Find new ways to share the work you do and connect with your followers. If you need inspiration, try following other nonprofits to see what they’re doing and let them inspire you.
  • Make a commitment to engaging on social media: Be an active member of your own online community! Respond to messages quickly, reply to comments, have conversations, start a dialogue.

Email like a pro

Your email list is one of your nonprofit’s most powerful tools. But even if you’ve got a robust list, you can get an even bigger return on your emails by picking up some of the tricks professional email marketers use to get the open rates and clickthroughs they want:

  • Segment your list: If you’re blasting all of your emails out to everyone on your list, you’re doing it wrong. You shouldn’t be speaking to all of your supporters in the same way. So try segmenting your email list. To start off with, try creating different lists for big donors and board members, recurring donors, one-time donors, and people signed up for your emails who have never made a donation. Then tailor emails to speak directly to each group.
  • A/B test: This is actually pretty fun! A/B testing is just testing to see what gets you the best results. So, if you want more opens, test two subject lines. If you want more click throughs, you can experience with button/link placement. Some email marketing software automates A/B testing, and some make it a more manual process, but the basic are simple — decide what you want to test and then split up your lists. You can divvy them up any way you’d like: 50/50, 25/25 and then send the winning email to the remaining 50%, whatever makes the most sense to you.
  • Pay attention to the data: All email marketing software provides you with analytics, so if you’ve never taken a look at your open rates and click rates, make a resolution to start paying attention to the data that’s provided. This can help you improve your email marketing efforts and get more opens, more clicks, and more donations.
  • Follow up: Whether it’s sending an additional ask or a survey to ask your donor how they found you and what their donation experience was like, following up with your donors can help convert them into monthly donors, inspire them to make another donation, and allow you to collect data to improve your effort. What are you doing to follow up with your donors? Try something new in 2017!

By focusing on your why in 2017, creating a simple communications plan, and working to professionalize your social media and email marketing efforts, you can elevate your nonprofit to new heights in the new year.

About Linda Gerhardt

Linda spent most of her career in the nonprofit sector before joining Razoo. She has worked for animal welfare groups large and small, in nearly every position. She specializes in social media strategy, communications, and digital marketing.

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