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Speak Up: Nonprofits Should Communicate Like For-profits

Your organization and your people are amazing – don’t keep it a secret.

Your nonprofit status shouldn’t prevent you from acting like your for-profit counterparts. Those companies aggressively market and brand themselves, they develop communications plans to achieve specific communications goals and leverage their assets to build their brand and build loyalty.

Visibility is as critical for a nonprofit as it is for any other enterprise. Certainly it’s challenging to reach your audiences through shrinking and changing communication market. And nonprofits are doing it with small budgets, little time, and a staff that is already juggling too many competing priorities.

Whether you have a communications team, a communications manager, or consider it part of everyone’s responsibility, your nonprofit should adopt key best practices used by for profits – with a higher return on investment.

Pay Now… or Pay Later

It’s important to resist the urge to scrimp when it comes to investing in your communications. The time to make strong initial investments to build your long-term brand, message and outreach strategy is now. Invest, but do your homework.

A solid communications and public relations program doesn’t have to be expensive, but it does need to be existent, consistent and persistent.

Communications Strategy

The first step is to develop a strong and targeted plan of goals and priorities. Focusing your resources minimizes the “shotgun” approach to outreach that dilutes your impact. Have a clear sense of your message, your organization’s unique and relevant attributes, the key tactics you’ll use to promote your organization – and then figure out how to make it interesting.

Working with the local or national media is effective, carries greater credibility than paid media (like advertisements) and is relatively low cost, but it also requires time and persistence.

Being There

Identify your target audience, and then take note of where they network and educate themselves – that’s where you want to be. Become familiar with the newspapers, magazines and blogs they read.  Listen to the radio programs they tune into. Develop content for these outlets to position your people as experts on given topics.

Adopt Technology

Social Media – Identify your organization’s zealots and train (or unleash) them on Facebook and Twitter to keep your pages updated several times a week with fresh and relevant content. Develop a social media calendar that keeps you focused and plan your daily routine. Assign one or two people from your staff to do live tweeting at events or conferences they attend.

Website – Look at your own website regularly – and critically. Is it fresh? Does it reflect your brand? Does it advance your communications objectives? It’s the first impression a lot of funders, journalists, clients and competitors will have about your organization.

Media Database – If your nonprofit values media relations, a media database is a key investment. In exchange for about $5,000 a year in subscription fees, your communications person will be able to help you research reporters, maintain an updated list of media contacts, coordinate press release distributions, track media activity, and find story opportunities.  The database will be well worth the investment as you grow, especially into new geographical regions or issue areas.

Who Will Tell Your Story?

Spokespeople – Everyone on your staff and your leaders are brand ambassadors and some might even be particularly skilled public speakers. They should all know your talking points and the elevator speech about your organization’s mission.

Storytellers – These are the generous souls who provide a face and a heart to your vision, mission and statistics.  They may be clients, staff, partners or members of your board. Whoever they are, be on a constant lookout for people with an interesting, compelling story they are willing to share.

Help them develop their story with talking points and messaging – and let them tell it with passion. Keep a storyteller bank with names, contact information, consent forms and photos.

Work It and Make It Work

Don’t keep your communications successes a secret – get out there and talk it up.  Were you written up in the newspaper? Share it on Facebook and Twitter, post it to your website and send the link out to your email lists and funders. Get all the mileage you can out of your moment.


“Did we accomplish our goal?”  “What worked?” “What didn’t?”  Regularly evaluate communications just as you do other programming. Change tactics as needed and follow up continually to develop communications with real impact.

Your organization and your team are awesome – tell the world!

Steve McLean is the communications director at Sound Mental Health, one of the most comprehensive providers of behavioral health and chemical dependency services in the state of Washington and a social enterprise that is engaged in community based problem-solving. To learn more,

Kathy Mulady is the communications director at the Alliance for a Just Society, a national organization with a network of 15 affiliates in 20 states working on health, economic and racial justice issues.

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