Content Strategy in Non-Profits — An Interview with Jess Sand

Jess Sand is a seasoned content strategist and digital experience designer. Jess uses strategic content to shape experiences and attitudes, to teach, and to empower, with an approach that is cross-functional and collaborative, balancing user needs with strategic outcomes.


[VG]: Jess, I am so happy and honored to have you here in the series. You bring many years of experience in content strategy and content driven user experience, and I am sure you have a lot to share with the community.

[JS]: Thanks, Vinish! I so appreciate being in such good company. I’ve been designing content in one form or another for well over a decade, but I’m still constantly learning new things every day.

[VG]: Let us start with the mindset. You worked in GoPro where the product team contributes to the commercial interests of the organization. And you worked for Net Impact where the goals are entirely different because the organization works for a cause. In either case, are there any mental shifts that you need to make, for the way you channelize your energies in the product team? And what were the common grounds in these two roles?

[JS]: Both roles were so different on the surface: at GoPro, where I was embedded on the UX Design team for software, I was working directly with dozens of product managers, designers, and engineers to shape apps that could play well with cameras and still feel fun and immersive for the humans using them. At Net Impact before that, where I oversaw our digital channels and helped drive a website and CMS rebuild, I was designing content intended to change people’s behavior in service of social and environmental impact.

Products vs. services, app vs. web, 1400 employees vs. 40. So yes, there were definitely some differences in how I approached the work! For one thing, at GoPro I was working directly with UX researchers to understand the impact of and validate our content decisions. I didn’t have the luxury of that kind of dedicated staff at Net Impact, so we had to be much scrappier in how we tested and measured success. We’d run really short intercept studies in a single afternoon, for example, and leaned heavily on surveys and analytics, which didn’t require testing facilities or heavy technology.

But here’s the thing: as you know well, content is one of the unsung assets in any organization; it informs every aspect of how someone experiences a product or service. So even though there were some tactical differences on the surface, I was often applying similar principles and practices in both roles.

For example, both roles required me to meet the user where they are. At Net Impact, that often meant in the midst of a busy workday, and at GoPro it might be on the top of a mountain. But in both scenarios, I needed to speak to the user in their own language, and get them through a given task so they could do the thing they really wanted to do — whether that was capturing the fleeting feeling of the wind in their hair while rocketing down a snowy slope, or it was helping a frazzled facilities manager convince her boss to recycle old fiberglass scraps instead of throwing them in a landfill.

And in addition to the front-end work of producing usable content, both roles required deep immersion in back-end content strategy: developing the systems and structures that enabled my colleagues to get that content into people’s hands. Because as much as content has to work for the people taking it in, it also needs to work for the people creating it.

So honestly, both roles were ultimately about the same thing: building the capacity of an organization to connect the dots in their user experience.

[VG]: Sometimes the product decisions for content or experience need to be taken fast, particularly when the leaders are in analysis paralysis mode. It can be assumed for how they may take such decisions in a for-profit organization but are things any different in a non-profit team? For example if it is about the location and the message for the DONATE button (such an important Call To Action), is there something at the back of your mind to be more considerate while making such a decision — because the team is working for a cause?

[JS]: So the nonprofit example you’re giving here is a great example of where I think non-profits often stumble their way through content strategy. The tendency in the sector is to conflate content strategy with content marketing, which way too often focuses on the transactional at the expense of the experiential. The sector’s money model is fundamentally broken, with too many nonprofits undermining their mission because they have to constantly chase after donors (be those individual people or corporate sponsors). So what ends up happening is, you spend all your time tweaking donate buttons and email subject lines, without uncovering the role your content plays in how your audience connects to your actual cause.

This is starting to shift among savvier nonprofits, who are looking more deeply at how they shape the way their constituents engage with the cause, and those folks find that when your programmatic content is both functional and compelling, that donate button doesn’t have to work quite as hard. It really goes to the heart of how content needs to be integrated into the larger organizational strategy and funding model.

So before you worry about using “donate now” vs. “support the cause” language, you should be thinking about everything that led up to getting that donate button in front of your user — and that includes all the content you rely on to actually achieve your organizational mission.

  • Do you write policy papers to influence legislation? Your prospective donor wants to know that content is effective.
  • Do you produce training materials to help ex-convicts develop job skills? Donors want to know that those materials actually do their job to reduce recidivism.

That, to me, is far more critical than running yourself ragged trying to increase your click-through rate or A/B test a call-to-action. And not for nothing, but have you seen the state of donation forms? The strongest CTA in the world can’t push someone through a broken form with 40 fields and crappy error handling!

[VG]: Now in relatively mature non-profits, there are multiple audiences for the content — the donors, volunteers, programs owners, partners, sponsors, community moderators, and others. They have their own journey, and goals. Take an example of Toms Shoes where for every pair of shoes sold, they donate a pair to a person who needs it. It means that the top of the funnel ‘educative’ content may not be relevant to ‘compassion-inducing-CTA’ content that you target for a donor. How do you manage a resource-constraint team to plan and write this variety of content, to ensure right brand voice and message cohesion?

[JS]: This is where a good editorial strategy really shines. In any organization, it’s common to have lots of different folks producing content (many of whom may not be writers), and in nonprofits, as you point out, they’re often creating it for lots of different kinds of people. That can lead to split personalities across channels and inconsistent, fragmented experiences for the audience, which undermines trust. On the flip side, there’s the risk of over-simplifying your message to the point that you’re treating all audiences the same and hitting them over the head with one common-denominator message that really speaks to no one in particular.

A good nonprofit editorial strategy should clearly define the organization’s voice, and provide the framework and tools to tailor that voice appropriately, depending on the recipient of the message and the channel of communication. To do that, you really need to understand who your different audiences are, what kind of messaging resonates with them, and where they turn for that kind of information in general. Then you can meet them where they are, communicating in an authentic way that speaks directly to their particular concerns.

Large philanthropic donors may need more charts and graphs to demonstrate the impact your organization is making at scale, for example. But when those donors follow you on Twitter, they may be looking more for a quick emotional connection to reinforce their relationship with your organization as they quickly flip through their feed while waiting for the next meeting start.

So that’s the big picture. But even if you have identified an organizational voice and appropriate channel mix, how do you get staff on the same page? That’s where tools like style guides and content models come in handy.

Style guides help your writers apply the organizational voice to actual content in a practical way, and content models help maintain consistency throughout the content you produce (Cleve Gibbon offers a great breakdown of the process).

I’ve found that the more involved staff are with the development of these tools, the likelier they are to actually use them — which is important.

When I was working on Net Impact’s first editorial strategy, I wrote up a post about my process.

A lot has changed since then — especially the tools available to us — but much is still applicable.

[VG]: So important, it is. Now a quick one Jess, and say Yes, or No, or Not Sure, or No Comments. Did working for a non-profit help you be a better human being? Not more than three words!

[JS]: My team did.

[VG]: We talked about culture and constraints. At the same time, digital literacy is so important to embrace technology, as Pacific Standard says. How has been your experience in enabling digital literacy among different stakeholders (including beneficiaries) so that they are actively listening to, and participating in, and are positive about the ‘content driven user experience’ initiatives.

[JS]: It’s rarely easy! Some in the nonprofit sector implicitly understand the value of leveraging technology in service of their mission, and embrace it. But it can be really hard to keep up with advancements in the tech itself, let alone best practices. The reaction to that overwhelm can be to reflexively keep technology at arm’s length, without understanding how it can free teams up to be more productive. So when content owners try to squeeze a new line item into the budget, it can be seen as a “nice to have.” And “nice to haves” rarely make the cut.

What ends up happening is that organizations get stuck with legacy technology, legacy processes, and glaring blind spots. These snowball, and only get worse with time. This is an incredibly dangerous state from which to manage a nonprofit, particularly given the increasing frequency and scale of security issues like data breaches, ransomware, and the like.

So one of the most effective ways to justify the technology needed to structure and manage your content is to surface the risk of NOT making the investment.

You’ve got to make the risk and the pain visible, and you’ve got to put a number on it. There are several ways you can do this, even on a tiny budget.

Any time you’re talking to someone involved in your organization, ask if you can use your mobile phone to record them trying to complete a task on your website (you don’t even need to include their face; although I’ll caveat this with a recommendation to have them give you written permission to use the video internally). Maybe ask them to try signing up for your newsletter, or find the latest report you know is buried six menus down. Ask them to talk out loud as they try to find your sign-up form and try to fill out, or download that giant PDF to their tiny phone. Time them. Ask them for their opinions of the experience. On camera. Then show the clips to your leadership. Anytime you can visually demonstrate people actually struggling with your content, it builds a stronger case.

But maybe more important than making that emotional connection is to make a financial one. It’s often shocking to everyone when they discover just how much lost time in wages is poured down the drain because systems and workflows aren’t automated. This takes some effort, and some math, but it’s so worth it. And estimates are fine for this — identify all the different kinds of content you produce. Then estimate the amount of time each person spends to produce it.

For example:

How long does it take to draft, review, publish, and distribute your average blog post (including the time it takes to dig through all those poorly named folders for just the right image to go with it)? Make sure you capture the time spent of all the team members who touch that piece of content, be they writers, program managers, or the IT gal. Average that out to the year (3 hours on writing and revisions + 1 hour on images + 2 hours on reviews and approvals + 1 hour to cram it into that clunky CMS back-end, etc. X 100 blog posts/year, and you’re looking at 700 staff hours/year on blog posts alone). Now comes the kicker: estimate the average wage of all those people, and do the math.

Let’s say your organization’s average salary across those roles is $45,000; you’re looking at more than $15,000 a year spent on blog posts ($45,000/2090 hours = $21.53/hour; $21.53 x 700 hours = $15,071.77/year — on blog posts).

Reducing that time by half (which is often an easy target to hit — I got our production turnaround down from two weeks to about two days at Net Impact), would handily save the organization $7,500 annually — just on the dang blog.

It’s really hard to argue with those kinds of numbers. It also builds your credibility instantly, because it demonstrates the financial value your work brings to the organization.

[VG]: Yes, numbers speak so loud and clear. I learnt about the NGO reference model, and this white paper — The New Imperative of Nonprofit Digital Transformation by Microsoft and NetHope too talks about this NGO Reference Model. If your team referenced it, can you share your experience for how easy or difficult it is to adopt it, or to align it with a non-profit’s digital culture and goals.

[JS]: Neither of these existed in my nonprofit days, but both seem to be a fairly practical approach to addressing some of the core challenges facing the nonprofit sector.

The first step for any kind of organizational change is, of course, to name the problem. And the best way to do that is with shared language, which is what the NGO reference model appears to support. It’s funny, just glancing at the New Imperative report, their basic approach is very similar to what I described earlier: measure it, put a value on it, make it visible. So much of our work is about building a shared understanding among different stakeholders.

[Vinish adds: How much I loved this statement on shared understanding. This is exactly what I meant in my meetup that I hosted in February this year.]

[VG]: Many a times, non-profits live on borderline for financial stability or maturity. It means that stakes are high for each conversion, whether it is for a new sign up for a program or to seek a donation. Is it true that the teams need to plan and publish more content (for volume), because of the high stakes involved? If so, how challenging it gets keep it strategically aligned across different teams, for faster and result-oriented response by other teams — design (UX), distribution (marketing), and onsite volunteers?

[JS]: Oh God, no. That’s another scourge from the content marketing playbook. Volume for volume’s sake is never the answer (unless we’re talking about AC/DC, and then I strongly encourage it).

A nonprofit’s resource constraints are exactly why every piece of content produced needs to be thoughtful, targeted, and measured. The spray-and-pray approach to content just eats up the time of already-overworked staff members (show me a nonprofit with a dedicated UX team and I’ll show you 100 who get by with a single person running marketing, grant writing, social media management, and data analytics). It also risks alienating an organization’s audience, which undermines the whole point. Instead, organizations should be auditing the content they produce and talking to the people they produce it for, to ensure it’s doing its job.

[VG]: Imagine that a big non-profit hires you as a consultant, say YMCA, or habitat or Feeding America. Assuming that your role, and the goals for your hiring are clearly defined, what will be your pitch or message to the product team on day one?

[JS]: Having been on both sides of the fence — working with outside consultants as both a nonprofit and for-profit in-houser, and now being an independent consultant myself — I know first-hand how fraught that relationship can be. It’s so valuable to get an outsider’s fresh eyes on entrenched problems, but in-house teams can be skeptical of consultants. I mean, here’s someone coming in who hasn’t been living knee-deep in the muck, and is probably not as conversant with the nuances of the problems we’re trying to solve.

Consultants have an often-deserved reputation of swooping in, creating grand plans that have no basis in the reality of an organization’s inner workings, and then disappearing, taking with them the time and money spent on the project.

So when I step into new engagements, rather than share any kind of pitch, I really try to just shut up and listen. I talk to as many people as will talk to me, and make a point to do this with both leadership and the people on the front lines working with the content itself.

I mean, I’m eventually asking people to change the way they work — and have been working sometimes for years. If I want our changes to stick, they have to be grounded in the realities of these people’s daily lives. At the same time, it’s important to have a vision, and communicate that out along the way. Good consulting engagements are partnerships. They may not always be comfortable, because change is hard. But they have to work for the team who will be left to maintain the processes and systems we put in place. Ugh, that sounds like pitch after all, doesn’t it?

[VG]: It is — the Intent is the pitch so often. Thank you, Jess for your wonderful and delightful thoughts on content strategy. I totally enjoyed it. To conclude, is there anything else that you want to add to this discussion?

[JS]: Thank you so much, Vinish. I appreciate the opportunity to nerd out about this stuff.

Concluding thoughts — content strategy is an ongoing, iterative process. For people chipping away at huge, brutally important problems, with tiny budgets and a million hats to wear, it can sometimes feel overwhelming. The beauty of content strategy, though, is that even small efforts can have widespread impact — both internally among staff and externally among the people they serve.


Like what you read? Give Vinish Garg a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.