A step-by-step guide to creating a nonprofit communications strategy

Pontus Bergmark
Mar 22, 2020 · 14 min read

Nonprofit organizations often experience challenges with limited funding and resources. Oftentimes, this leads to communications being at the bottom of the priority list. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

With a strong foundation, a small organization with limited means can accomplish a lot. The important thing is to create a measurable and scalable strategy that can be customized according to your organization’s needs.

What follows is a strategy template centred around digital communications. It is by no means intended as a definitive guide. It is, however, based on many true and tested marketing best practices that will hopefully help spark a conversation in your organization.

The guide details a strategy based on 5 main pillars:

  • Objectives
  • Target audience
  • Messaging
  • Content
  • Channels

You can tailor these pillars to your needs and available resources. If you use them to create a solid base, you will be off to a better start than most.

Let’s dive in, shall we?

1. Objectives

“If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”

— Yogi Berra

It is as true for communications as it is for baseball: Your strategy needs a concrete aim to ensure its focus. Therefore, the first thing you need to keep in mind is your objectives. Without having a clear “why” to guide your strategy, your outcome will likely be unfocused — or worse yet: disappointing.

Then what are the goals of nonprofit marketing? Obviously, they vary. But often, they centre around one of the following three aspects:

  • Raising awareness: Your nonprofit is a brand, and raising awareness means getting more eyeballs on your organization. This can help you recruit partners and funders, and ultimately make a bigger impact.
  • Raising funds: Like it or not, funding fuels operations. This can be in the form of large donations from trusts or institutional funders or it can come in the form of small sums from individual donors. It all depends on your organization and your goals.
  • Recruiting volunteers: Aside from funding, many nonprofits rely on volunteers to make an impact. And to enrol volunteers, you need to promote a worthy — and attractive — cause.

Regardless of what your objectives are, make sure they are properly defined.

Starting out, they can be broad — for instance:

  • Increase brand awareness
  • Increase cause awareness
  • Increase support from institutional donors

However, these overarching objectives must sooner or later be boiled down into concrete goals. As management thinker Peter Drucker famously said:

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”

Without setting benchmarks for success, you won’t be able to track your progress. A useful tool to help you get started with this is the SMART framework. SMART is an acronym, often employed in project management, that provides criteria to guide in the setting of realistic, measurable goals.

Goals that follow the SMART criteria are:

  • Specific: Focus on a specific area for improvement.
  • Measurable: Establish an indicator to measure progress.
  • Assignable: Specify who will do it.
  • Realistic: Be realistic about what result(s) you can achieve.
  • Time-related: Set a deadline for when the result(s) are to be achieved.

So how does this work? Say your goal is to measure brand awareness. First, you identify the metrics. These could include:

  • Direct traffic to the website
  • Backlinks
  • Referral traffic
  • Earned media (or earned media compared to competitors)

Next, we want to transform these metrics into a SMART goal:

Milestones to hit by end of Q2:

  • Increase direct traffic to website by 20%
  • Secure 15 backlinks to website
  • Person in charge: Jenny

Now you have a deadline, specific targets to achieve, and a person in charge.

You can establish these goals for monthly, quarterly, and annual bases, but remember to review them regularly — especially if you are just starting out. Setting realistic goals is an iterative process; when you are just beginning, it will be difficult to know what is achievable.

Once you have a better idea of what your tangible goals will look like, you should strive to raise the bar on a regular basis. This is often easier said than done, however. If you find yourself struggling to do so, you might want to look at your activity metrics.

Activity metrics

Activity metrics measure the activities that you or your organization undertake in pursuit of your goals. For example, if your goal is to get mentions in industry publications, a potential activity metric is how many press releases or emails to journalists you send out each month.

Unlike goals, activity metrics are directly influenceable. If you need to get 10 more backlinks, and you know that it — on average — takes 25 outreach-emails to receive one backlink, you can reverse engineer the process and see how many emails you need to send to reach your goal.

The activity metrics help you get a more granular view of the mechanics behind your goals. But they are not the be-all and end-all of reaching your targets. For example, more emails might not get you more backlinks; but more customized outreach templates might. Hence use the activity metrics as a guideline, but don’t let them have the final say in how to reach your goals.

2. Target audience

The next step is to identify who you are talking to. You should strive to tailor your communication specifically to your audience. It might seem like there is a benefit to having generic communications, but to invoke a classic marketing quote:

“When you speak to everyone, you speak to no one.”

— Meredith Hill

Hence it is important to identify your main external (and internal) stakeholders, what their goals are, and how you want to interact with them. A good way to start with that is by creating personas.

Personas

Personas help you better understand who you are communicating with. These should always be based on real-life data, and not on hunches. (Should advocacy be your goal, you might want to conduct a power analysis as well.)

So how do you gather this data?

Collecting data using “Jobs to be Done”

There are multiple ways in which you can gain information about your target audience. This can be second-hand sources like reports or demographic data. Or, better yet, it can be something you have gathered yourself. The best way to do this is to interview (or survey) your target audience. You don’t need to talk to a lot of people; two or three individuals from each main audience is often enough to get started.

In terms of what information to look for, the Jobs to be Done (JTBD) theory can be helpful in figuring that out. JTBD is a theory developed by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen that strives to accelerate innovation by learning the true problems customers are trying to solve (that is, their “jobs” to be done).

One example is a lawnmower. When a customer goes out to buy a lawnmower, they aren’t in the market for a fancy new piece of equipment. They have a specific job to be done: Ensure that grass is kept at a certain length. Hence another way to tackle the same problem could be no-mow-grass. It’s a completely different solution to the same problem.

Traditional marketing personas have an issue in that they often present you with irrelevant demographic and psychographic information. The classic example is that you don’t buy a drill because you are a 45-year old man living in a suburb. You buy a drill because you need certain-size holes. JTBD allows you to zone in on the problem at hand, and focus on effectively finding solutions — and often forcing you to think outside of the box.

So how does this work?

Let’s say you’re running a nonprofit that gets most of its funding from individual online donors. Then you may either run a survey on your website (for example via Hotjar) or simply email previous donors and ask for an interview. Interviews are a cornerstone of the JTBD philosophy. And while it may be intimidating to ask your target audience for their time, you’d be surprised how many people say yes. If possible, you can also try to sweeten the deal — such as by offering a complimentary Amazon gift card.

In terms of what information you should ask for, JTBD often follows a similar outline:

Start by finding the first thought:

  1. When did you first realize you [wanted to donate to our cause]?
  2. Where were you?
  3. Where you with someone?
  4. What were you doing when this happened?

This is done to build a timeline and figure out what triggered the target audience to make their decision.

Next, we want to learn more about their consideration process:

5. Did you consider [donating to] another organization?

6. What factors were important when it came to [deciding who to donate to?]

Also check in with the interviewees emotions.

7. Did you ask anyone else about what they thought about [the organization]?

8. If so, what was the conversation like when you discussed this?

9. Did you have any anxiety about making the decision to [donate]? Why/why not?

This looks intimidating — I get it. But it doesn’t have to be.

By asking these questions, you will get a better understanding of the challenges your target audience is facing, and how to help them.

But if collecting data is not feasible, however, you may talk to people within your organization to get a better idea of what the goals and values of your target audience look like.

If you are doing communications for an educational institution, for example, you will want to engage with your alumni. Below is a simplified persona:

Steve Student
  • Name: Steve Student
  • Demographic: 26, male
  • Occupation: Civil engineer

What are his goals?
Steve is working in his first job after graduation. He strives to do his job well and to ultimately earn a promotion.

What are his struggles?
He finds it hard to keep up-to-date on the latest developments in his field, and he would like to widen his industry network to enable knowledge exchange.

In terms of tactics to help Steve, you might want to look into creating local alumni events or online forums where alumni can exchange experiences and information.

Next, is another example — but this time for targeting institutional funders:

Fiona Funder
  • Name: Fiona Funder
  • Demographic: 43, female
  • Occupation: Managing Director, Fiona Foundation

What are her goals?
Fiona strives to make an impact in her work, and she wants to fund organizations with a proven track record of success.

What are her struggles?
She is reluctant to fund new, unproven organizations, and many existing ones have a spotty track-record with little tangible evidence.

For Fiona, you will want to ensure that you present a narrative that highlights your successes, and clearly shows how you have learned from your failures.

Finally, meet Daisy Donor:

  • Name: Daisy Donor
  • Demographic: 27, female
  • Occupation: Marketing Associate

What are her goals?
Daisy is looking to donate to animal-rights organizations that align with her personal values, and that make a tangible impact on the world.

What are her struggles?
While there are many animal-rights organizations to choose from, Daisy isn’t sure where her money would have the biggest impact.

For Daisy, like Fiona, you want to highlight your impact. Daisy is likely to conduct less due diligence than Fiona, however, and you need to get her attention effectively. Hence you may want to focus on aspects like snackable data and personal stories.

In sum, these personas are basic. If you want them to be truly useful, you should expand them. But there’s need to add too much demographic information. Instead, laser-focus on the issues they are trying to solve. For more information on personas and how to create them, see here:

3. Messaging

Third, is messaging. Your messaging should be directly informed by your objectives and target audience: It should be simple, easy to understand, and most of all consistent across all your channels. There are multiple ways you can approach messaging, but an effective method is to start by mapping out your messaging pillars.

These pillars are core messages that help your target audience alleviate their struggles (and help you achieve your goals). They will inform your future messaging and should be mapped to each objective and stakeholder.

If we stick with Steve and Fiona, here is what it could look like:

Steve Student:

Overarching organizational objective: Increase alumni engagement
SMART goal: Have at least 50 attendees at a quarterly alumni event
Message pillars (core messages to convey to Steve about the event):

  • Easily stay on top of industry trends
  • Exchange knowledge with your peers
  • Quickly expand your industry network

Fiona Funder:

Overarching organizational objective: Increase funding
SMART goal: Secure $250,000 for Project X by the end of Q2 2020
Message pillars:

  • [Nonprofit name] has learned from its failures in these tangible ways
  • [Nonprofit name] employs proven high-impact interventions
  • [Nonprofit name] uses cost-effective methods

Daisy Donor:

Overarching organizational objective: Increase funding
SMART goal: Double monthly donations by end of Q2 2020
Message pillars:

  • [Nonprofit name] helps neuter X stray cats per month
  • This is how your donation will be used (focus on specific numbers)
  • Case study: Meet Max, who just found his perfect forever home

Once you have established your messaging, you need several forms of content to deliver it. You can extrapolate various messaging components from your pillars, such as an elevator pitch or website content. To determine what types of content you will need, we will take a look at the classic marketing funnel.

4. Content

Traditional marketing theory likes to envision moving your target audience through a funnel. The funnel designs vary, and some are more elaborate than others. But generally speaking, you can say that the audience goes through three phases: awareness, consideration, and decision.

Here is what they mean:

  • Awareness: When the target is just becoming aware of your offer
  • Consideration: When the target considers your offer
  • Decision: When the target decides to accept your offer

While this comes from the for-profit sector, these phases can be used in nonprofit communications with some modifications. (When it comes to simply raising awareness about your organization, for instance, you might want to stop at the first or second stage.) The key is to map the appropriate content types to each stage of the funnel.

Content in the awareness-phase is typically not very in-depth and it is simply focused on making your target audience notice your offer. During the consideration-phase, you will want to provide more information. This is where due diligence happens. Finally, there is the decision-phase, where you want the target to go from consideration to actually accepting the offer.

Let us return to Steve Student: We still want him to attend an alumni event. Here is what an ideal funnel could look like (reality tends to be less linear):

  • Awareness: Steve becomes aware of the event through a monthly email newsletter from the school. The email contains a link to the event.
  • Consideration: When he clicks the link, he lands on a Facebook event which describes how it is a great opportunity to network with others in his industry. Steve thinks it sounds interesting, but he soon forgets about it.
  • Decision: A Facebook ad appears on Steve’s news feed a couple of days after he received the email. He clicks the ad and is again directed to the event-page. Now he also notices that many of his friends have said they will attend, and this gives Steve the final push to decide to do so as well.

Again, this is an ideal scenario; most of the time these phases bleed into each other. What you should take away from this, however, is that it is important to ensure that you have content that covers all the relevant stages of the funnel.

Good formats for each stage include:

  • Awareness: Easy-to-understand content that helps your audience. Examples include ads, podcasts, videos, blog-posts, newsletters, infographics, and earned media.
  • Consideration: Now the audience conducts due diligence. Here you want more elaborate information, for example in-depth articles, case-studies or webinars.
  • Decision: Finally, you want to provide that gentle push. Depending on what your end goal is, it can involve personal emails, special offers etc.

Note: Thought leadership is an example of content that can both function as awareness- and consideration-content. If you build expertise in a certain area it helps you get discovered, and it also continues to add credibility.

A quick note on storytelling

When it comes to creating content, storytelling is a very impactful delivery method. Here’s a video from UNICEF to illustrate:

It is easy to see how this is effective with organizations that can demonstrate a tangible impact on individual lives. But it shouldn’t be dismissed by organizations that deal with less emotive subjects either. Humans are hardwired for stories, and they are powerful tools to keep in your arsenal.

For more information on messaging, content, and storytelling see here:

5. Channels

When you have set your objectives, identified your target audience, established your messaging, and determined your content types, it is time to look at the final step: distribution. Identify which channels are most suitable for your needs based on your objectives and your target audience.

Next, for each channel you should determine the following:

  • Purpose: E.g. for distributing content or for one-on-one engagement
  • Success: How to define success for that channel
  • Failure: How to define failure for that channel (this could be the opposite of success, or it could involve aspects like the percentage of negative comments received)

If you are looking to learn more about distribution channels, see below:

Conclusion: Get the conversation started

As mentioned in the introduction, this is not meant to be a definitive guide. It is merely intended as a starting point to help you initiate the conversation around your own communications strategy. Creating your strategy will be an iterative process that involves multiple stakeholders, and it will take time to get it right. The most important thing is to create a system where you can measure progress, and scale the process — and that is where this foundation can help. When it comes to putting it all together, here is what it can look like:

Now you should have what you need to get going. With these five steps in mind, start looking at your organization’s objectives and work from there.

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