Pulse: Communication Is King
Communication is a critical aspect to move donors to action in any fundraising campaign, yet many nonprofits admittedly struggle to connect with their key audiences. That was a major finding in a recent survey conducted by Nancy Schwartz, blogger at Getting Attention (GettingAttention.org) and president of nonprofit marketing and communications firm Nancy Schwartz & Co.
FundRaising Success spoke with Schwartz about the struggles fundraising organizations face in their communications and ways to overcome them.
FundRaising Success: Why do you think so many nonprofits struggle in communicating
Nancy Schwartz: There are four main reasons. [First,] many organizations wear blinders: They see and think only about what they want and need to meet their missions, without any recognition of the fact that these wants and needs have to intersect with those of their target audiences if they want those targets to give. The blinders ensure that staff members and leaders maintain an internal perspective. Unfortunately, that means such organizations are like two ships passing in the night with target audiences.
Another key reason is that so many nonprofit leaders don't see communications as a crucial organizational strategy. As a matter of fact, in some organizations, "marketing" is still a dirty word. So leaders don't invest in or support it — staff aren't given the time or resources to make it happen right.
As one survey respondent said, "Funds are prioritized for fundraising, not marketing. Our leadership doesn't understand how the two are halves of a whole."
Unfortunately, that kind of thinking prevents nonprofits from making and strengthening the relationships they need to succeed. The only way anyone or any organization can shape messages that work as conversation starters, much less keepers, is to have a good sense of who they're talking to (aka audience research). But most nonprofits don't know much about their audiences, so their messages miss and the conversation never gets off the ground.
Think about it like dating. If you can't have a conversation, then your relationship won't ever develop.
A third primary reason — and one faced even by organizations that see marketing as a core organizational strategy — is message development is often overlooked as a primary communications strategy.
All too often nonprofit communicators skip over this crucial strategy to select channels and design "look and feel." But none of that matters if the messages aren't right.
The fourth main reason for this struggle is that even those nonprofit staffers who champion strategic communications (connecting goals with the right communications approaches and audiences) are too often so pressured by time and/or budget constrictions that they "just do it."
The survey findings showed that even though 16 percent of nonprofits rate their messages as connecting well, the majority of respondents report working extremely hard to hone their communications. That tells me many nonprofit communicators are tired and frustrated. Needless to say, "just do it" outreach campaigns don't generate much giving or much loyalty.
FS: Since many nonprofits admittedly struggle in their communications, why do so few change the way they
NS: I'd say this issue is based in both resource limitations and cultural hurdles. Nonprofit communicators are too frequently delegated to a support function — which means they're seldom part of the decision making on shaping a new program or launching a first-time fundraising campaign to a new audience group. So they frequently aren't heard.
In addition, changing a core communications tool like organizational messaging is tough. Although many of your colleagues assume those messages have been (and will be) there forever, they probably haven't ever given them much thought. That means it's likely that it's going to be difficult to get the budget or support you need to craft effective ones.
FS: What are the most common mistakes, and how can nonprofits overcome them?
NS: The three most common mistakes and solutions are:
1. Organizational goals aren't crystal clear, so marketing goals and work plan aren't either. I can't tell you how many times I've been hired to develop a message platform (tagline, positioning statement, talking points) for an organization but can't get to ground zero because there's no agreement on organizational direction and goals.
Without clear organizational goals, marketing goals — how marketing will be used to help reach organization goals — can't be defined. But without clear marketing goals, it's impossible to identify and get to know the right audiences to engage (the people an organization strives to motivate to act to achieve those goals).
2. Lack of understanding and support on the part of leadership and colleagues — but communicators need their insights, investment and reach. The three most-cited barriers to effective messaging (lack of leadership support, too busy and concern about expense) underscore the degree of messaging crisis. Communications succeed only when it's built on effective messaging. Refusing to invest the time and money it takes to craft those messages will undermine your entire communications agenda. It's an investment every organization's leadership can't afford not to make.
One survey participant said, "It's so hard to shape a viable message development process here, as board members have widely divergent perspectives and are very involved in communications."
But here's what you're up against: Nonprofit staff members most focused on making the most of their messages are communicators (58 percent), fundraisers (40 percent) and program staff members (21 percent), in order of survey participation level.
That's important because it highlights how much work communicators have to do to develop support for and input in the message development process among colleagues and leaders.
Cross-organizational participation is even more vital once messages are ready to roll. Every communicator's colleagues are her primary on-the-ground messengers via their daily conversations and communications.
3. Not knowing the wants and needs of the people your organization needs to engage to meet your goals. I can't say it strongly enough: Audience research is the only way to ensure that any communications initiative has maximum impact.
Stay in sync with your organization's supporters so you don't alienate them. If they start to think that you have little sense of who they are, or that they don't really know your organization, you're in trouble. That kind of discomfort breeds distance and disconnection.
Without ongoing audience research, your programs and services — and the messages you use to recruit and maintain donors, volunteers, participants and even staff members — are bound to be off base.
Ways to close the gap can be relatively inexpensive and accessible, although some effort is a must. One of my favorites is a communications advisory board. Other doable strategies include online surveys and selective phone interviews.
FS: How can nonprofits ensure that their communications are relevant, timely, effective and move recipients to action?
NS: This one's easy. There are two absolute musts:
✱ Build understanding and support on the part of your organization's leadership. You'll need it to fund your work and to ensure you're involved in planning from the get-go. Remember, there's no program without program participants, no fundraising without outreach.
Leaders need to understand the role that strategic communications has in organizational success. You'll also need to build their understanding of how strategic communications functions, including a robust message development process.
I recommend case studies as the best way to build that understanding, and excitement. There are several useful sources for relevant case studies, and I suggest you frame (relating the strategies and results to your own organization) and circulate them on a regular basis.
Find ways to get to know your target audiences and stay in close touch. I recently developed a communications strategy for a Virginia-based organization. They were suffering from significant decreases in donations at all levels and didn't know what steps to take to fix the problem.
The communications experts felt they had to move away from old-style fundraising (mostly being in touch to ask for money) and needed greater investment and leadership support to raise what was needed. In addition, the vocal board and lay leadership had strong but divergent opinions on next steps.
Rather than fighting it out, we started with some basic and inexpensive audience research. Through an online survey to a representative group of recent donors, we learned what motivated them to give and what they say when they talk about the organization.
We also recruited for an ongoing communications advisory group and got an incredible response (80 percent). So there's a group of key individuals poised to evaluate a draft fundraising letter or campaign logo. That's golden.
The survey was followed by phone interviews with a selected group of respondents to dig in to their perspectives and concerns. We built even clearer understanding of the points and language to integrate into fundraising messages and best channels for outreach. Most exciting was hearing back from several interviewees how they want to help beyond just giving, with the greatest level of interest in being trained to be effective organizational messengers. That's a relationship success story!
✱ Make your first step a reachable victory. Start with your tagline, as less is more in terms of messaging. It's always harder to write something shorter than longer, and your tagline is as short as it gets. It is the absolute essence of your organization's messaging.
Moreover, your steps in the tagline development process build the insight you'll need to craft a potent positioning statement and key messages or talking points (the other two elements in your message platform).
Joe Boland is copy editor and staff writer for the Target Marketing Group at FS' parent company, NAPCO. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
(To read more about the survey and its results, go to http://tinyurl.com/ydxmhjp)