Master the 5 Messaging Milestones That Challenge Nonprofits
Every nonprofit, regardless of size, age or purpose, passes through distinct milestones of messaging that test its relevance and the strength of its bottom line. Rather than a linear progression of lifecycles, organizations move in and out of five growth and renewal periods that require formulation of messaging and the communication strategies necessary for successful execution.
1. The Beginning
Perhaps the most predictable of milestones is a nonprofit’s starting point where founding leaders are working in closest proximity to the passion motivating its purpose. Your greatest challenges with inaugural messaging are lack of impact data and maybe even fully operational services. Answers to mastering this milestone lie in messages that clearly connect the solutions and innovative approach your organization offers with the unmet needs warranting its formation. How will your nonprofit uniquely close the gap between what exists and what is needed?
Strategically cultivating the right messengers is also important to this early-stage milestone. In addition to staff leadership, what third-party experts can vouch for the demand of your organization’s services or the experience quality your organization’s leadership brings to the issues the nonprofit will address? Who are your multiple audiences’ key influencers, and who can speak enthusiastically about why the organization has their support? These are all voices to leverage in the beginning.
2. Brand Building
Whether 10 or 40 years old, nonprofits in this milestone of messaging are at a crossroads of having established a foundation of success, with the need for a 2.0 version that builds on what’s been achieved. While the sophistication of its visual identity may need elevating, today’s leaders understand that an organization’s brand is defined by much more than its logo and color palette. The success to which the nonprofit articulates its unique benefits, the substantive impact of the nonprofit’s services and the satisfaction of those the nonprofit serves make significant contributions to defining its brand.
The opportunity this milestone offers for building loyalty and trust requires that attention be given to formulating actionable messages. In other words, not just effectively communicating what your organization represents, but critically assessing how each of your target audiences actually experience what your nonprofit says it is.
An Accenture Interactive research study, "The Business of Experience," found that the top performing 20% of companies are 2.5 times more likely than their peers to say they are able to establish and manage a brand promise that connects directly to customer experiences. It’s a commitment to aligning words with action that is equally beneficial to nonprofits.
In basic terms, a brand promise is the combined effects of an organization’s values and the distinct experience it delivers. Cultivation of an organizational culture that puts these principles in practice has a powerful impact on branding and certainly messaging, particularly in-person messaging. For instance, if an organization’s value of respect is defined as “respecting participants at all levels of the process,” how is that message made actionable through what clients, donors and volunteers experience?
3. Lost in Logistics
As nonprofits grow, they naturally expand their programs, develop new services, and expand the volume and geographic reach of who they serve. Growth may be sequential and deliberate, or sporadic and largely driven by funding opportunities that have periodically presented themselves. Regardless, it’s not unusual for the passion of a nonprofit’s purpose and the essence of what the organization is to get lost in an inventory of what it does and how it works. When that happens, you’re just pushing out a lot of information with little effect.
Restoring the emotion of your organization’s “why” is critical for engaging target audiences and motivating action. In fact, scientific research has determined we are neurobiologically dependent on emotion for making decisions. It’s what motivates action and causes us to retain information, all fundamental objectives of messaging.
Many organizations make the mistake of limiting their definition of emotion to only something that brings an audience to tears, when in fact, pride, joy and enthusiasm are all valuable emotions for evoking an “I want to be part of that” response. However, it is essential that any emotion incorporated into messaging be genuine. Audiences recognize manufactured emotion and know when they’re being played.
As you navigate this milestone by reclaiming the compelling narrative of your messaging, be guided by the adage that people may not always remember what was said, but they do remember how it made them feel.
4. Course Correcting
Recognizing a need for change in the trajectory of your messaging can come from a variety of circumstances. Perhaps a cumulative addition of seemingly unrelated services has left audiences struggling to define the organization’s purpose. Or the nonprofit’s relevance is being questioned. Regardless of the cause, course correcting an organization’s communications is not unusual, nor insurmountable, but it does require a plan.
Just as an organizational strategic plan provides vital direction, a strategic communications plan functions as an essential blueprint for nonprofit organizations to achieve their goals, including connecting with and motivating target audiences, increasing visibility and distinguishing themselves from others through the advantages they represent. Without a comprehensive communications plan, efforts are disjointed and reactionary, there is no measurement for success and results are diluted without the focus of concrete objectives. (Often this is when an organization benefits from bringing in outside expertise.)
Formulation of your plan does not require that all your nonprofit’s challenges first be resolved. In fact, research conducted in constructing a strategic communications plan not only clarifies problems, it reveals the solutions on which strategies are built.
Once completed, the plan’s refreshed organizational messaging and communication strategies need to be shared with key leadership, including your board, to ensure that everyone is on the same page for achieving and articulating the organization’s significance.
5. The Promise of Tomorrow
While achieving legacy status may be a long-term goal, even revered nonprofits with decades of service face messaging challenges. The first is relevance. Clearly connecting a nonprofit’s expertise with current needs is fundamental. Keeping messages fresh, visual branding contemporary and astutely engaging the day’s modern channels of communication, all contribute to a nonprofit’s perceived relevance.
The second challenge to this milestone is potential. Long-standing nonprofits are naturally proud of their legacy, as well they should be. However, with that can come a temptation to focus messaging heavily on its history of achievements. While endurance and accomplishment certainly have their place in an organization’s story, donors don’t contribute to what has passed.
This is particularly true for next-generation donors, who, studies have shown, are highly motivated by the impact your organization has on those it serves and their opportunity for being part of it. They want to make a difference and do their research in advance of deciding which nonprofit to support. As a result, legacy organizations, which once may have benefited from a tradition of giving, need messaging that clearly articulates their relevance today — and, even more importantly, their potential for shaping a promising tomorrow.
Like the organizations they support, messages are ever-changing and must effectively evolve to ensure your relevance. Recognizing the milestone your organization is facing — and engaging the strategies necessary for successfully navigating the challenges it represents — is essential to the life of your nonprofit.
The preceding blog was provided by an individual unaffiliated with NonProfit PRO. The views expressed within do not directly reflect the thoughts or opinions of NonProfit PRO.
Kelli B. Newman is president of the Houston-based communication strategies firm, Newman & Newman, where she leads a team of talented professionals dedicated to advancing the success of purpose-driven clients. Her work centers on formulation of brand messaging strategies and development of award-winning marketing communication tools for nonprofit, corporate and government clients.
Accredited by the Public Relations Society of America since 1989, Kelli is also an instructor for Rice University’s Leadership Institute for Nonprofit Executives (LINE), teaching marketing and public relations. She is also a founding member of the Ignite Health Network, a by-invitation coalition of executive women with leadership responsibilities influencing the future of healthcare. In 2019, she was appointed to a three-year term on the organization’s board and continues to serve as a member of its steering committee.
Kelli’s achievements have earned the recognition of multiple national and regional award programs, including the New York International Film & Video Festival and the Grand Excalibur, PRSA Houston’s highest recognition of professional standards. Invited regularly to speak at professional conferences, she has written several articles regarding communication strategies.
Prior to joining Newman & Newman in 1996, she spent 11 years as in-house public relations counsel for Baylor College of Medicine (including the DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center) and Texas Children’s Hospital.