How to take your nonprofit’s communications to a new level


Too busy to be strategic? Too many pressures, projects and deadlines? Well, some strategic planning can go a long ways towards increasing your visibility, impact and funding – and relieving problems before they arise. But first you need to integrate strategic communications to target audiences, craft key messages, pitch media outlets and increase digital presence and achieve goals. 

My own past experience serves as an example. As director of communications for a leading nonprofit, I was preoccupied with launching a new website, media requests and overseeing the annual report. One important goal was to position the organization – a leader in helping people who are blind and visually impaired – become a leader in vision health and protection as well. So I decided to commission a nationwide survey by a respected polling organization, which found that only a small percentage of people at-risk for vision loss had vision check-ups each year. This inspired me to pitch the story to Jane Brody of The New York Times who wrote a major article. This took time – and, yes, time away from some other tasks – but it achieved the important goals of high visibility in a target market and the positioning and messaging we wanted to convey.   

With that in mind, here are five tips and some key questions to ask in integrating different aspects of strategic communications.


The view from 30,000 feet offers immense perspective

First, take time to look at the big picture. What were your major accomplishments last year? What didn’t you achieve and why? Once you have your key goals, decide how you will measure progress in media coverage, marketing, digital and fundraising. For example, in addition to media impressions you can track media coverage to increased calls to your 800 number, website visits or social media shares. Goal setting and measurement are important whether you are the head of communications or development, or the CEO.


Integrate, Integrate, Integrate

Today it is essential to bring together all aspects of strategic communications. The person who gets your direct mail, the person who manages your followers on Twitter, the reporter who gets your press release and the donor who receives an invitation should all see the same branding, look and messaging. Take a look at how you present your brand. Does it reflect your current vision and focus? I helped one organization rebrand with a streamlined, modern look and logo, a new tagline and updated messages. It reinvigorated fundraising and inspired the staff. Make sure your key organizational messages reflect your current priorities. Then review your target audiences such as donors, website visitors and the media. Government officials, clients, families, alumni and others could also require tailored approaches.

Once that has all been considered, it is time to decide what are the best media outlets to reach these audiences. For donors it may be The Wall Street Journal, for young professionals it may be HuffPost or an influential blog. Some years ago, I was marketing a major bike ride fundraiser on the Upper West Side. While we wanted (and got) coverage in the Times and other major media, we also needed to mobilize people in that specific community. To do this we distributed posters in sports clubs and bike shops, ran ads and articles in neighborhood media and attended community events.  

Focused geographic targeting was a big factor in the event’s success but the digital front needed attention too, as it does in initiatives across the nonprofit sector. You need to look at your website. It should reflect your brand and key messages, and be optimized for mobile devices as well. A mobile marketing strategy may need to be part of your digital strategy Research shows that Americans spend at least three hours (and the time is increasing) on mobile devices for buying, social media, news and research. Nonprofit organizations need to be as sophisticated as possible in order to approach them in these digital spaces.


Get on the right social media platform

Communication professionals have many tools. Let’s look at one of the most important nowadays – social media. There are a wide range of options: posting videos on YouTube and Snapchat, telling stories on Facebook, shooting photos for Instagram, commenting on Twitter and showing in real time via live streaming. But you need to focus your resources and be strategic. Which platforms reach your target audiences? And you need to analyze your social media goals. Instagram is increasingly popular, but the majority of current users are under 30. Is that a target audience? It’s not just about getting more followers or fans. Increased engagement, influencers, volunteers and donations can all be had more easily by wielding the right tool.


Storytelling gets the point across in multiple ways

The demand for fresh, compelling content is now more important than ever. Your strategy needs to include an integrated editorial calendar for story development, events, anniversaries, proactive earned and pro bono media and more. Tell great stories about clients who overcame incredible obstacles. Make your stories powerful and emotional by using terrific photos and videos. People donate for many reasons – being moved, feeling a sense of urgency or responding to a disaster are among the top reasons. Good storytelling can leverage these responses to move your mission forward.


Big Data has the insights you need

Although big data has been the buzzword in the profession for a few years, it does not mean you need to hire a statistician or turn everything into numbers. It does mean, however, that you have to measure your impact. Start with your own data (and any data you can get on competitors or organizations in your field). Working in conjunction with the development department, research how many people your organization served, how many reached your goals and how it compares to previous years. Use the multitude of indicators at hand: media impressions, social media followers, newsletter readers, web visitors and Google analytics. You can also do your own research cheaply through focus groups, SurveyMonkey or hiring a firm to determine how people respond to your website, key messages, newsletter, etc.

Measure what is important to your goals for the year. You need to demonstrate to yourself, your department, your boss, the C suite, the board and perhaps donors how you are making a difference. You don’t have to do all of the aforementioned tactics to do so, but you should invest the time now to clarify your key goals and how you will achieve them. If you do, hopefully you will be popping champagne in 2019.

Leslie Gottlieb is an experienced consultant and an expert in integrated strategic communications, media, marketing and digital campaigns and projects for numerous nonprofit organizations.