Non Profit Communications

One size does not fit all when it comes to non profit communications. It’s not unusual for big charities to have substantial in-house public relations departments with high priced outside help. On the other end of the scale, small and medium organizations, even those up to $10million dollars run the gambit from having a small in-house communications unit (often one person) right down to having communications duties taken on by committee, in rotation or by one already very over worked staff member or even volunteer.

Non Profit communications isn’t something that can be thrown on at the end. It’s key to how your major stakeholders do or will perceive of you. Here are a few essentials for non profit communications in today’s world.

Non Profit Communications – Internal Communications

In any organization, it’s important to treat your insiders like insiders or they will become outsiders and act accordingly. Smaller organizations so often have to do more with less and everyone needs to be moving in the same direction.

You may have good news, you may have bad news – it doesn’t matter. They need to hear it from you first before they hear it from the outside world. Demoralized people stop pulling with the team and they don’t have good things to say about the organization they feel beaten down by. It doesn’t matter what you tell the outside world you are as an organization. You will be killed by a thousand cuts if your organization has staff or even third party vendors who feel they’ve been treated poorly by your organization.

Organizations also frequently miss opportunities or create messes all the time because key departments or people aren’t talking to each other and fail to look for or find ways to leverage each other’s opportunities or mitigate potential problems.

There are technological solutions like intranets, Project Bubble, Basecamp and PBWorks where people can easily invite people from other departments to part or all of a project. Google Docs are another great tool that let people in different locations (down the hall or on the other side of the world) work on the same document simulateneously in realtime. These tools can be helpful in allowing for greater collaboration or even a fresh set of eyes, which can be invaluable.

And speaking of fresh eyes…Not every organization cultivates new ideas or sources for them and I think that’s a shame. Some management styles are hierarchical, or “tall,” meaning they have a very rigorous allegiance to top down management styles with little room for meaningful input from staff or other stakeholders.

There are efficiencies in this model, but so much gets lost along the way, including inspiration. Many talented (often young) people with fresh ideas leave because they feel undervalued. This style of management also contributes to the challenge of interdepartmental communications.

Non Profit Communications – Clients and end users

It is so easy to lose the focus of the real mission of why an organization exists, particularly in an atmosphere where time is measured against dollars in, but consider this. If the very people you serve turn against you, you may find fewer of everyone else supporting you in the end.

Processes are important but they should not completely drive out gestures that remind ourselves and those we serve of our shared humanity. At the very least, it is essential that end users are part of the visioning for any organization’s future. They have insights that no one else can possibly offer the organization.

Rage by an organization’s end users is easy pickings for a media outlet and a story like that can make everything else, including fundraising, much harder. Whether by survey or in casual conversation, it’s sometimes important to ask the harder questions, the questions that ask end users about how valuable they see the organizations as being and how they see it fitting into their journey.

Non Profit Communications – Volunteers

If you have a critical volunteer or panel of volunteers, make it easier for them to help you. Find out what they are hoping to get out of being involved and find whatever ways you can to help them achieve that.

Remember you are in a relationship with them and you must invest back in them, even in small ways, and not simply barrage them with requests for free work. If you are friends with them on social media, be helpful by re-tweeting and re-posting their posts, particularly the ones that advance their agenda and not just yours.

Work hard to understand the true value of what volunteers are giving. It will inevitably involve time and maybe things like talent and contacts.

If they are generous enough to open up their Rolodex, understand they will need to know that you can manage the relationship with them before bringing other potential relationships into the fold.

If they do introduce contacts to the cause, be respectful of their role in doing that and work out the parameters of future direct contact with the contact. It can take years to cultivate a good working relationship with someone and your volunteer may feel they need to manage the contact on your behalf.

Non Profit Communications – Donors

I love what Marc Pitman had to say in this interview and I think he’s a great fundraising coach. He’s absolutely right when he points out that no donor, particularly a significant one, likes to be treated like an ATM machine. It’s important that not every contact with a donor is an appeal for money.

As an aside, there is an interesting report just released about 2011 online giving trends with a good summary of it here. It might be interesting to compare your own results to those within your sector and in others.

Online donations continue to grow in importance even though in many organizations, they constitute less than ten per cent of gifts. Raisin is a great platform that makes non profit communications much more efficient along with the management of all kinds of fundraising and donor events. It is definitley worth checking out. Raisin is quite affordable as well when you consider that it is also a good database management system.

Non Profit Communications – Media Relations

This is worthy of a blog post or 10 in and of itself so I will just say this. A good cause does not make a good story. You need to have a good news angle.

You may think you are doing the most vital work in the history of the universe but the media are not your press agent and are not motivated in getting you exposure or helping you raise money.

In fact, some media outlets have been so besieged by non profits seeking media coverage, they’ve gone to great lengths to make it easier for them to quickly say no. Some have adopted particular causes and invoke a rule that they won’t cover causes outside of those they’ve chosen unless the event is really newsworthy on a variety of levels. The news angle they create or find (if you don’t give them a really strong one) may partially or wholly eclipse your non profit’s communications goal. In other words, they may cover some aspect of your event but not mention your cause.

Similarly, talk shows often blow cold on segments featuring non profits. Other non profits spend big money advertising on their networks and they kick up a fuss when other organizations go on and get great exposure right in the show. The push-back just isn’t worth it.

You can’t make the news come to you. You have to go more than half way and make sure you are giving them what they need to cover you.

It is a world unto itself, non profit communications. Bigger organizations have the advantage of resources and name recognition. But as it is in business, not everyone trusts “big” at the moment, which does give smaller and medium sized charities an advantage they don’t usually have.

The one thing that rings true no matter the size of your organization: it runs on relationships. Thoughtful communications will let you better manage and maximize your important (stakeholder) relationships as best as possible.

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