From limited resources to overwhelming processes and structures, there are notable struggles small nonprofits have that larger organizations can sometimes avoid. Where does your organization fall on this continuum?
Whereas large nonprofits may have a designated, full-time communications team, their small brethren may have one full-time communications person or none at all. Often the person charged with communications at a smaller nonprofit, foundation or school also covers multiple areas and roles, being stretched so thin that proactive and strategic communications is nearly impossible.
Due to limited funds and resources, we see nonprofit professionals being thrown into marketing responsibilities without the benefit of being formally trained or having appropriate experience or support. Some are program managers who find themselves responsible for creating their own communications materials or advancement professionals expected to write, design and produce everything from the annual report to the end-of-year online giving campaign.
If this sounds like you or your organization you’re not alone, and there are things you can do to tighten up your communication and marketing efforts that take little time or money. Start by noting these common communications mistakes. We’ve seen organizations of every size make these, but you can avoid them with a little focus and effort.
Don’t be embarrassed if you’ve made them—you’re not alone. And don’t feel frustrated with colleagues who may be making them at your organization right now; just pass along this helpful summary to anyone who might benefit from it:
Mistake 1: Confusing Brand with Your Name, Logo, or Tagline
Your logo is not your brand. Your logo is a visual icon that represents a larger idea.
Over time, we come to recognize brands by the elements we associate with them: their names, their color schemes, their logos, and their actions. But a logo doesn’t define your organization’s brand; it is simply one of the signals used to bring the brand to life.
Brands are defined by what makes them unique. This includes your organization’s values, what the personality attributes are, and the experience you create for your stakeholders.
At Mission Minded, we’re brand strategists who know that great brands are built over time. A powerful brand is more than a pretty logo, an evocative name, or a pithy tagline. Every single signal you send—including how you look, how you sound, how you act, and what you do—helps create the brand you’ll have in the minds of those you want to attract. Get clear on yours and you’ll focus and strengthen your brand immediately.
Mistake 2: Centering Your Brand on One Person
With smaller nonprofits, it can be easy for audiences to begin associating the organization’s brand with one person. This person is sometimes the executive director or the founder, someone with deep deep ties to the organization.
You never want your organization’s brand to be associated with just one person, or even a group of founders. Why? This can be detrimental to the sustainability of your brand because if one day that person leaves, stakeholders might not feel as compelled to support your organization as they once did.
Instead, build your brand on a mission and set of values that are highly unique and remain constant.
Mistake 3: Leaders Who Don’t Share the Load
It is not uncommon to see executive directors or founders at smaller organizations feel that they are better equipped to tell the organization’s story than their staff. They end up being the only people drafting the external communications such as newsletters, fundraising appeals or social media content.
Whether best at it or not, if you’re an ED or founder of a small nonprofit your focus should be on training your team, volunteers and donors, to communicate on-brand, making them excellent ambassadors for your organization both in-person, on paper or online.
Mistake 4: Thinking That “Everyone” Is Your Audience
Even large nonprofits with all the resources in the world, don’t try to target everyone or “the general public.” They know they need to be selective and strategic to be most effective.
Your audience is made up of various groups of people likely to care about your mission and your work. Though everyone should care about what you do, not everyone will. So choose your audiences carefully, focusing on those without whom you cannot fulfill your mission without, and who have the highest likelihood of joining you.
It’s not enough, though, to define your audiences in demographic terms, like “men ages 18–25.” Rather, you need to bring them to life by developing character personas that help you create communications that will resonate authentically with who they really are and how they see themselves. What matters to each persona? What motivates them? Take the time to answer those questions and your communications will be spot-on.
Some questions you can ask to create better personas include:
- What are their names, ages, ethnicities,
occupations, family details?
- What are their interests, habits, hobbies?
- Who influences them?
- Where do they go for information?
- What do they care about?
- What keeps them up at night?
- What do they love about your organization?
Mistake 5: Marketing for Marketing’s Sake
Marketing communications are strategic efforts by your organization to help you achieve a larger goal. If your goals are simply to increase awareness, build knowledge, or receive a high number of views, you need to think bigger. Your marketing should accomplish a truly measurable goal that helps your organization move toward your mission, like an increase in volunteers or donations or a change in policy or attitudes.
One way to make sure that your communications are properly focused is to write a call to action. What are you asking people to do? Does it help your organization succeed? If so, you’re on the right track.
Compare these two options:
- Did you know that The National Care Group supports over 40,000 children every day? (Builds awareness, but there’s no call to action.)
- Shane needs more than a meal; he needs a mentor. Become a National Care mentor now. (Offers a specific call to action in support of a larger organizational need.)
Mistake 6: Talking About the “How” Instead of the “Why”
Many nonprofits are most comfortable talking about how they do their work. After all, they’ve worked hard to develop innovative solutions to complex problems, and they’re rightfully proud of what they’ve done. But for people to appreciate your efforts, they need context. This means that you talk about “why” before you talk about “how.”
Flip your usual script, and talk about the challenges you address first and the way you solve them last. This will engage people emotionally and spur them to act. Then, once you’ve activated their emotions, you can help them see the wisdom of your approach.
Mistake 7: Confusing Features with Benefits
Consider an organization that tells you they have forty volunteers at eight sites delivering food to 1,000 people every week. Maybe this aspect of their program is interesting, but it’s not nearly as compelling as this: “Because our volunteers meet people where they are, we’re better at connecting with communities and making sure that fewer children go to bed hungry.”
The first example only shares features of the work. The second demonstrates the benefits. Link your features to a benefit, and you’ll link more people to your organization’s work who will want to help you.
Mistake 8: Sharing Statistics Instead of Stories
While data plays an important role in helping you evaluate the efficacy of your work, it doesn’t help your most important audiences feel connected to what you do. People forget data points, but they’re much more likely to remember and repeat narratives.
Leave the data for your program evaluations, and fill your communications with stories of how you bring your mission to life every day. Whoever said “A pie chart never made anyone march on Washington” had it right. Replace your pie charts, graphs, and statistics with stories filled with vivid imagery.
Mistake 9: Thinking of Your Website as a Brochure, Instead of a Point of Engagement
Great websites lead visitors to act. They don’t just help people find information, they help people do something.
Unlike print, websites aren’t static. You should constantly evaluate and re-evaluate what’s working and what isn’t. Update content that isn’t leading people to take action, and remove unnecessary features. Focus on how you’d want to engage people in real life, and then provide them with an experience that brings to life the best of who you are and what you do.
Mistake 10: Missing the Opportunity to Reinforce Your Visual Identity
Great brands are built on consistent visual identities. You want your organization’s materials to show up like a familiar friend. If your identity changes with every piece of communication people stop trying to understand you. This undermines trust.
While certain communications pieces can provide extra opportunities to shine, everything you put out should be based on the same visual standards.
Our vision is that no good cause should suffer from bad communications. So regardless of your size or budget the following resources will provide you with action steps you can immediately take to help your organization communicate even more effectively and draw more people to your cause: