Nonprofit communications strategy guide

Creating an effective communications plan for your nonprofit—and why it’s important

For any nonprofit, a strategic, measurable, well-defined communications plan can be the difference between short-lived progress and long-term success.

A good communications plan will help your nonprofit reach out to those in your corner—and those you want in your corner: your stakeholders and board, donors, constituents, and more.

Communications Strategy

Define your nonprofit’s organizational goals

A nonprofit communications plan supports your organizational goals.

You want to promote your overall missions and the programs that hold it up.

  • At the macro level, goals are more mission-focused.
  • At the micro level, successful programming (to boost the mission) are where it’s at.

You need both to continue to engage supporters, volunteers, and partners.

Over the long-term (let’s say ten years), objectives should be based on what the organization wants to achieve.

For example’s sake, let’s say you run an after-school education nonprofit, ABCs for All. Your mission is for all kids in District A to have a safe space to learn and play after school. To do this, you set up after-school programs, with a tested-curriculum, in as many locations as possible.

Long-term goals

A long-term goal could be to have five after-school centers in every zip code in the District in the next ten years.

Break down this long-term goal (and any other long-term goals) into parts. For instance, to get to this many after-school locations, you’ll need to identify useable spaces, qualified administrators and teachers, finding resources for funding, etc.

Short-term goals

Short-term goals should have a more fixed, strict timeline.

A short-term goal could be to raise the money to secure a new after school location by the end of the fiscal year.

Define your nonprofit’s communications goals

Whether strategic, financial, operational, or partnership-based, the goals and objectives of your organization should all work together to achieve the overarching mission.
SMART goals

No matter what, your organization’s communications goals must be SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. First, prioritize your organizational objectives. Then, define the communications goals to meet the needs of each.

For instance, with a sample goal of increased awareness for the brand, you might set a target budget of $10,000 to grow your email newsletter list by 25% over six months.

Another common communications goal could be to reach a specific audience, like donors. This goal can help you raise more money for an end-of-year campaign or initiative. You might also wish to enhance donor loyalty and lifetime giving, engaging current donors to give again.

If you have an organizational goal of increasing revenue by 10% in the next year, a measurable strategy might be to increase the number of content campaigns to donors each quarter.

Conduct discovery, research, and segmentation

How can you create an effective message if you don’t know who you are talking to? Or what makes them passionate about a cause? Or why they want to give in the first place?

Once you’ve established your organizational and communications goals, it might be tempting to jump right into building the messaging.

But first, you must do an in-depth analysis of your current constituency: your board and stakeholders, your donors, your volunteers, your community advocates—and gather as much relevant comparable information about competitors who might be targeting the same audience.

After you’ve identified these groups, you’ll have a better understanding of how to message to each persona, which will later inform your communications decisions.

Reports and lists to research

  • Email
  • Direct mail
  • Social media
  • Donor lists: New, lapsed, recurring, major gifts, event-only

Audience Segmentation

Create messaging to support your nonprofit’s mission and vision

Messaging should not only convey your mission and vision, but also should demonstrate why support for your work is critical, the impact of that support, and how you plan to create the change you seek.

Strategic messaging allows organizations to have laser-focus on the work.

Clear messaging eliminates any confusion about what you do, and provides you with a solid position and strong voice. Once your messaging is locked in, you can repurpose it for future content and campaigns.

Consistent messaging = consistent positioning = consistent support.

Zero in on your organization’s brand voice: the tone you set for how you talk to your supporters. This goes beyond the words you say, but how those words make people feel. This voice will help build trust with your supporters and will ultimately help you differentiate your organization from all the rest.

Does every member of your team know your current mission and vision? Does the work you do and your goals all prop up that mission and vision?

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Focus on your key, overarching messages.

These are the position and value statements that tell the story of your programs, why they are important, and what they can accomplish. This streamlined messaging is essential to focus board members and stakeholders who might otherwise be tempted to veer off target when describing what you do.

It’s crucial to adapt this messaging to fit the needs of your different audiences. This doesn’t mean the message changes, but how you tell it does. Just-the-facts Joe and Emotional Emily will not respond the same way to the same message.

Ultimately, this messaging can be used in cases for support, demonstrating the need, how you can address that need, and how the support will help you do so. It will show what you have achieved (thanks in large part to generous donors) and how much more you can do (thanks in large part to generous donors).

Your messaging should be powerful, with a good mix of statistics and storytelling.

Feature compelling tales of clients or constituents you have helped, and show how their lives changed thanks to Program X or Initiative Y.

This messaging should also show how you have thrived, with special emphasis on your growth over time. This is the value proposition—illustrating how your services have impacted the lives of many and how support can only increase this impact.

Identify the best communications channels for your nonprofit

Focus on the channels that will have the greatest return on investment in securing additional funding for your nonprofit, increasing visibility, and expanding your network of volunteers and advocates.

Consider these stats when choosing outreach channels

According to Classy.org:

  • The average conversion rate on a nonprofit website is 2.04%.
  • For emails, nonprofits see an average open rate of 14-25.38%.
  • With every 1,000 email subscribers, nonprofits see an average of 285 Facebook followers.

In most cases, your website and social media networks will give you the biggest imprint for your community of supporters, stakeholders, and constituents.

Based on the demographic information you researched and collected—as well as success your competitors have seen—focus your time on the channels that align with your audience.

SproutSocial has compiled fantastic data on the typical users across the social media networks.

Create a content calendar and delivery plan

A content calendar will help your team be even more unified on the message and will give everyone a clear understanding of needed deliverables and timeline.

A content calendar can include a lot of different possibilities. Based on the research you have done and the optimal communications channels you have identified, you might schedule social media posts, blog posts, e-newsletters, direct mail, and automation via email.

Take a look at key dates within your organization. When is your annual gala? When are special programming days? Map these out so you can plan specific content around them.

You could also consider monthly themes to help produce related content. For ABCs for All, the example mentioned above, September’s theme could be “Back to School,” and all content can feed into that.

A content calendar will improve momentum, too, as content throughout the year should ideally build on itself to create the most traction and support.

The content calendar will keep everyone organized, but it doesn’t have to be fancy. For more content development tips, check out our free strategic guide.

Create metrics and evaluate the plan

A communications strategy is only as effective as the evaluation stage and how agile the team is when it’s clearly time to pivot.

This last step is one of the most important components of the entire communications plan: determine how well your efforts are working.

To accurately evaluate the plan, you need to have a clear idea of your baseline. The research you performed and the SMART goals you developed should give you a roadmap to clearly evaluate quantifiable impact.

Include benchmarks for each of your goals: like the number of new Facebook followers or amount of dollars raised in the last campaign.

Your nonprofit communications plan will help you engage your supporters, build organizational loyalty, and set you up for sustainable success.

Need help? Get in touch!

For more tips and advice from our nonprofit communications specialists, visit our blog

Communications Plan Review

Hold a plan review every quarter (or within a set amount of time) to go over what is working and what isn’t.

  • Which benchmarks have you hit?
  • Which benchmarks did you miss?
  • How can you pivot to better reach those you have not yet attracted?
  • What were your biggest wins?

Adjust your plan accordingly to prop up what’s working well and fix what’s not.

This communications strategy was devised by our nonprofit communications specialist, Lindsey Thieken, in collaboration with 816 New York’s team. ©2019 816 New York, LLC. All Rights Reserved.