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Time to Develop New "Donor-Friendly" Messaging?

How to Create an Effective Message for Your Nonprofit

Let's start with two easy questions.

First, can everyone involved in communicating your nonprofit's mission and impact—particularly board and staff—convey adequately the full story of what your organization does and the scope of services it provides?

Second, can a prospective donor easily understand from your public face—Web site, marketing materials, newsletter, etc.—why they should consider funding you?

If your response to either question is "No," then you need to consider developing better messaging for your organization. Neglecting to do this can reduce your organization's effectiveness in creating awareness, demonstrating its capabilities, and, of course, raising money.

The key to effective messaging is generating an understanding among donors of what your nonprofit can do for them and for your constituencies. Providing information on the full potential of your organization can help your nonprofit succeed and grow in all of the services it provides. Think of a multi-service agency that not only provides health therapy but also offers housing and job training for clients. Its fundraising potential is greater if it is known for all three parts of its mission.

Getting Started

The first step is to conduct research to understand your organization from different perspectives, focusing on its values, strengths, philosophy and approach, vision, key services, and impact in the community.

Communicate with different parties within the organization and survey individuals such as board members, staff, donors, and peers at partner organizations about what they think of your organization. What are the perceived strengths? Is this perception accurate? What you find may be helpful in improving your messages.

Once you have compiled your data, analyze the findings in comparison to what other organizations are doing and ask yourself if your organization is overlapping with another nonprofit or if it may be doing something different. Review the following questions:

  • What are some of the strengths of my organization and how can I highlight them?
  • What are the key points that best represent my organization?
  • What will attract donors to my organization?

The information that you have uncovered can be used as the basis of the development of your messaging. Also take into consideration how current trends in your sector can help position your organization for long-term growth and how identifying gaps in the marketplace can lead to opportunities for your organization.

Formulating Your Messaging

Now that all the data are in place, what does your message need to accomplish?

  • Show impact. Don't be shy in telling donors what your organization has accomplished.
  • Differentiate your organization. Communicate your organization's strengths to stand out in the crowd.
  • Represent the entire organization. Know all the services that your organization provides and tell the full story.
  • Be compelling. Make your message both personal and emotional.

What are the key components of effective messaging?

  1. Positioning—how your organization differs from similar nonprofits.
  2. Brand Values—what your organization stands for.
  3. Brand Attributes—core strengths that distinguish your organization.
  4. Brand Personality—tone for your communications. Figure out what type of personality you want for your message. Some organizations are more research based and need to project a voice of authority; others are community based and need to project a sense of accessibility and inclusion. The use of language, images, colors, and concepts can present your organization's personality accurately.
  5. Brand Statement—what you hope to accomplish. This statement summarizes your organization's promise and should drive all your communications.
  6. Elevator Pitch/Boilerplate Copy—a quick summary of your organization, told from the perspective of the problem you are addressing and the impact you are having. Cannot be confused with the mission, since it's important to explain the results you are achieving now, not in the future or the past.
  7. Key Messages—longer statements that help build the case for your organization, giving context to the sector and problem you are addressing. With these messages, help others—including donors, the media, and influencers—understand your organization's role in society, its special perspective, and the need it fills.

Putting It All Together

Once the framework has been completed and all parties are satisfied with the organization's messaging, you still have work to do. You need to consider how the message works on your Web site, via e-mail, and in print. There may be variations of the messaging in all of these mediums; to prevent confusion, however, boilerplate information should remain the same.

Developing effective messaging for your nonprofit is essential in helping donors understand your organization's importance and its impact on society. But the understanding has to start within your organization, including educating everyone involved in communicating your message to speak the same language and articulate the organization's value in the same way. Because if you don't tell your story the right way, who will?

Howard Adam Levy, Red Rooster Group
© 2011, Red Rooster Group

Howard Adam Levy is principal of Red Rooster Group, a branding agency that creates effective brands, Web sites, and marketing campaigns for nonprofits to increase their visibility, fundraising, and effectiveness. You can reach the Red Rooster Group at (212) 673-9353.

Topics: Communications