Don’t neglect your message in tough times

“We need to get our message across.” This is a common refrain by many nonprofits leaders and never has it been more relevant, given the current economic situation. In any organization, marketing and communications resources are usually the first budgets to be cut. However, getting your message across and getting people to act on your message has never been more important. Thoughtful, sophisticated communication and organizational transparency are hallmarks that constituents have come to expect from effective nonprofits. You can’t afford to fall silent if you want your organization to retain and engage its constituents.

Even in good economic times, investing in a solid communications plan can often be viewed by nonprofit leaders as too difficult and expensive, unnecessary or beyond the scope of the organization. The reality, however, is that even a basic communications plan directed at both internal and external constituents is critical to an organization’s success. Yet, I’ve worked with a wide range of nonprofit clients who struggle to make communications planning a priority. Some of the most common roadblocks to communications planning include:
Who: Who is my target audience? Who should I reach out to?
What: What should I communicate? What is my message?
How: How do I get my message out (i.e. Web sites, blogs, email newsletters, etc.)?
When: I just don’t have the time with everything else on my plate …

These “Who, What, How and When” questions focus on the symptoms, but not necessarily the cause of an organization’s communications challenges. It’s important for today’s nonprofit leader to keep a broader mission-focused perspective when developing a communications strategy.

Understand who you are

For a lasting message, stay focused on your organization’s mission, not passing fads. Your organization’s messaging needs to be tied to your mission and to the broader organizational strategies and programs you coordinate in order to accomplish that mission.

Because many of your constituents are drawn to your organization because of its mission, the last thing they want is for you to waste resources on activities that do not help you accomplish it. Stay focused with a mission-driven message, and reinforce to your constituents that your organization is committed to the mission they care about. Mission-focused communications will stress that your organization is worthy of your constituents’ time, attention and support.

One way to ensure your message is in synch with your mission is to revisit your mission statement and make sure you have the proper strategies or programs in place to actively achieve it. This may include creating new strategies or programs that will help you maintain your constituents’ support and sustain your organization during these tough times.

Stay relevant

After reflecting on your mission, strategies and desired impact, you can frame your message in the context of today’s economic environment. Since constituents demand transparency, ensure your communications are relevant and directly address the economic conditions that impact your organization’s mission. Don’t be afraid to let your constituents know the truth. Clearly communicating to your constituents that “times are tough and this is how we are responding” is better than saying nothing at all.

Don’t try to reach everyone

Often, nonprofit leaders want to reach everyone they come into contact with by casting as wide a net as possible. But prioritizing your audience – specific to the message you are trying to deliver – is key to a successful communications strategy. I suggest identifying your top three to five key constituent groups and determining a) what kind of information you think they want to hear; and b) what you think they will do with this information. Having a clear picture of who you want to communicate with will help in making your message more impactful.

Don’t neglect your staff

In my communications consulting work, I find that one the most neglected constituencies is the staff, and regardless of an organization’s size, this is an issue for most nonprofits. Small organizations tend to suffer from “forgetting,” or having no time to inform, and large organizations tend to neglect staff due to too much bureaucracy or seeing staff as too hard to reach. This is not true for all organizations, but is something to consider as you develop your communications plan. There is nothing worse for morale than having external constituents know a critical piece of information about your organization before staff does.

Moreover, keep in mind that your organization’s staff is usually the most important element in your brand, so making sure they can speak to constituents about the conditions your organization faces is very important. At a minimum, your staff should know how to respond to constituents’ questions and who to refer to when a question reaches beyond their knowledge.

Embrace new methods

Regardless of your message or audience, one consideration stands out more than ever – the communications methods available to you are endless. The days of the printed newsletter are fast disappearing. Today, communications strategies encompass email newsletters, blogs and social media such as Facebook and Twittter. But remember to stay focused on your top priority constituent groups, not trends, when determining which communications methods are going to be the most effective. As long as the communications methods are appropriate for your target audience, don’t be afraid to try as many as you feel comfortable with, and then determine which works best for you. The new methodologies are either cheap or free, so feel free to experiment.

Review, adapt and repeat

Evaluating and adapting your communications strategy over time is critical to your organization’s success. While there are many metrics that communications professionals suggest you track, keeping it simple can also do the trick. For example, once you have sent out your email newsletter, call up some of your constituents and ask what they thought of your recent communication and how it could be improved. Much like investing in communications, any level of resources devoted to researching your communication’s impact is better than no research at all. Regularly solicit feedback from your constituents and adapt your message accordingly.

While the suggestions above are nothing new, they should guide your organization’s communications planning, regardless of the size or budget of your organization. Staying connected with your constituents will help your organization weather today’s challenging economic climate. Times are tough, but do not bury your head in the sand. On the contrary, it is time to let people know your organization is still on the job.

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