A headshot of Debra DavenportStrategic Communication Impact on the Nonprofit Sector

Debra Davenport, Faculty

The role of strategic communication in the nonprofit sector cannot be overstated. While for-profit companies often have large budgets and dedicated staff for advertising, marketing and PR, this is typically not the case in nonprofit organizations (NPOs). Some of the pressing challenges inherent to NPOs include:

- scarcity of funds
- staff members having to serve in multiple roles
- donor relations and solicitation
- volunteer recruitment, training and retention
- intangible products and/or services
- competition
- public perception
- trust and credibility concerns

This is just the short list of issues that NPO leaders must address on a daily basis. Perhaps the most challenging issue is the fact that many NPOs don’t actually sell anything. Without a product or specific service, how can an organization successfully solicit sufficient donations to operate, fund research and conduct the kinds of community outreach necessary to maintain key donor and stakeholder relationships? The answer: Emotional selling.

How Emotional Messaging Helps Stimulate Audience Interest and Donor Support

In the NPO sector, strategic communication is often focused on creating an emotional connection. Consider the following charities and the emotional messaging strategies used to stimulate support and donations:

Of course, not all emotional messaging needs to negative. Uplifting stories of charitable successes can be equally compelling. These charities have done an excellent job of producing positive messages that underscore their good work:

According to a Wharton marketing study, “If organizations want to raise money for a charitable cause, it is far better to appeal to the heart than to the head. Put another way, feelings, not analytical thinking, drive donations.” This is important advice for NPO communicators who must craft messages that not only drive donations, but also stimulate long-term audience relationships. In the NPO sector particularly, attention must be paid to the amounts of money and human resources being invested in donor recruitment and retention. If we apply the Pareto Principle (also known as the 80/20 rule), 80% of a charity’s donations come from 20% of its donors. This underscores the importance of effective and ongoing donor relations.

Strategic communicators must also consider the organization’s brand. In many NPO categories, competition is fierce and brand recognition plays a critical role in steering donors to specific nonprofits. Note that the organization’s mission statement is a critical element of brand development.

According to Patterson and Radtke’s Seven Step Model, “The organization’s mission statement must rally the troops. To do this, it must resonate with the people who work in and for the organization as well as with each of the different constituencies the organization hopes to reach. It must express the organization’s purpose in a way that inspires commitment, passion, innovation and courage. The mission statement is the foundation of the entire message platform for nonprofit organizations” (Pg. 26).

Further, strategic communicators must understand and employ message framing and rhetorical theory. They must craft messages that not only frame the organization in a positive light, but also influence audiences to take action, namely by donating and volunteering. This requires a keen understanding of the NPO’s primary audiences (external and internal), their preferred modes of communication and their emotional “hot buttons;” which is where planning comes into play.

The Importance of Planning Nonprofit Communications

Because many nonprofits are quite short-staffed and under-funded, it’s not unusual for one person to wear numerous hats, including that of unofficial “PR person.”  The problem here is that, without professional education and experience in strategic communication, efforts can become disjointed and piecemeal, and this can result in negative audience perceptions.

It’s far better to plan ahead by setting aside a specific budget for a unified campaign.  Through the use of transmedia storytelling, NPOs can create compelling narratives that engage their audiences – and keep them engaged as the story unfolds.  Through the deft use of the organization’s website, social media channels, e-blasts, crowdsourcing, and mobile apps, nonprofits can reach their target audiences in multiple ways.  The other good news is that transmedia storytelling does not require high-dollar, Hollywood-style production.  In the NPO sector, the message is key.  Communications that inspire, move, and resonate with people are the ones that will make the greatest impact.

Every organization, whether for-profit or nonprofit, must clearly define its key messages; these are the foundation of the organization’s “story.”  Key messages must be crisp, creative, and unique; they must effectively differentiate the organization from its competitors.  Remember, without differentiation, there is no brand.

In my experience working with NPOs, I’ve observed that proper communications planning is not always a priority.  However, in order to generate donor dollars and audience interest, ongoing communication and outreach are absolutely essential.  I prefer to create 12-month communication plans and tweak as necessary, as this enables me to develop a sound budget, staffing chart, media calendar, and message strategy.  Typically, I will create one campaign (or “story”) per quarter, alternating more costly campaigns with lower-budget campaigns to balance the organization’s spending throughout the year.  

Of course, none of these efforts will be effective without a keen understanding of the NPOs target audience(s).  The creation of audience “personas” (see the example below) can be especially helpful in defining donors, key influencers, and other stakeholders whose support is critical to the organization.  Audience research, such as focus groups, surveys, and demographic studies can be exceptionally useful when preparing personas.  Also consider the use of the Elaboration Likelihood Model and the VALS system in analyzing and projecting audience/donor behaviors.

Nonprofit communications is a fascinating and complex topic that I will continue to explore in upcoming articles. In the meantime, I encourage you to peruse the links provided in order to gain a better understanding of effective nonprofit communication.  

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Debra Davenport Ph.D. is a member of the online faculty of Purdue’s online Master of Science in Communication degree program. The program can be completed in just 20 months and covers numerous topics critical for advancement in the communication industry, including crisis communication, social media engagement, focus group planning and implementation, survey design and survey analysis, public relations theory, professional writing, and communication ethics.

*The views and opinions expressed are of the author and do not represent the Brian Lamb School of Communication.

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