Nonprofit Communication: Building an Effective Strategy with Limited Resources

Whether you’re engaging donors, volunteers, members of the media or community leaders, effective communication could be the key to your organization’s success. Ineffective communication, on the other hand, could quickly derail the organization. The latter often holds nonprofits back from the success they deserve.

While organizations of all types and sizes face communication challenges, those with limited resources are typically forced to make tough choices as they prioritize the use of limited budgets and staff time. This is why creating an effective communication strategy and implementing it, despite resource limitations, was the topic of Global Washington’s March Executive Director (ED) Roundtable.

The topic is very relevant to my team at Global Washington. We are only three full-time staff supported by a handful of interns, and we’re constantly challenged as we juggle multiple tasks. Promoting and supporting our members’ work — our #1 priority — can’t be done without consistent, relevant, thoughtful communication. It’s something we think about constantly and strive to continuously improve.

nonprofit-communicationLed by Joy Portella of Minerva Strategies, the ED Roundtable lunchtime discussion included leaders of GlobalWA member organizations: Bill Taylor, executive director of SE Asia Children’s Foundation; Cliff Schmidt, executive director of Literacy Bridge; Leslie Stroud-Romero, executive director of Uganda Village Project; George Chuku, co-founder of Mission Africa; Elise DeGooyer, co-director of Faith Action Network; Pratistha Kansakar, vice president of Living Earth Institute; and Kevin Klingbeil, owner of Big Water Consulting, along with myself and Kristen Dailey, Global Washington’s interim executive director.

The discussion kicked off with participants sharing their organizations’ communication strengths and weaknesses. It became evident very quickly that — because of limited resources — many in the room are forced to wear a number of hats on their respective teams. It was also very clear that the roundtable participants are keenly aware of the importance of communication, and eager for tips on effectively communicating with their various audiences.

Four themes emerged during the discussion — issues that all of the participants face at one time or another, some on a daily basis.

#1: Identifying Your Communicator

How do you develop and execute a communication strategy when you lack a staff member dedicated solely to communication? While volunteers can be helpful with short-term projects and/or events, and interns can be enthused and willing to contribute in any way, they can’t take the place of a professional communicator.

But you can get communication help from various sources. Portella suggests leaning on experts within the organization, such as a board member who may have communication experience, or staff members who enjoy and are skilled in communication, and have an affinity for it. Also, nonprofits can seek volunteers with specialized training that may lend itself to communication work or with an interest in playing a role in the communication function, as well as volunteers with project management experience.

#2:  Choosing Between Fundraising and Communication

The smaller the organization, the more hats staff and volunteers must wear. A struggle that many of us face is choosing between hiring a full-time fundraiser and bringing onboard a full-time communication professional. When budgets are tight, nonprofits nearly always opt for a fundraiser, with the communication role going unfilled. And this forces one or more staff members or volunteers to take on the communication role.

For organizations facing this dilemma, Portella suggests “vetting hard” to find a fundraiser who also has solid communication skills. Though possibly not an expert in both areas, the person may be able to play both roles effectively. It requires them to balance their time while motivating other staff members and volunteers to take part.

#3: Maintaining Focus and Consistency 

While most of the roundtable participants use social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, many are concerned that their communication efforts aren’t consistent and/or effective. Many describe their social media updates as sporadic, while some more diligent with updates wonder if their efforts are paying off. Others rely on newsletters, blogs and other website content to reach their target audiences regularly.

While the proliferation of electronic platforms may seem daunting and time-consuming, it also gives us the opportunity for “dynamic interaction.” Portella advises organizations to resist the temptation to use a platform simply because it exists, but rather to be selective. Choose those most likely to help you reach your target audience(s) and convey your messages clearly. It’s Marketing 101: Define, segment and rank your target audiences; identify the best platform to reach each segment; and then craft your messages for each.

#4: Measuring the Results of Your Communication Efforts

Effective communication isn’t just about writing a blog on a hot topic, emailing a newsletter with announcements or tweeting about your latest accomplishment. It requires developing a well-reasoned strategy, assigning tasks, motivating staff members and volunteers to participate, and then analyzing the results of your efforts so that you can continue to improve. While fundraising success can be tracked by dollars raised, Portella pointed out that measuring the impact of communication efforts is much more difficult and takes more time. Determining whether an organization is engaging with its target audiences and is staying on-message requires analyzing outputs (content produced) as they relate to outcomes: Did fundraising improve? Are the results of communication-related tactics worth the amount of staff time spent?

By taking the time to develop a strategic and thoughtful communication plan, being realistic but also creative in its implementation, and regularly evaluating its effectiveness and impact, organizations of all sizes can improve their communication effectiveness. It won’t happen overnight, and there will no doubt be frustrations — which I can speak to myself. But even organizations like GlobalWA, as well as many of you with very limited resources, can make small improvements in the way we communicate with our audiences.

My team at GlobalWA takes pride in its ability to bring members together for these important conversations — to share successes, failures, tips and best practices — so that all members gain new knowledge and new ways of looking at things. Through the Executive Director Roundtable series, we invite leaders of member organizations to share their experiences with one another. The group will explore a variety of topics throughout the series with the goal of collaborative learning. In turn, we strive to improve the effectiveness of GlobalWA members’ work, improve our own work so that we can better serve you and strengthen our collective impact on the world.