Guidelines for nonprofit communications

For messaging success, make your donors feel heroic, keep it uplifting and show tangible proof of your results.


When it comes to communications, normally generous nonprofits can be downright stingy.

Whether because of shoestring budgets, lack of investment or strategic prioritization, charities tend to treat communications as a back-burner issue. Social media, marketing, PR, writing and editing are viewed as luxuries—not essentials.

That’s a shame. Charities should boldly invest in compelling communications that convey their mission and bring their good work to light. Of course, that requires talent, time, patience and strategy.

Regardless of your budget, here are four tips to keep your nonprofit communications on track:

Make donors feel heroic. Nonprofit workers are typically wonderful, generous, compassionate people, but they’re just as susceptible as anyone to the lure of self-promotion and charitable showboating.

In all your communications, make sure your donors—the people who sustain your mission—receive the lion’s share of attention and praise. Police your pictures and prose for egregious displays of “savior of the world syndrome.”

That’s not to say you shouldn’t spotlight your staff. Do give ample airtime to the people who are working behind the scenes—and certainly your beneficiaries—but always make the donor the hero. More specifically, use communications to convey how your heroic donors are responsible for profound change.

Keep it uplifting. If you rely on gut-wrenching images and a hard sell to keep the donations coming, good luck sleeping at night. The ends don’t justify the means.

Aggressive fundraising can damage goodwill and make people less likely to donate. It’s also against the law in some places.

As much as you can, keep your communications uplifting. Erring on the side of edification is better for you, your donors and beneficiaries. From both a fundraising and ethical perspective, it’s a more sustainable strategy.

If International Justice Mission—which combats the horrors of modern-day slavery—can avoid being overly heavy-handed, surely you can as well.

Don’t objectify people—including your donors. Donors are not faceless cash machines. Acknowledge them often and freely. Use your communications as a vehicle to inspire, educate, motivate and empower.

Show tangible proof that dollars turn into something positive. It’s incredible how many nonprofits try to skate by without proving the worth of their work. No amount of “Together, we can make a difference” can atone for not illuminating that value.

Regardless of what you do, tracking tangible results, outcomes and data-driven reporting should top your communications list. Why should anyone give your organization a cent unless you can prove your ability to use it wisely? Reporting and measurement merit heavy investment.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Relentless, high-pressure fundraising is terrible, but you must ask.

People want to help. It feels good to give. It’s good for us.

Strive for the sweet spot between asking too much and not enough. There are plenty of folks out there with hearts of gold who’d love to help, but they don’t know what they don’t know. It’s up to you to communicate the need in a respectful, dignified, straightforward manner. You might just make that vital difference after all.

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