If a nonprofit organization wants to maximize its contributed income it needs a coherent, executable development plan, and that plan must have a viable communications strategy.
What we’ll be talking about here is not an organization’s overall communications strategy – how and what it does to present itself to the public at large.
Rather we’re talking about an organization’s development communications strategy—how and what it does to communicate its fundraising needs and efforts to donors, prospects, and those able to influence them.
The Context of a Development Communications Strategy
A development communications strategy starts with the organization’s overall communications plan. Whatever is done to communicate, as part of the fundraising effort, must be done in the context of how the organization has decided to present itself to the public.
The need for a specialized development communications strategy does not give a development department the license to work outside the organization’s communications department. It is crucially important that the development department work with the communications department. Approval must be sought from the communications department for the development communication strategy and its major components.
I cannot stress this point strongly enough. A development communications strategy crosses functional lines within an organization. It must be true to both the development and the communications departments’ guidelines, practices, and policies. Failure to work closely with the communications department in this area can result in damage to the organization, its fundraising efforts, collegial harmony, and your career.
There is another thing to which any development communications strategy must also be true – the organization’s mission. No one should ever construct a development plan or the communications strategy to support it without reviewing the organization’s mission statement, its goals and objectives, and its long-term strategic plan. Those who are charged with fundraising for an organization have a responsibility not only to bring in the contributed income it needs, but to do so within the context of the organization.
It is possible to attempt to raise money, even to actually raise it, in a way that damages the organization’s survival. Misleading statements, promises that cannot be kept, misrepresented facts, and negative presentation of information can yield short-term results that constrain an organization’s ability to raise money in the future.
These potentially damaging approaches are easy to spot in the context of one-on-one solicitation. We wouldn’t want a solicitor to make any of the following statements unless we were sure they were true, had been approved in advance, and had a pretty darn good idea what the response to them would be.
“I’m sure we reach more children at need than any other organization. I think there was a newspaper article a while back that said so.”
“Mrs. Jones, I have no doubt the board would be willing to look at naming the new wing after your husband.”
“If we don’t get your gift,” Mr. Smith, “we will be forced to discontinue this program.”
When it comes to a communication strategy, potential negatives are more subtle. When we focus too narrowly on the need to raise money, they can creep in to the very fabric of what we do. We must always remember that a development operation, a development plan, and a development communications strategy exist so that the organization can better carry out its mission, according to the policies and practices it has set, in order to serve the constituencies it has identified.
Let’s take a look at what we need to do to construct a development communications strategy that:
- Works within the context of an organization’s mission
- Functions in harmony with an organization’s overall communications plan
- Leverages fundraising efforts
We’ll start with a description of the communication process. When we communicate, we deliver a relevant message to previously identified recipients using chosen media in order to obtain predetermined action. The four governing elements of the communication process are
- Message: What we want to say.
- Recipients: Those to whom we want to say it.
- Results: The action we want them to take.
- Media: The vehicles we choose to deliver messages.
Every message an organization sends is in some way a representation of that organization. The view people hold of an organization is a combination of those representations and the messages others disseminated about.
In short, an organization’s image is the sum total of the messages it and others send about it. While an organization cannot exercise direct control over the messages of others, it can and should manage carefully the ones it sends. And nowhere is that more true than in the messages about fundraising.
A message is made up of content and articulation. The content of a message consists of its facts and persuasions. The articulation is the way we state a message—its voice, tone, and style. Together, content and articulation combine to create a complete message. Effective messages are clear and consistent.
The content of a clear message is obvious. It is hard to misunderstand a clear message. It consists of statements of fact and persuasive arguments that are as complete and absolute as possible. A clear message has one main point. If you have two equally important points that need to be communicated, you probably need to send two messages.
The articulation of a clear message is equally unambiguous. A clear message is not the place to employ the literary techniques your college English professors taught you. Nor is it where you should strive to impress with your vocabulary. The words that make up its facts and persuasions should be part of common, everyday language. Sentences are simple, straightforward, and for the most part declarative. Language is active not passive.
A clear message does not rely on technical or bureaucratic jargon. It contains only the information a recipient needs to understand its main point. Everything in it can be understood with one, very quick reading.
Clear messages are best written in a journalistic style called inverted pyramid in which the most important information is put at the beginning. This is not the place to build suspense or to hit the reader with a surprise ending. You never know when someone is going to stop reading. Your first sentence must catch the reader’s attention and the gist of the message needs to be conveyed in the first paragraph.
Messages need to be consistent on two levels. First, everything in a fund-raising message must be consistent with every other message the organization sends. Secondly, fund-raising messages must be consistent in their arguments for support.
We have already stressed the importance for a development communications strategy to operate according to an organization’s overall communications plan. The tactics of carrying out this imperative must be consistent with the way in which the organization communicates.
An organization with a coherent communication approach develops a voice. Some organizations will be very conservative in how they speak while others exhibit a stridency of tone in their communications. People expect to hear the voice an organization has established. If an organization speaks of fundraising in a voice different from that which it uses in its other communications efforts, people will be confused.
For example, let’s say there is an organization that habitually describes itself as providing programs to protect latchkey children. But in a fund-raising campaign, that organization asks people to give so that programs can be developed to get kids off the streets in order to lessen juvenile crime. The result is likely to be confusion. The tone of the two statements is different. The fund-raising statement creates an image in conflict with the organization’s traditional presentation of itself. The organization is speaking with different voices.
Carrying this example further, let’s say the organization stresses protect latchkey children in one annual campaign and lessen juvenile crime in the next. The organization is then sending inconsistent fundraising messages and is likely to pay the price in the second year by receiving fewer gifts from people who responded to the latchkey children appeal.
A prospect who is confused about what an organization does or why it does it is not likely to support that organization.
Message Clarity and Consistency Checklist
- Does the message have a single main point?
- Is it constructed with common, everyday words?
- Are the sentences simple, straightforward declarations?
- Is the most important part of the message in the first paragraph?
- Does the fund-raising message speak in a voice consistent with how the organization speaks about other topics?
- Is this fund-raising message consistent with the organization’s other fundraising messages?
No part of a development communications strategy is more important than determining who will be the recipients of your messages. You can neither craft the content of messages nor pick the vehicles to carry them until you know who will be receiving them. The question you should ask yourself over and over again is: Whom do I want to influence?
Donors & Prospects
At first blush, the answer seems easy—donors, of course. Would that it were that simple.
Different messages need to be crafted for different groups of donors. It is doubtful an organization would want to send the same message to someone who has given $100 as they would to someone whose past giving totals $100,000. Then there are the prospects who have yet to make a gift to the organization or who have not given to a specific type of campaign before.
One of the goals of a development communication strategy should be to target as tightly as possible an organization’s fund-raising messages. Messages should be created for and delivered to the narrowest feasible group. This is not a situation where you aim for the lowest common denominator.
The largest donors should receive most of their information in messages tailored to appeal to big givers and delivered one-on-one. Yes, they will be recipients of other messages through the various channels the organization has chosen to use, but the information they will rely upon to make a decision should come from a person speaking to them in their home or office and be backed up by personal letters from peers.
A large part of the process of identifying recipients for specific sets of messages will be accomplished through the rating and evaluating of prospects.
An organization will also want to get its fund-raising messages out to recipients other than donors. For this purpose the news media offer the most cost effective channel. To inform the public at large, you generate publicity about a fund-raising campaign in order to create a climate favorable to the organization’s development efforts.
With that end in mind, it is important to think of the media not only as a communication channel or vehicle (we’ll be exploring them in that vein later), but also as an audience – a group of message recipients. The messages you craft for the media, like those for any other group of recipients, need to be tailored to their needs.
Another group that shouldn’t be overlooked in a development communications strategy is the staff of the organization. In this case, staff doesn’t mean just employees. Volunteers and paid staff can be an important group because of their ability to influence the giving of others. Too many organizations forget about non-development staff when it comes time to mount a campaign. Don’t. Well-informed staff members can function as an informal cadre of image builders for an organization. If an organization has a fund-raising campaign underway every staff person should be able to present the case for support.
- Have we divided the people we want to communicate with into the smallest feasible groups?
- Having identified differing message content needs are we prepared to craft messages aimed at each group?
- Have we developed a program for communicating with the news media?
- Do we have a program in place for communicating with staff – paid and volunteer – about development needs and plans?
No communication effort—large or small—should be undertaken unless there is an intended result for that effort. We communicate in order to generate action, and we had better be able to describe that action before we begin sending messages to recipients.
It isn’t enough for a message sent as part of a development communication strategy to have the intend action of getting someone to make a donation. That intention is playing to the lowest common denominator.
In a campaign, we segment prospects by their ability to give, and then design specific messages to go to those different segmentations. We go to that trouble because we want them to take different actions. Some we want to give $10,000. Others will be asked for $100. The messages for people capable of giving gifts of dramatically differing sizes will not be the same.
A development communications strategy will also plan for different messages to be sent to the same group of recipients. A monthly newsletter sent to an existing base of smaller donors may have the intended result of getting the recipients to think favorably about an organization. A solicitation letter sent to the same group as part of a direct mail campaign seeks to get the recipients to take the action of writing a check. Same audience, but different intended results.
Always identify the result you want from every communication effort, and for each effort there should be a single result. For example, an organization with a monthly newsletter to donors might want to use that vehicle to tell about how the funds raised in a recent campaign were spent on a specific program. It also might want to announce that the same program has received a statewide award. It’s tempting to cover both subjects in a single story. But let’s take a look at the result we want to derive from communicating about each subject.
My intended result for telling donors how their contributions were spent would be to let them feel a direct connection to the program. On the other hand, I want them to know about the award in order to have them feel positively about the organization and the quality of its efforts.
Where I come from, those are two different results, and I would deliver the information intended to elicit each result in a separate message.
- Do we have a defined intended result for each message we will send?
- Does each message have one and only one intended result?
We’ve talked about the messages we want to deliver, the recipients to whom we want to send them, and the actions we want recipients to take as a result of those messages. Now let’s look at the variety of ways we have of delivering messages. We’ll begin by breaking down our media into two groups:
- Internal and
For the sake of this discussion, we’ll define internal media as every message delivery vehicle over which the organization is able to exercise some degree of direct control. External will be those over which we have no direct control.
General Internal Media
Obviously, any development communications strategy will plan to take advantage of an organization’s existing general internal media—that managed by the communications department. Falling into this category are:
- The annual report
- The annual meeting
- Speeches delivered by staff
- Relationships with media/press outlets that accept public service announcements – TV, radio, magazines, newspapers
- The organization’s website
At specific times during the fund-raising cycle the development department will want to use these media to deliver messages that support its fund-raising efforts. The trick is to use them in a planned, ongoing way.
Any newsletter the communications department puts out should cover events, successes, and plans of the development department in the same way it does those of other departments. Donors should receive recognition in these newsletters. Campaign kickoffs should be announced.
The annual report is an organization’s communication vehicle of record. Every donor who wishes should have her/his name listed here. Large gifts received should be touted. Fund-raising successes should be recorded.
The annual meeting is an organization’s celebration of its year’s efforts. Large donors, if they wish, should be recognized. Fund-raising successes should be called to the attention of all assembled. Fund-raising needs for the upcoming year should be stated. A call to action should be issued for the upcoming year’s annual campaign and any other scheduled fund-raising effort.
Every time a staff member speaks publicly a portion of the speech should call attention to the organization’s good works and how it relies upon contributed income to continue it efforts. I know that it is sometimes hard to get everyone to adhere to this policy. But it should be included as part of the development communications strategy and every effort made to make it happen.
News Media Relationships
The communications department will have relationships with the community’s news media. The development communications strategy should include a plan for using those relationships to promote fund-raising efforts.
It is becoming increasingly rare for a nonprofit organization not to have a website. The development department needs to have a section on the website that provides:
- Information on the organization’s fund-raising needs
- A persuasive argument for giving
- The opportunity to give
- The opportunity for visitors to add their names to any email or snail mail lists
- The names, areas of responsibility, and contact information for all development staff
This last point is particularly important, yet often overlooked. People are more likely to make contact with an organization if they have a name of someone to email, call, or write. Websites that fail to list a nonprofit’s development staff limit the possibility of potential new donors making contact. And sometimes, the person trying to make contact will be an existing donor who has forgotten the name of a person he/she talked to previously. Make it easy for donors and prospects to reach out to you.
General Internal Media Checklist
- Is there a plan in place to make use of the organization’s regular newsletters?
- In the next annual report, will donors be recognized, large gifts singled out for praise, and fund-raising successes recorded?
- At the next annual meeting, will successful fund-raising efforts be celebrated and upcoming campaigns called to attention?
- Is there a policy in place to identify the organization’s good works and cite its need for contributed income in all speeches made by staff?
- Is the development department working with the communications department to take advantage of the latter’s relationships with the news media?
- Is there a well functioning development section on the organization’s website?
Development Department Internal Media
A large part of a development communications strategy will be devoted to the various communication vehicles the development department creates and then controls in an effort to support fund-raising programs. These vehicles come in many forms. Lets make a list of some of the possibilities and then discuss them in greater detail.
- Direct mail
- Public service announcements
I’m not going to get into the detailed how-to of these various media. In the time we have available, I’d rather discuss how they fit into a development communications strategy and where their use is most effective.
Brochures are where you can layout a campaign’s case for giving and cite positive outcomes that will result from a successful campaign. A brochure gives the development office something to send when they get a request for information. It also serves as a study guide for those who are making the campaign case to prospects. It is the document of first resort when fund-raising questions come up, and as such can be invaluable to all staff members. And it is the one thing that is left with every prospective donor.
Brochures are important, and their content must be agreed upon early in the planning process. No campaign should begin without a brochure outlining need and the case for giving.
Newsletters are publication sent out at specific intervals. Monthly is probably the most common. A newsletter can keep a fund-raising campaign fresh in the minds of prospective donors by announcing progress and major gifts. Every edition of a fund-raising newsletter should include an opportunity to give through return envelopes, phone numbers at which charge-card gifts can be accepted, and, if the organization has the capability, reference to a page on the website where gifts can be made.
Newsletters need to be short and sweet. Their articles need to be concise and to the point. Photographs help communicate. And statements from donors about why they gave can help move a fence sitter. A campaign newsletter should be two to four pages long, and it probably should be issued at least monthly.
Newsletters are really the quick and dirty of publishing, and they do not have to last forever. It’s okay to publish a newsletter during a campaign and then close it down. On the other hand, it’s a good idea for a development communications strategy to include an ongoing newsletter from the development department to donors of record and likely prospects. You can have more than one newsletter.
Direct mail is a tried and true medium of fund-raising. It is used over and over again because it works, especially when smaller gifts are being solicited from a large number of people. Think annual campaigns.
There are a lot of good books and articles on how to use direct mail. It is a somewhat arcane science with all sorts of theories. Many tests have been done on the number of pieces to include in a mailing, their color, the writing style, response rates, and just about any other variable you can imagine. Do a search on the Web for “direct mail” and the return will be in the millions. Don’t let that intimidate you. Search for the words “nonprofit direct mail” and the return is less than a hundred.
Sometimes we forget that the telephone is a communication medium. It is so ubiquitous to everyday life that its “communication” function becomes invisible. However, every time you get a solicitation call at suppertime, your memory is jogged.
I dislike being on the receiving end of phone campaigns as much as the next person, but that doesn’t mean we should rule telephones out of a development communications strategy. Phone campaigns, like direct mail, work when it comes to soliciting smaller gifts, and phone surveys are a great way to pretest how receptive the community is to the case for a particular campaign.
Email is the new kid on the block in communication vehicles, and it is so versatile that we can expect to see its use increase rapidly. It is the least expensive directed communication medium available and it has the ability to deliver everything from newsletters to direct-mail solicitations.
Email has the added advantage of being near instantaneous communication. There is no faster way to get a message out in the middle of a campaign that by emailing it to your intended recipients. Of course in order to do this you need email addresses.
Every nonprofit organization should be collecting the email addresses of its donors and prospects. At the same time, it should be getting permission to email them with information about the organization. You should never send fundraising email to people without first getting their permission to so.
Another advantage of email is that it is good at drawing return comments and correspondence. It is a great dialoging tool.
There are some really amazing tracking and data-collecting capabilities inherent in email. Used ethically they can be a great help in profiling donors. See the article Building Donor Loyalty, Chapter 7: Tools for Donor Cultivation
Public Service Announcements
A public service announcement (PSA) is something of a hybrid. While you control its content, it is actually placed in external media such as radio and television programming and newspaper and magazine pages. But because you control what PSAs say, I consider them to be an internal medium. They are first cousins of paid advertising. In fact the only difference is whether or not you pay. Since most nonprofits operate under the strictest of budgetary constraints, I’m holding our discussion to PSAs and will not get into the merits of buying advertising.
A public service announcement can reach a very large audience. After all it is delivered by what we call the mass media. An organization should take advantage of every chance it gets to make its fundraising pitch in well-placed PSAs. They give the opportunity to make a strong emotional argument for donations.
One of the best ways to get good PSAs is to talk an advertising agency into producing them for you as a gift-in-kind. Most agencies are willing to do this pro bono work for the recognition it earns them.
There are many other communication media that could be part of a development communications strategy – everything from promotional items you give away to video presentations to be shown at meetings. But what we have looked at here are the most commonly used vehicles and the ones that are likely to return the most bang for the buck. In one way, shape, or form, they should be available to even the smallest of organizations.
Development Department Internal Media Checklist
- Have we prepared a campaign or fund-raising brochure?
- Have we developed a newsletter or newsletters to support our fund-raising efforts?
- Is direct mail appropriate for this campaign?
- Is there an effective way to use telephones as a communication media?
- Have we explored the possibilities of email for fund-raising communications?
- Are we ready to deliver PSAs to news media who have agreed to use them?
External media are principally the news media that will be covering an organization and its fund-raising campaigns. The size of the organization and its perceived importance to the community will affect how hard or easy that coverage is to come by. External media include:
- Daily newspapers
- Weekly newspapers
- Television stations
- Radio stations
The two most common ways we communicate with external media are by issuing press releases and talking to writers, editors, or reporters. We also communicate with them by holding press conferences.
Keep in mind that you will have virtually no control over what an external medium says about the organization and its fund-raising efforts. You can issue press releases until you are blue in the face and still find the facts and information published or aired contrary to what you gave out.
External media can be important to a fund-raising campaign and consideration of them should be included in any development communications strategy. I urge you to rely on the expertise of the organization’s communications department. The communications director should know which external media representatives are likely to view the organization favorably, and which ones to stay away from. Also there are rules about how information should be released that govern among other things the best time of day and day of the week. The communications department is where you will find the experts. Use them.
Because you have so little control over what ends up in print or on the radio or TV, external media should be used carefully and sparingly. A campaign-kickoff press conference is worthwhile if the campaign is significant enough to the community to warrant it. If not, have the communications department issue a press release and contact the appropriate people. You can follow up with milestones-reached updates and finally with the announcement of successful conclusion of the campaign.
Keep in mind that the news media covering a story will not, for the most part, simply use your press releases. They will want to put their own spin on things and do some reporting. They will also want someone at the top of the organization or the campaign to give them a quote. Be prepared for all of this, and leave the execution of it in the hands of the communications department.
External Media Checklist
- Do we have a list of media contacts ready?
- Do we have people from the communications department assigned to make those contacts?
- Do we have people willing to be quoted and are they briefed on what to say?
- Do we have a timetable for external media contact?
Two Final Words
Budget: No development communication strategy can be carried out successfully unless in has been budgeted for. You will need to determine the amount of staff time it will take and how much money will be needed to carry it out. Budget for it the way you would any other operation and then stick to the budget.
Schedule: Develop a schedule for executing the components of your development communications strategy and then stick to it. If your strategy is to work, it can’t be treated as an afterthought. Communication has to be given the same respect and attention to detail that every other aspect of fund-raising gets.