Articles | Message Development | The 4 Cornerstones of Your Nonprofit Message Platform

The 4 Cornerstones of Your Nonprofit Message Platform

More message guidance

You have to connect with your target audiences to move them to act…to give, to sign, to participate, to volunteer and more. Your organization’s messages are your greetings—the first step in building these vital relationships and a must-do for keeping them vibrant over time.

But without relevant messages, it’s impossible to connect.

Crafting compelling messages that are easy to remember and repeat is one of the most overlooked—and under appreciated—methods of ensuring you reach your nonprofit marketing goals.

In fact, 76% of nonprofit communicators like you say their messages are irrelevant to the people they want to give, volunteer or take another needed action.*  Their target audiences (like yours?) remain unmoved and their goals unmet.

That’s a huge loss, as effective messages have a significant ROI (return on investment). When your messages don’t connect, you generate just a huge who cares. And who-cares messages alienate current supporters, as well as prospects on all fronts. Who wants to dig into something that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with them?

There’s No Choice—Learn How to Get to Relevant Messages

Creating engaging messages requires a minor (if any) financial investment and a moderate investment of time, and offers tremendous returns. I hear from so many of you who believe in the power of messages, but just don’t know where to start.

In response to your requests, here’s an updated guide to crafting the four cornerstones of your organization’s messages—your message platform.

4 Must-Dos Before You Shape Your Message Platform

Take these four steps to ensure relevancy, the essence of messages that connect.

  1. Build your message team of colleagues, leadership, volunteers and supporters. You’ll want their insights to shape your messages, their relationships to test them and access to their networks by training them as fantastic messengers down the line.
  2. Clarify your top one to three marketing goals—how will you use marketing to reach your organizational goals, and the actions you want folks to take to get you there.
  3. Identify who is most likely to act and/or has the greatest influence (your target audiences; no more than three groups).
  4. Get to know what’s important to your audiences (wants, values and preferences) so you can articulate what’s in it for them and ensure no barriers stand in your way to engaging them, and learn how best to reach them.

The 4 Cornerstones of a Relevant Nonprofit Message Platform

Now you’re ready to draft, or refine, your organization’s messages.  These four components are the cornerstones of your organization’s message platform.

Be aware that although these elements are presented in a linear manner here, the message development process is cyclical. For example, what you learn in building out your key messages and related support points may highlight an element that needs to be incorporated into your positioning statement. Design your timeline, and roles and responsibilities, for this process with that in mind.

1. Tagline

Extends your organization’s name to convey its unique impact or value with personality, passion and commitment, while delivering a memorable and repeatable message to your network.

Running no more than eight words, the tagline is your organization’s single most used message.

An effective tagline provides enough insight to generate interest and motivate your reader/listener to ask a question, without providing too much information so that she thinks she knows everything she needs to and doesn’t want to read more or continue the conversation.

How to Use
Exactly as written
in print, online and verbal communications, including business cards and email signatures.


  • Organization: Community Food & Justice Coalition
  • Tagline: Food for People, Not for Profit
  • Organization: Maryland SPCA
  • Tagline: Feel the Warmth of a Cold Nose

2. Positioning Statement

Connects your organization with those you want to engage by 1) linking it with what’s important to them; and 2) differentiating it from others competing for their attention, time and dollars.

A one to three sentence statement that positions your organization most effectively in the environment in which you work. It conveys the intersection of what your organization does well, what it does better and differently than any other organization (uniqueness), and what your network cares about.

Key components of your positioning statement are:

  • What you do.
  • For whom (whom do you serve).
  • What’s different about the way you do your work.
  • Impact you make (something tangible, like a stat, is compelling here, see example below).
  • Unique benefit derived from your programs, services and/or products.

Most, importantly, this is not your mission statement. Your mission statement is internally oriented and serves as your organizational road map. Your positioning statement connects your mission with what’s vital to your network, so must be externally oriented.

How to Use
Exactly as written in all print and online communications (with the exception of the occasional narrowly-focused flyer or mini-site).


  • The Environmental Health Coalition (EHC) builds grassroots campaigns to combat the unjust consequences of toxic pollution, discriminatory land use, and unsustainable energy policies. Through leader development, organizing and advocacy, EHC improves the health of children, families, neighborhoods and the natural environment in the San Diego/Tijuana region.
  • The Rural Women’s Health Project (RWHP) designs and delivers health education training and materials to help rural women and their families strengthen their understanding of critical health and family issues. By blending innovative techniques with a collaborative approach, RWHP has built a record of success in improving the health and well-being of the communities they serve.


3. Key Messages or Talking Points

Succinctly elaborate on your positioning statement and provide the necessary proof required for validation, while enabling you to tailor your messaging to specific groups within your network.

A set of four to six key messages that build on the information conveyed in your positioning statement and respond to most common questions asked by your current and prospective network.

Most talking points should run no more than two sentences. Develop a set at the organizational level first; and follow (if needed) with sets for specific target audiences, programs and/or campaigns.

Be prepared with supporting points (a.k.a. proof points) for each talking point.

How to Use

  • Use in both written and verbal conversation.
  • However, talking points do not represent the exact words that must be used (especially in conversation), but rather convey the essential ideas to be conveyed. They can be customized for greater impact–to the specific interchange, the interests of the person you’re speaking with or emailing, and/or the topic of conversation.

Note proof points associated with the talking points in some of these examples.

  • Advancing Equality (see pp. 13-16)
  • Beverage Container Recycling
  • Walk to School

4. Elevator Pitch Catch

From the moment the first elevator sped upwards in 1853, people have been polishing their elevator pitches. The idea was that if the big prospect ever strode into your elevator, you’d be able to dazzlingly explain your organization and your role there by the time you reached your floor.

But that traditional elevator pitch is dead!  Here’s why, and guidance on how to persuade people to give, volunteer and support your cause today:

1) Today, we work constantly to move people, not just the prospect and not just in the elevator.
We’re working to persuade fans, colleagues, our children and friends—who are all overwhelmed by media and messages—all the time. It’s a tough sell.

2) Your conversational partner—or child, program participant, colleague or board member—doesn’t care what you want. She cares mainly about her own needs, wants, passions, habits and dreams, and those of her near and dear.

It’s not selfish, it’s human. We have to filter somehow.

If your pitch relates, great. If not, nada. And the only way to find that match—if there is one—is to a) get attention, b) learn about what’s important to your partner.

Enables you to listen and learn from any social contact (not just those that take place in an elevator). If there’s interest in your issue and/or org, you can turn it into a “first step” conversion opportunity (asking for more information, scheduling a call, etc.) in 60 seconds or less.

A conversation customized to the interests of the person you’re talking with, the context of your conversation and the first-step “ask” you’ll be making and/or other factors. Takes no more than 60 seconds to deliver; 30 seconds is ideal.

These are the four steps to get there. Start with step one and end with step four, but the order of steps two and three can vary:

  1. The lead-in. This is where you introduce yourself and your role in your organization to set up the conversation. It’s intended to spark the interest of the person you’re speaking with.
  2. The question. This is the hook, an open-ended conversation that allows you to assess the interest level of your conversational partner. Remember to pause after you ask, to wait for an answer.
  3. The differentiator. Proceed here only if you get interest in response to your question. Your differentiator identifies your organization as providing a unique resource valued by the person you’re speaking with (build from what you’ve heard), one that deserves immediate attention.
  4. The first-step call to action. This is the request to schedule a follow-up call to discuss the matter further, make an online contribution or participate in a meeting on the issue, thereby making the conversion. Make it specific, clear and doable (e.g. don’t ask too much, especially in an initial conversation).

NOTE: It’s vital that the “pitcher” is adept at following the lead of his conversational partner to make the most of the short period he has. Role playing is a proven way to build this skill.


Hi, I’m Mora Lopez. I’m a senior at Santa Fe High School and a volunteer with Open Door. We host workshops at our school so that adults can learn English. We’re the only free adult ESL class in town.

Do you know that out of the 30 million adults who are below basic reading and writing levels, almost 40% are Hispanic? PAUSE, continue only if there’s clear interest.

Our participants report back that learning English has made a remarkable difference in their lives, both professionally and personally, and we want to grow the number of students we can handle.

Would you like to share your email address? That way we can keep you posted on the program as it continues to grow.

Now It’s Your Turn—Next Steps

Your next step is to inventory your organization’s current message platform against this checklist:

  • What elements are in place as defined above (or near enough)?
  • For those that are in place, were they created based on the four “must-dos” outlined at the beginning of this article?
    • If yes, you have some of the four cornerstones already in place.
    • If no, you’ll need to start at the very beginning, with your positioning statement.
  • For those cornerstones you need to revise, or create for the first time:
    • Start with clarifying your communications goals.
    • Identify those you need to engage to meet those goal, and get to know them.
    • Start shaping your cornerstones based on this framework.

What’s holding you back from effective messages? Please share your message challenges here.

*Findings from our 2012 survey of more than 1,500 fundraisers and nonprofit communicators. Just 24% of respondents said their messages connect with their target audiences. 

Nancy Schwartz in Message Development | 17 comments

© 2002 - 2018 Nancy E. Schwartz. All rights reserved.

You’re welcome to “reprint” this article online as long as you do not alter the article in any way, and you include the author byline and attribution as displayed below. If you would like to edit the article, please contact us.

Please use this byline

By Nancy E. Schwartz
Publisher – / President – Nancy Schwartz & Company

Please use this attribution (at the beginning or end of article):

Nancy E. Schwartz helps nonprofits succeed through effective marketing. Nancy and her team provide marketing planning and implementation services to nonprofit organizations and foundations nationwide. She is the publisher of the Getting Attention e-update and blog. For more nonprofit marketing guidance like this, subscribe to her e-update at

  • Greatest messaging challenges:
    *Lack of staff to concentrate on strategy.
    *Lack of ability to segment audiences in our database to track their interest and development a relationship with our audience.

  • Greatest message challenges:
    (1) An organization name that has 36 years of history and excellent community awareness BUT that also represents only one small portion of the work being done. Can’t lose the name, but constantly fight against the narrow public understanding.
    (2) A complex issue — family violence and abuse — and one that most don’t enjoy discussing. Any effort to convey concise, connecting messages gets over-ruled internally with the desire to make every message comprehensive. It’s not going to happen!

  • We are a very small nonprofit, working on a shoestring budget. We are struggling with not having the expertise to get our message out effectively.

  • Message Challenge:
    Most of our messaging is around our mission statement with an emphasis on the friendship programs in our schools. We are so focused on the process of what we do rather than the results from what we do. We lack the ability to quantify the impact we have in the lives of young adults with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities. Our story is not emotional or heart wrenching.

  • 1. We have five program areas but people really are only familiar with one–our largest. We struggle with people not recognizing our organization’s name or understanding what we do unless we mention the one well-known program.
    2. Each of the five programs serves children but each one does a different type of service. So it’s hard to have a cohesive message for everything we do.

  • 1. We are an intermediary — a nonprofit consulting firm assisting other nonprofits to become stronger, more effective organizations. As such, we seem to be one step away from the “action” of e.g., feeding hungry people, providing housing, offering youth programs. We need an identity apart from our clients that inspires people to give.
    2. For years, our work has been referred to as “capacity building,” “technical assistance,” or “management assistance,” jargon-y terms that don’t help people understand what we do.
    3. Our name needs explanation.

  • A large institution with so many needs and no profile. Hard to know which message to concentrate on that will distinguish us from the rest

  • We are small organization that relies heavily on summer students or people on contracts. My BIGGEST frustration is withnew staff that do not read the books, style sheets, etc. and just plow through creating their own designs, using their own left brain language. Most of these are young people who think they have learned everything and don’t need to listen to current staff or take the time to look at the information available to them.

    e.g. one former employee was trained by her instructor that if she did a poster with a border she would receive an automatic failure. I was trained by someone else who pointed out the benefits of a border to focus the eye on the message. It was a constant battle to get what I wanted.

    I state to the new employees that this is the way I want it but if they can come up with a good argument and reason to do it differently, I am willing to listen. So I am not inflexible.

    My latest is to get everyone one to use “right brain” words. I am getting tired of constantly re-editing material and changing words to “right brain” words. I give positives when “right brain” words are used.

    Is there a diplomatic and easy way to get what you want when it comes to branding and messaging?

  • We are young non profit start up named after our flagship curriculum which is the name of a book. We are expanding our curriculum and product offerings but our name links us to our core curriculum.

  • Our challenge is that our organization offers many varied services — foster care, refugee resettlement, senior housing, homeless family shelter, care for people with disabilities — and we do them in several areas around the state. So we can’t concentrate on one service area (e.g. child welfare) and we can’t concentrate in one geographic area.

  • We’re an all-volunteer organization with our primary contact two e-mail lists (one discussion, one just announcements) that have been around for almost as long as the internet. Due to the high number of people on our lists who apparently don’t know how to unsubscribe from an e-mail list, we’ve been increasingly showing up in people’s spam folders as people will mark it as spam if they can’t figure out how to unsubscribe.

    On top of that, getting any kind of feedback or input (positive or negative) is near impossible: we’ve tried surveys with incentives, asking in the print magazine that is the basis of our organization, and sending out e-mails that directly ask for specific feedback and maybe get a handful of responses.

    How do we start anew?

  • Our biggest challange is how to be innovative and how to draw attention to seperate us from the rest in this verload of information around us.

  • We have two big challenges. As a long-term established nonprofit we have many, many focus areas. We find it hard to target our work or audiences since we cover advocacy on hundreds of governance, natural resources, and social policy issues.

    We also operate a sister organization that is solely about educating the public on issues and elections; no advocacy. The advocacy/no advocacy is very confusing to the public and even to some of our members.

  • We have a diverse audience group – students that we serve, school decision-makers, state legislators, industry partners, program alumni. Do we craft different key messages for each group? Or do we have key messages for our student group and make sure they also resonate with the other stakeholders?

  • We run into two issues in executing a marketing plan:
    1.) Lack of resources, financial and staff.
    2.) Diverse array of services; we’ve been told by consultants to market our programs individually instead of marketing our agency, but then we’re back to problem #1.
    My question is, for an organization with a budget of $3-$4 mil annually, how much SHOULD we be investing in marketing? And how much do we re-invest in marketing to grow the effort once it’s off the ground? How do we measure ROI? Is it practical for a nonprofit to market individual programs, or is that unrealistic in your experience?
    Thanks for all your input about coming up with marketing plans. How do we take it to the next level and make it happen?

  • My biggest issues is the lack of suppport staff for the execution for the message, i.e.who will lay out the flyer once I write it….I don’t have the tech. skills to do it, we have one volunteer who does some graphic design but my April and May flyer for bulk mail,never went out although the copy was written and the summer flyer is in the same situation….j

  • Peggy Bloch

    I need help in marketing my non-profit. Marketing is holding me back and having someone who knows marketing to bounce things off of and get good feedback to help my community.

Complete article listing