Hallmarks of Effective Grant Writing

Tailoring the Proposal

There’s a saying in the world of grant seeking: “If you’ve met one funder, you’ve met one funder.”


Part of what makes grant-seeking challenging is that every funder wants something different. The essence of what they want is the same—what do you propose to do, what difference will it make, and where do we, the funder, fit in?—but the narrative configurations, space limits, and formats in which they want this information varies greatly.


This means there is no one-size-fits-all approach to requesting grant dollars. To stand a chance of cutting through the competition and getting a grant, it is necessary to tailor a proposal to each funder.


There are two levels of tailoring a grant application: first, tailoring the format to meet every specification of the application guidelines and process. And secondly, tailoring the message to the unique interests and priorities of the funder.

Tailoring the Format


Completing a grant application can feel like a game of jumping through hoops. You may need to squeeze complex answers into painfully few characters…provide letters of support, a logic model, and executive summary…then mail it to the funder, three-copies-double-spaced-paper-clipped-not-stapled.

Coming across a grantmaker with no specified format can feel like a dream, especially since they can be far and few between. Following strict application, instructions is a reality of grant seeking.

Keep in mind that you have choices. If a funder’s specifications strike you as too onerous or time-consuming, step back and weigh whether it’s worth the time and risk to apply. Sometimes, it’s reasonable to calculate that the opportunity cost of applying to a funder exceeds the potential gain.

If you decide to go for it, commit to making sure that your application follows every guideline and instruction. Don’t be tempted to believe that your organization’s relationship to the funder is so solid, or your program so unique, that you can cut corners. Not following directions could land your application straight in the reject pile.

Tailoring the Message


It’s not enough just to adhere to instructions and fit your standard narrative into a funder’s format. Writing a truly compelling proposal requires tailoring your content and message too.


What’s important to keep in mind is that funders don’t exist to fund your organization’s mission. They exist to fulfill their own missions by investing in organizations and projects that bring their priorities and beliefs alive in the world. Grantmakers are looking for proposals that they can take to their boards of trustees and say: “This—this project, this idea—is what we are looking to accomplish.”


Tailoring content to a grantmaker doesn’t mean you should distort the truth, alter your deliverables, or design a project just to please a funder. Rather, it is the work of good writing to consider the reader’s point of view (in this case, the funder’s mission and interests) and to place emphasis on aspects that will excite and activate what the reader cares most about.


Following below are four practical tips for tailoring the message of the proposal to the funder:

Align


Before you write, think. As part of your pre-writing process, brainstorm the unique alignment between your organization’s mission, or the project you’re proposing, and the mission and interests of that funder. This means you should find different alignment for the same project with different funders.


For example, for a proposal written by a food pantry about its community food distribution service:


To a funder whose primary interest is the well-being of children, the alignment is in showing how distributing food benefits families and, ultimately, children. The proposal might emphasize stories about families or highlight statistics about child hunger.


To a funder whose primary interest is ending poverty, the alignment is in showing how addressing food insecurity helps lift people out of poverty. The proposal might include evidence about how this has worked in other communities.

Activate


Once you’ve identified this alignment, articulate it in key places of the application, especially the cover letter and introductory and concluding sections of the narrative. You may literally refer to the funder (e.g. “Like the XYZ Foundation, the ABC Organization believes that no child in our community should be hungry…”) or you may not name them, but “speak to their mission” by using words and ideas that match or imitate the funder’s own word choices and priorities.

Acknowledge


Demonstrate that the grantee understands and appreciates the funder’s vision by acknowledging their leadership and impact. For example: “The ABC Organization is deeply grateful that the XYZ Foundation has been a champion for improving access to healthy, fresh food in Cleveland’s inner city neighborhoods.” Showing gratitude can go a long way.

Attribute


Literally, write the funder into the solution that you propose to help them envision your partnership. Attribute future success to them, should they decide to invest in your organization, in key places of the document: “With generous funding from the XYZ Foundation, ABC Organization will ensure that these children start the school day with a hot, nutritious meal so that they can learn and grow towards better futures.”
Tailoring your proposal format and message is the first step in showing a funder that your organization can be trusted and counted on—and put you one step closer to getting the grant.

Convey the Core Compelling Idea

While facts, figures, data and details are necessary to strengthen a grant proposal, they alone don’t win the grant. What can set your proposal apart is a clear, compelling, and unifying narrative thread that makes clear to the reader how your organization’s work is important, urgent, unique, and deserving of funding.

Keep it Simple

In the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, authors Chip and Dan Heath discuss ideas that manage to stick with the reader. By “sticky,” they write, “we mean that your ideas are understood and remembered, and have a lasting impact—they change your audience’s opinions or behavior.”


The Heath brothers explain that making an idea “stick” starts with keeping it simple, according to this formula:

Simple = Core + Compact
Core: Hone in on the core concept
Compact: Succinctly communicate this core concept

How is this practical in the context of grant writing? Can a grant writer deliver a succinct, simple, core idea when a grant proposal demands so much information?

Make it Memorable

The answer is that a grant writer not only can, but really must, anchor a grant proposal around a core compelling idea to stand a better chance of cutting through the competition for grants.


Consider how the funding process works in many foundations: the program officer reviewing your proposal is also reviewing many others, all that are stuffed with large amounts of information. She or he is responsible to boil down the main ideas of each proposal, to summarize what’s most important for a board of trustees who will decide on funding.


The program officer will likely forget the specific facts and figures they read in your proposal, but what they’re more likely to remember is a sticky core idea. An hour after reading, what is the bottom-line impression or message that you want him or her to remember?

Distinguish What’s Unique

The executive director of the Hunger Network was challenged to demonstrate to funders the organization’s unique contributions as compared to the region’s flagship food bank.


With help from Grants Plus, she hit upon the core compelling idea that sets the Hunger Network apart:


While the food bank is the region’s largest distributor of food, by managing the volunteers who operate area food pantries, the Hunger Network is the region’s nourisher of people. Food awaiting distribution in a box or on a shelf does not feed a community. It is in transferring food to hungry people that it becomes nourishment.


This concept isn’t complicated—rather, it’s because the idea is intentionally simple but powerful that it calls the reader’s attention and is likely to stay in their mind.


That’s just the effect that the Hunger Network’s grant proposals suddenly had on funders, the executive director explained: “The response I was getting from program officers was ‘Oh—now I get it.’”

Work Your Core

The core compelling idea should be distinguishable as the core of every grant proposal you write. When you step back from the details, what will stay with the reader?


Think of the core compelling idea as the overarching theme of your grant application that conveys how your organization makes a powerful difference and what sets it apart. It is the answer to why the funder should want to fund your request, so that through their investment they can see their own mission come alive in the world.


A core compelling idea has these qualities:

  • It is tailored to the funder: Start with recognizing what matters to the funder. Your core compelling idea should vary from one application to another based on the priorities of the specific foundation. Imagine you are a food pantry preparing two grant applications. The first funder’s key concern is child hunger. The second funder’s interest is improving academic outcomes. Your description of your organization and programs will likely be very much the same between the two proposals. But the core compelling idea the proposal is anchored around will be different: for the first funder it should be centered on ending child hunger, and for the second it should make the link between food access and education.
  • It’s simple: A core compelling idea is compact—think around 25 words. A sticky idea starts with being simple. In the example above, about the food pantry applying to the funder concerned with academics, a simple and compact core compelling idea might be: “A child who is hungry at home is a child likely to struggle at school.”
  • It’s declarative: There’s an emphatic energy to the core compelling idea. It shouldn’t just summarize, but declare something of interest and confidently convey a point of view—fitting, since after all, a grant proposal should be a persuasive document.
  • It’s bold: There may be an element of surprise or the unexpected, even a flair for the dramatic, that captures the reader’s attention.
  • It gets repeated: By reinforcing the core compelling idea in different words and different places throughout the proposal, the concept is more likely to stay with the reader. The grant writer of the hypothetical proposal about hunger and academics would want to reiterate in several places why hungry children struggle to learn and how providing access to food can improve academic outcomes.

A core compelling idea is not your organization’s mission statement or a description of what your organization needs. It is a bold and compact statement that declares what’s most important about your organization or project, and is repeated for emphasis throughout the proposal.


Don’t leave it to a busy program officer to deduce and later recall what’s most important from your proposal. Make his or her job easier, and your own chances of funding greater, by making sure your proposal is one that sings clear and true with an unmistakable and unforgettable compelling idea at its core.

This article was contributed by Lauren Steiner, President of Grants Plus

Lauren Steiner is the president and founder of Grants Plus, a national leader in grant seeking consulting. Grants Plus has secured more than $165 million in grant funding for nonprofit organizations around the country since 2007. Under her leadership the company has received many awards for growth and innovation including a 2016 Smart Business: Progressive Organization Award, and a 2016 Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award from the American Psychological Association.

Lauren is past president of the Grant Professionals Association Ohio–Northern Chapter as well as an active member and former board member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Greater Cleveland Chapter. She was awarded AFP Greater Cleveland’s Outstanding Fundraising Professional award in 2017. She is an active member of the Giving Institute and serves on the editorial review board for Giving USA. Lauren teaches a graduate-level course in philanthropy at the Mandel School of Applied Social Science at Case Western Reserve University.

How to Master Volunteer Communications for Your Nonprofit

As a nonprofit professional, you have a lot to juggle: administrative tasks, event planning, fundraising asks, and more. But there’s an important component of your team that helps you push through these challenges and raise your level of success.

These are your volunteers.

Your volunteers make up the backbone of your organization. Without their help, many smaller (but still important!) tasks would be delayed or go unfinished altogether, which could significantly slow down your team’s progress. That’s why prioritizing volunteer engagement is essential. So what’s the best way to keep your volunteers engaged? Communication.

Effective volunteer communication keeps the wheels of your organization turning and ensures volunteers are up-to-date with what needs to be done. That’s why we’ve outlined our top strategies for mastering volunteer communications at your nonprofit:

  1. Make use of social media and email.
  2. Leverage your website.
  3. Make a good first impression.
  4. Regularly check in.
  5. Keep your volunteers updated.
  6. Segment your communications.

Keep your wheels turning and your volunteers engaged with the right kind of communication strategy. Let’s get started.

1. Make use of social media and email.

As you prepare to reach out to both potential and current volunteers, there are two top channels to consider: social media and email. Through social media, you can recruit volunteers, and through email, you can keep them directly updated.

But those are just a few of the benefits of using these channels. Let’s dive more specifically into each so you can get the most out of them.

Social Media

Social media can be used to share your recruitment message, but it’s essential that you don’t just post and walk away. According to the InitLive volunteer management guide, it’s helpful to craft a formal social media campaign. This campaign should outline what your message is and include content that is meaningful to your supporters.

Here are some tips as you prepare to engage with your audience:

  • Be brief. Shorter posts get straight to the point and are easier for readers to digest. This will encourage more engagement from your supporters.
  • Don’t feel the need to post all the time. While regular updates are important, you don’t always need to post multiple times a day. In fact, posting too often might turn off some readers.
  • Post new information. Share content that might not be found on your website or blog, which will add value to the post. For example, offer early access to new opportunities or highlight some of your standout volunteers!

As you share your content, make your recruitment link available on your specific posts and in your page description. Then, you should see more volunteers signing up!

Email

Email is also an important element of volunteer communications. Email not only helps recruit new volunteers, but it also serves as a way to keep your current group of volunteers updated (more on that later!).

Use email outreach to give past volunteers exclusive access to your available volunteer positions. You can even encourage them to share volunteer opportunities with their circle of friends, or offer a referral gift as an additional incentive to get the word out.

There are many ways both social media and email outreach can contribute to a solid volunteer communication strategy. Start by sharing meaningful but relevant content that will boost recruitment numbers, and you’ll be on your way to even more engagement.

2. Leverage your website.

Your website is typically the very first place potential volunteers will go to find out about opportunities with your organization. That’s why you should always keep this information up-to-date, especially if you want to recruit successful volunteers.

Your website will allow you to:

  • Post new volunteer opportunities
  • Offer supporters an easy way to sign up for those opportunities
  • Promote your overall mission

When your website prominently features your organization’s mission and includes clear calls-to-action (CTAs), this will make it easy for supporters to navigate their way to your volunteer opportunities and registration. Even more, a clear and intuitive website will ensure that your volunteers have a basic understanding of your goals and what you need from them.

Once you’ve optimized your website to communicate what it is you need from your volunteers, you’ll be in a better position to communicate with them going forward.

3. Make a good first impression.

Volunteers come to your organization because they believe in your mission. That’s why you should take the time to get to know them, to determine the specific appeal that brought them there and help them learn more.

This starts with your registration process. Use volunteer management software that creates an easy sign-up process and helps you sift through each individual’s information to assign them the best possible fit.

This applies whether you’re organizing an event and need to staff it, or you need people to help with data entry. It’s important to find out what skills your volunteers have and what they would enjoy.

When you clearly communicate with your volunteers and understand what is important to them, you’ll pave the way for a good first impression, happier volunteers, and more work that gets done.

4. Regularly check in.

Even after you’ve successfully recruited volunteers and everything seems to be running smoothly, effective communication doesn’t end there. It’s essential that you regularly check in with your volunteers to keep the engagement going.

For example, you can ask:

  • About any challenges that might have come up
  • If they’re enjoying their role
  • If they’d like to try something else to continue or deepen their involvement

Regular check-ins also include recognition. While it’s probably true that your volunteers aren’t doing this specifically for the glory, it’s important to recognize your volunteers to keep them motivated and ensure they feel appreciated.

Look for ways to communicate your appreciation through social media, email blasts, and even through features on your website. Personalize individual outreach as you say thank you and demonstrate the impact your volunteers have made on your overall goals, whether it relates to fundraising, events, or other tasks. If you’re looking for examples of emails that say thanks, check out these templates, which can be adapted to suit any type of supporter.

Case in point: Regularly keeping up with and recognizing your volunteers will help push your organization closer to achieving its mission. Be sure to openly communicate with them to recognize them for a job well done and make sure they feel fulfilled in their role.

5. Keep your volunteers updated.

Something that’s occasionally overlooked is the idea that volunteers should be treated the same way as your nonprofit’s employees. They offer value, just as your staff does. For that reason, volunteers should know about changes in the organization just like employees do.

Keep volunteers informed and let them know about important developments or challenges that have come up at your nonprofit. In turn, this will help raise engagement and make these individuals feel valued.

You can do this by:

  • Inviting volunteers to certain staff meetings
  • Including them in staff email correspondence
  • Communicating key changes that affect their volunteer positions

The more you involve your volunteers in developments at your nonprofit, the more they’ll feel valued and like they’re a part of your team. This can lead to longer-term engagement and retention, and can also help you build stronger relationships with your volunteers as supporters of your organization.

6. Segment your communications.

We’ve talked about how it’s important to communicate with your volunteers in general and keep them in the loop. However, sometimes certain pieces of information don’t apply to all of your volunteers.

Our last crucial tip for communicating with volunteers at your organization is to segment your communications. InitLive’s volunteer engagement guide notes that sending out irrelevant communications to volunteers will waste their time and lead to frustration.

Just as you would tailor your communications to donors in order to maintain a high donor retention rate, you should also segment your communications for different volunteers so they receive information that’s relevant to them. That way, you won’t waste their time with details that don’t apply to their role or shifts.

In order to do this, consider using a volunteer management solution that helps keep your volunteers updated with automated notifications that apply specifically to them. This way, you’ll be able to keep your volunteers informed, but they won’t need to read every single scheduling issue or other memos that have come up from another team.

The more you respect your volunteers’ time, the more they’ll respect your organization and want to stay involved.


Your volunteers help your organization stay on its feet and keep your day-to-day operations running smoothly. That’s why they deserve to be treated as an essential part of your team, and why communicating with them is so important. Once you’ve mastered your communication strategy with your volunteers, they’ll keep coming back to help you reach your goals.


Be sure to keep these tactics in mind as you build up your volunteer base and continue serving your mission. Best of luck!

Five MORE Tips for Nonprofit Copywriters

1. Cut the jargon.

Avoid industry jargon and buzzwords — stick to the facts and the benefits. Skip “capacity building” and “technical assistance.”

An easy way to weed out jargon is to think of your mother reading your copy. Would she get it? If not, clarify and simplify.

The exception? When you’re reaching other nonprofit professionals who know the jargon. In these cases, buzzwords are often crucial. Just make sure your key points don’t get lost in them!

2. Keep it brief and digestible.

No one has time to wade through lengthy prose these days. The faster you convey your program or service’s benefits to the reader, the more likely you’ll keep her reading.

Fire your “biggest gun” first by beginning with your biggest benefit – if you put it toward the end of your copy, you risk losing the reader before she gets to it. Aim for sentence lengths of less than 20 words. When possible, break up copy with subheads, bullets, numbers, or em dashes (like the one following this phrase) – these make your points easy to digest.

3. Use testimonials when possible.

Let your prospects know they won’t be the first to try your program or volunteer with your organization. Provide results-oriented testimonials from clients, community leaders, donors, volunteers and members who have benefited from your work. Include attributions with full names, titles and organization when relevant – and be sure to get their permission first.

A good example:
“It is always wonderful to see what we accomplish during our projects. We really feel like we make a difference by improving the land and beautifying the urban wilds,” said Matt Lynde, a Boston Cares project leader who works with EarthWorks Projects to spruce up and landscape wildlife sanctuaries in Boston.

4. Push the action you want.

Tell your readers what you want them to do – don’t leave them hanging. Do you want them to call or email for more information? Join or give now? Register for a workshop? Complete a brief survey? Think about what you’d most like them to do, and then ask them to act (ask a few times).

It’s amazing how many marketing materials I come across every day that don’t make it clear what the reader should do. If you write compelling copy, your reader may forget you’re trying to motivate him or her to act! Include your call to action (and an incentive to act now, if possible) and readers are far more likely to act.

Effective motivators:

  • Return your pledge today. We need to raise only $50,000 to meet our goal.
  • Register today. Only three seats left.

5. Have your copy proofread!

Great. Now have it proofread again. Don’t risk distributing any typos, misspellings or grammatical mistakes that will poorly represent your nonprofit. Hire a professional editor/proofreader (usually in the $25/hour range) to perfect your words and double-check your grammar. Remember, you only get one chance to make a first impession! Oops – *impression*.

A Volunteer Communications Strategy: 13 Steps to Driving Recruitment, Engagement and Leadership (Case Study)

When it comes to recruiting and motivating volunteers to ever higher and more effective levels of engagement, no organization has its work more cut out for it than New York Cares.

As New York City’s leading volunteer organization, New York Cares runs volunteer programs for 1,000 New York City nonprofits, city agencies and public schools, enabling more than 50,000 volunteers annually to contribute their time, expertise and energy to a wide array of organizations that address critical social needs citywide.

In order to ensure that its massive and complex operation runs smoothly, the staff at New York Cares has spent considerable time developing and refining their volunteer recruitment strategies, whose lynchpin, not surprisingly, is communication.

I’ve spent some time talking with the folks at New York Cares recently, and as you’ll see below, their strategies can be put to work to boost your organization’s volunteer recruitment, engagement and retention rates, no matter the size of your organization.

The Challenge

In the recent past, New York Cares realized it faced three challenges that limited its ability to grow the base of volunteers serving its nonprofit partners.

1) They needed to raise “activation rates” of attendees who came to learn about New York Cares volunteer opportunities. Only 45% were immediately signing up for an assignment after their informational orientation.

2) They needed to increase the levels of volunteer engagement. The great thing about New York Cares is that it’s a one-stop shop for want-to-be volunteers to learn about opportunities to help a broad range of nonprofits, and register for a project that has a commitment level of as little as just a few hours.

But New York Cares needed and wanted volunteers to come back again and again for more of the meaningful volunteer assignments they offered. “We needed to increase the average number of projects volunteers completed in order to grow the services we provide to nonprofit partners,” says Colleen Farrell, senior director of marketing and communications at New York Cares.

Farrell notes that New York Cares also needs a volunteer team leader for every project they start.

3) They needed to create new leaders. “We wanted and needed a higher percent of our volunteer base to step into leadership roles. Taking a leadership role is the ultimate form of engagement and is critical to our expansion,” says Farrell.

What follows is a group of key principles for volunteer communication strategies I’ve gleaned from my observations of New York Cares’ work. I want to thank executive director, Gary Bagley, as well as Colleen Farrell, for volunteering their time and insights on how they’ve achieved their success. Where credit is due for brilliant insights and ideas, it is theirs alone; for anything less, I take responsibility.

The 13 Principles Driving New York Cares’ Volunteer Communication Strategy

1) Understand that all volunteers aren’t the same. Every group of volunteers incorporates various segments, each with distinct wants, needs and interests.

2) Get to know each segment well—very, very well. And keep in touch on an ongoing basis.

3) Use targeted interactive communications. They’re the best way to move volunteers from one level of engagement to the next.

New York Cares segmented its audiences and developed communications plans for each. “We focused in on volunteers, segmenting them by commitment level, and developed a new framework for our engagement with them over the course of their involvement: the Volunteer Engagement Scale (VES),” says Farrell.

The VES enables New York Cares to pinpoint the best way to motivate volunteer movement from episodic to more engaged participation. This targeted, personalized approach is now the cornerstone of all volunteer communications.

4) Plan communication activities for each segment based on what you know. Planning enables you to focus on what’s important in the long term, rather than be distracted by what just hit your inbox.

5) Speak directly to the “wants” of each segment.

6) Roll out more frequent, targeted communications to build engagement and motivate volunteers to act.

New York Cares developed its Volunteer Lifecycle communications program—aligned with the VES—to provide key information at each stage and encourage deeper relevant engagement, such as more frequent volunteering. The plan specifies how to communicate to recruit volunteers and cultivate them from their first experiences to long-term engagement. For example, only volunteers who have demonstrated a significant commitment to New York Cares are engaged with leadership development messaging.

The plan also defines triggers for outreach including thank you emails, calls to volunteer leaders and special letters and awards for volunteers who reach key milestones in their volunteer lifecycle.

Here are some of the ingredients that make this plan work:

  • Online communications are the backbone of New York Cares’ outreach, a focus that enables it to manage and deliver targeted communications at a moderate cost.
  • Messaging focuses on volunteer impact and outcomes (vs. outputs, such as number of meals served, volunteer hours etc.).
  • Increased use of storytelling, imagery and more emotional language does more to engage New York Cares volunteers.

Chart—Volunteer Lifecycle Communications Program

7) Make the ask—Converting interest in volunteering, just as in fundraising, swings on it.

8) Focus on your volunteer orientation program to ensure you’re maximizing your communication activities in this critical engagement activity.

New York Cares took a three-pronged approach to increase its “activation rate.” Bagley and team:

  • Revamped the orientation process from start to finish. One striking change was that orientation leaders aimed to have most participants signed up for a project before they left the room.
  • Streamlined communications with volunteers.
  • Ensured that communications were clear and consistent, and that follow-up support was in place.

9) Put the 80-20 rule to work for your volunteer program.

New York Cares focuses on the 20% of volunteers who are most highly engaged to motivate them to become even more involved, and leverages them to more effectively engage less-connected volunteers.

10) Train colleagues, volunteer leadership and board members as messengers to expand the reach of your volunteer communications.

New York Cares increased the number of staff members focused on volunteer leadership development and training. The staff also strengthened its relationships with current team leaders via increased communication, and with prospective team leaders through personal and direct asks. For example, the staff is focusing now on getting team leaders more involved by inviting them to serve as organizational ambassadors.

11) Remember that your audience’s perspective, wants, needs and interests change over time.

12) Establish an active volunteer feedback loop. It’s the only way to know what’s relevant, what’s working and what’s not, and how to do it better.

13) Track outreach—responses to specific emails, changes in messaging or channels—to supplement the feedback loop. Your findings will highlight what is effective so you can do more of it.

Here’s how New York Cares’ tracks its communications impact on increasing engagement and retention:

  • Its in-house technology infrastructure enables New York Cares to track and measure volunteer engagement in real time. Farrell aligns communications metrics with the VES and tweaks continually.

It’s unlikely your organization has this kind of resource in-house, but online communications platforms, from e-newsletters to Facebook, provide insight into what is working for your review.

  • This real-time tracking “enables New York Cares to make real-time adjustments to both communications and program delivery,” says Farrell. “For example, we added more orientations and projects to the schedule last year to accommodate the influx of new people wanting to volunteer.

Tracking is supplemented by New York Cares’ volunteer feedback loop. The staff keeps in close touch with its volunteers’ satisfaction level and wants via monthly online polling, periodic surveys and focus groups. In addition, its volunteer advisory council provides input on an ongoing basis.

Your Turn—Just Do It!

These 13 steps are making a huge difference for New York Cares. Any or all of them will do the same for your organization.

Don’t be put off by New York Cares’ size and sophistication. You can put these strategies (or some of them) to work for your organization, no matter its size. Select one or two steps to start with, and add more over time. Now get to work!

Your Nonprofit’s Message Platform: Association Staffer Asks “What’s a boilerplate, and where does our mission statement fit in?”

I heard recently from Sarah Sturm, an editor with the Forest Landowners Association. Like many staff members with nonprofit organizations, she wears multiple hats, including the nonprofit marketing chapeau.

Here’s Sarah’s question: “I define boilerplate as a ‘who we are’ statement as opposed to the mission statement which is ‘what we do.’ Is that accurate? Are there any particular elements it should contain?”

Thanks for the great question, Sarah. It’s one many folks have, but few are brave enough to ask about something they think everyone else understands! So here goes:

==> What’s boilerplate?
(from Wikipedia): “Boilerplate is any text that is or can be reused in new contexts or applications without being changed much from the original.”

==> Your org should be using several boilerplates, from tagline to key messages, and mission statement: Your organization’s boilerplates include all messaging developed for ongoing use by your organization. Ideally, elements include: Tagline, positioning statement (the who we are Sarah refers to above); and key messages.

  • Mission and vision statements are also boilerplates, in that you use the same statements repeatedly, but these statements are usually more focused on internal audiences (staff, board, maybe volunteers) than the other elements of the message platform!

==> Your positioning statement (what Sarah’s referring to) is a one to three (only if they’re short) sentence statement that conveys what your org does for whom to uniquely solve an urgent need—the  value that your org delivers. Here’s a list of key components your positioning statement should  convey:

  •     Who you are
  •     What business you’re in
  •     For whom (what people do you serve)
  •     What’s needed by the market you serve
  •     What’s different about how you do your work
  •     What unique benefit is derived from your programs, services and/or products?

Here’s a positioning statement I crafted recently for a client:
“The National Association of Mothers’ Centers (NAMC) supports mothers and motherhood through its network of mothers’ centers and MOTHERS advocacy initiative. NAMC’s connection to mothers throughout the country is the core of its impact as a support and advocacy leader for the good of mothers and families nationwide. Working both at the grassroots level providing mom-to-mom support, and at the policy level to engage citizen advocates in the battle for fair treatment of family caregivers on economic, social and political agendas, NAMC is the collective voice of U.S. mothers today.”

Hope that helps in getting your messages out there, Sarah!

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