4 Tips to Improve Employee Communication

Like any other type of organization, nonprofits need to have a solid human resources strategy in place if they want to achieve long-term success and better reach donors. And a critical aspect of human resources is an organization’s internal culture. 

One of the most important elements of internal culture is communications. How an organization handles internal communications sets the tone for everything else that happens in the organization. With a global pandemic forcing many organizations to work from home, how you communicate with employees, as well as how they communicate with each other, is more important than ever.

With the changes and unprecedented events of this year, you’ve probably already thought about your own internal culture and things you can do to improve it. You might even be thinking about implementing sweeping policy changes to encourage a shift in the way employees communicate with each other. Before you do, remember, less is often more. There’s no need to box yourself into a corner by introducing disruptive or confusing new policies all at once.

As a nonprofit, you’re already familiar with making the most of limited resources, so don’t be afraid to start small. Here are four things you can do to improve your internal culture around communication for 2020 and beyond. Think of them as springboards to other changes you can make down the road:

  1. Adopt a more open approach to discussions of compensation.
  2. Prioritize transparency and engagement in general.
  3. Share internal knowledge and documentation freely.
  4. Connect internal goals to your mission and communicate them.

At Astron Solutions, we provide HR strategy support for nonprofits and small businesses, so we’ve seen firsthand how implementing even a few new best practices into your internal communication strategies can spark a lot of beneficial change over the long run.

Ready to get started? Let’s dive in with a brief discussion of nonprofit employee compensation.

1. Take an open approach to discussions of compensation.

Compensation, how your organization pays and rewards employees for their work, plays a huge role in determining the overall tone of your internal culture. However, this doesn’t simply mean employees are only happier and more engaged when they’re paid higher salaries. 

As you’re well aware, the topic of nonprofit salaries is particularly complex and sometimes controversial. Generally speaking, nonprofits experience much tighter or more inflexible budgets than for-profit businesses of similar sizes, which is why we advocate for the concept of Total Rewards. Essentially, this takes into account both indirect and direct forms of compensation.

Understanding Indirect Compensation

While direct compensation refers to salaries, indirect compensation includes elements like:

  • Benefits, like healthcare, PTO, and retirement savings
  • Your performance management styles
  • How you recognize achievement
  • The work-life balance you promote
  • The quality of your internal culture 

By including culture (which is greatly determined by an organization’s approach to communication) as an element of indirect compensation, nonprofits are able to more accurately examine their compensation strategies and then take a more flexible approach to adjust them. 

This is particularly important when you consider that it’s elements of indirect compensation that tend to be the most important factors in your employee retention rate. Indirect compensation is an integral part of why employees stay engaged with their work. Understanding that will help you better develop strategies for improving it (like by improving internal communication) and help you recognize when you’re falling short. 

Discussing Direct Compensation

However, organizations of all types tend to avoid talking very openly about direct compensation. Employees are rarely aware of exactly why they or their coworkers are paid what they’re paid. This can lead to a lot of easily avoidable confusion, secrecy, and feelings of dissatisfaction. 

As a general best practice, your nonprofit should take an open approach to communicating about compensation with employees. On a one-on-one basis, each employee should clearly understand why they’re paid their particular salary. 

Especially for nonprofits that can’t afford to offer extremely competitive salaries for all staff members, you can foster a more engaged, satisfying work culture by taking an open, realistic approach to direct compensation and paying close attention to the quality of your indirect compensation.

There’s a common misconception that nonprofits have a higher-than-average rate of employee turnover because they don’t or can’t pay their employees well. On average, this isn’t true (learn more here), so it’s important for nonprofits to develop robust compensation strategies like any other type of organization.

2. Prioritize transparency and engagement in general.

Most managers of teams in any type of organization already understand the value of transparency, but it can be very easy to let this priority fall by the wayside under the stresses of day-to-day operations. 

Just as you develop stewardship plans to grow your donors’ investment in your cause, you can easily take steps to do the same for employees! More transparent communication and big-picture views of your operations are great ways to start.

As a nonprofit grows and new processes and policies are built out, not every member of your team will have as much insight into their coworker’s tasks or the priorities of other departments as they once did. In your internal communications and announcements, think carefully about whether you have a good reason not to share particular updates or information. 

Many managers worry that sharing too much information about ongoing activities across the organization will be distracting for team members and risk derailing focus. However, increasing transparency around new strategies and updates can significantly increase engagement.

Staff members will be more understanding of changes and feel more invested in new developments when they can contextualize why your organization is pursuing certain projects over others. 

Another strategy you might consider is expanding your training or onboarding process to include overview presentations or shadowing in different departments. Siloing staff members (or even board members) into very specific roles without giving them the chance to see how their work contributes to the bigger picture can contribute to burnout or low engagement.

3. Share internal knowledge and documentation freely.

This relates directly to fostering a more transparent culture of communication in your organization. Organizational history and process documentation can be an invaluable resource for your staff as they make day-to-day decisions and contribute to your nonprofit’s growth.

Internal knowledge and documentation might be intentionally kept siloed or secret. This is typically more common in for-profit businesses than in nonprofits, but you should still avoid this practice in general. Of course, legal and privacy concerns should always be taken into consideration.

If you have no pressing reason to limit the visibility of certain information or documents, though, you should make sure employees are able to easily access and benefit from it. 

If a nonprofit struggles with this strategy, it’s very often because their tech or data structures need improvement. A jumbled (or nonexistent) central database isn’t really benefiting anyone. Consider these strategies:

  • Develop an integrated CRM system. Any new digital or web-based tools your organization uses should ideally integrate with your central database or CRM. A steady flow of data on both your internal operations and donor engagement will give your team a broader and more useful view of the organization as a whole.
  • Look for engaging new tools. If your organization is planning on making new tech investments soon, engaging mobile-based platforms can offer easier access for your staff and more intuitive experiences for donors. Explore DNL OmniMedia’s guide to advocacy apps for an idea of what this looks like in action. 
  • Make use of an intranet network. A secure, internal intranet is a great way to streamline access to documentation across your whole team. You’ll likely need to work with a tech team to build a custom solution, but it’s worth exploring, particularly for larger nonprofits.

Opening up your store of internal knowledge for employees whenever possible is a best practice for any organization. Not only does it communicate trust, but it also increases employee engagement by letting them know that they’re all valuable parts of your organization’s ongoing story. Periodically examine your nonprofit’s tech infrastructure to make sure there aren’t any active barriers to access that could be removed. 

4. Connect internal goals to your mission and communicate them.

As a nonprofit, you have the benefit of being fully guided by your mission, not necessarily by market forces or competing organizations. Chances are your team members have all pursued work in the nonprofit space because they feel personally compelled to contribute to the social good. They’ve all been drawn to your mission in one way or another. 

Fostering that sense of mission buy-in is critical for nonprofit organizations.

Your internal communication style can support mission buy-in by simply being more explicit. Whenever you’re sharing updates about a new goal or development, think about how it ties into your mission, and then explain how they’re related. 

How does each new goal contribute to your overarching mission? Communicate that connection every chance you get. When fully tied into the driving mission, even unexciting internal projects become more engaging for nonprofit employees. 

This is especially important for high-stakes or critical goals, as mission buy-in will likely be a major factor that pushes your team over the finish line.

When it comes to setting internal goals and building structures to motivate your team, working with a compensation consultant or HR expert early on in the development of your nonprofit can have particularly positive long-term impacts. Growth can cause teams to lose focus, and developing a concrete roadmap around your central mission is a smart safeguard.


An organization’s approach to internal communication — transparent or secretive, mission-driven or dull — plays a major role in determining the quality of its culture as a workplace, directly informing employee engagement and retention. 

By implementing one or more of these strategies into how you handle internal communication, you can encourage healthy shifts and growth in your organization’s culture. Take a flexible approach, and find the right fits for your unique mission and team. 


Author: Jennifer C. Loftus, MBA, SPHR, PHRca, GPHR, SHRM-SCP, CCP, CBP, GRP

Jennifer C. Loftus is a Founding Partner of and National Director for Astron Solutions, a compensation consulting firm.  Jennifer has 23 years of experience garnered at organizations including the Hay Group, Parsons Brinckerhoff, Eagle Electric Manufacturing Company, and Harcourt General.  

Jennifer has held volunteer leadership roles with SHRM, New York City SHRM, and WorldatWork. She serves as a subject matter expert to the SHRM Learning System and as a SHRM instructor.  Jennifer is a sought-after speaker for local & national conferences and media outlets.

Jennifer has an MBA in Human Resource Management with highest honors from Pace University and a BS in Accounting summa cum laude from Rutgers University.  

Jennifer holds Adjunct Professor roles with Pace University, Long Island University, and LIM College.

Jennifer received the 2014 Gotham Comedy Foundation’s Lifetime Ambassador of Laughter Award.

Be Prepared—Crisis Communications Checklist

My heart and head were heavy in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings in mid-April 2013, probably much like yours were.

I had a completely different post planned for the following day, but wanted to respond a.s.a.p. to the questions, worries and just totally-wrong communications I’d seen going out since the bombings.

Most of this outreach was harmless but simply a mismatch with what was on our minds at that point. But what your organization risks in communicating at tense moments like this is huge—you risk alienating prospects and supporters for the long term by appearing insensitive.

So don’t breathe a sigh of relief and return to business as usual till the next time. Instead make sure your organization is prepared to respond to coming crises whether they be directly affecting your organization and/or region, or not. We will face others together—both man-made and natural—that undermine our collective sense of safety and well-being.

 1. Turn off auto-pilot

Given our collective state of mind, some of the nonprofit outreach I saw post-bombing was off the mark—like the e-invite I received at 7:19 PM the evening of the bombings from Save the Children via Harris Interactive, asking me to respond to its online survey.

This email came in as the details of deaths and serious injuries continued to flow, including the death of an 8-year-old boy and the critical status of his mom and sister. It was obviously auto-scheduled and on auto-pilot.

As a result, this ask missed the mark by 1,000 miles, coming across as a huge “who cares.” And there’s nothing worse.

Be aware that we could have all so easily made similar mistakes. I have.

In fact, this was just one of many pre-scheduled tweets, Facebook posts and emails I saw in the hours following the bombings when we were in the spell of first shock.

These “business as usual” communications, at a time when nothing was usual, which caused a huge disconnect. And yes we’re all just trying out best at times like this, but slow down.

Our state of mind doesn’t get more ungrounded than it is during and just after a crisis or disaster. Be ultra-sensitive.

 2. Don’t go dark

Your cause and work is vital to making this a better world.  And although it may seem easiest to go dark right now, please don’t. Your network counts on your work to carry our world to a better place.

Proceed slowly and strategically, based on accurate and timely insights and thoughtful assessment, but do proceed. Your community relies on you organization. Be thoughtfully present.

 3. Listen up

Relevance rules more than ever in the shadow of a crisis or disaster. What’s top of mind for your network is the only lens that matters, so listen up.

Put yourself in the shoes of your prospects and supporters. What are they focused on in the shadow of a crisis? It’s likely to be fear, horror, sadness, empathy, helplessness and/or anger. That’s your cue for the most productive response (just as the flood of email I received from nonprofit communicators wondering whether to hold on their gala invite or change their new ignite-themed branding jumpstarted my recommendations).

It’s never productive to communicate into that environment at the moment of. You’re not missing an opportunity if you pause to assess and re-tune, and you risk alienating your network if you blindly push on with plans.

4. Show you care—offer support and help

Do show your support for the affected community and empathize with the shock and sadness your supporters are likely to feel via Twitter or a brief Facebook post. However, this is a same day or next two days approach in most cases; after that it will seem like you’re jumping on the bandwagon. If you’ve missed that opportunity, just make a note for the next time.

Social media channels are an ideal way to let your supporters know you’re with them right now, and to share words of comfort. Plus any tangible help you can provide.

 Here’s a supportive message tweeted by the Community Foundation of Sarasota County:

Post-Boston1

That’s the kind of response that puts a human face on your organization.

5. Revise marketing & fundraising plans for the next week or two

> Link your message to the bombing only if there is an organic connection (e.g. children’s health and well-being, violence prevention, gun control, public safety, anti-terrorism.) Otherwise, avoid trying to capitalize on a tragedy. You’ll fail, miserably.

If your organization isn’t working to help the victims of the crisis, consider taking a couple of days off from your asks. Those in support of your issue are already making contributions and circulating petitions. But it’s too raw today to start persuading others, or even showing them how they can help avert future disasters like this one.

> Depending on the mood and focus over the course of the week that follows, pick the right time to dive back in with a moving forward focus. That may be in a few days, but may be more.

Instead, craft your outreach for down the line (that may be a few days, a week or even later—you’ll need to assess for your community and your organization) so you’ll organize most powerfully,  galvanizing disheartened supporters to join you in action for a better future. The exception, of course, is if you’re helping the affected community directly.

> Change any metaphors or analogies you use that feature bombs, explosion and the like in not-yet-published content for the next two weeks, at least.
These are some of the most-used references, usually used in a positive way (but there is no positive now). Think exploding with daffodils (from a Facebook post morning after the bombing from one of my favorite botanical gardens) or the fact that the star’s first Broadway show absolutely bombed (in the e-newsletter scheduled to drop the day after the bombings from one of my performing arts clients).

Comb your content carefully. Over-caution is the way to go here.

> Get speedy input on your revised approach today with colleagues on the ground and members of your marketing advisory group

These are the folks who are in touch with your base (and are your network members), and you need their insights.

If you don’t have a marketing advisory group already in place, reach out to a few current supporters in each of your segments, asking for five minutes of their time for a quick call.

6. A.S.A.P.—Share Your Revised Approach With  Colleagues & Ask Them to Share What They Hear

Even though your colleagues’ may not have been aware of your plan for your marketing and fundraising outreach going forward, update them on what’s changed and why.

Here’s why:

  • It’s just basic respect, and you should do this on an ongoing basis.
  • Many of these folks are in close contact with your target audiences in their daily work, and have the opportunity to focus those conversations appropriately—but only if you share your approach!
  • They’re also most likely to get the feedback that shows you you’re taking the right path, or have to recalculate. Ask, train and support them in doing so. It helps all of you!

7. Next 10 to 14 Days—Move Forward With Your Ear Close to the Ground

It’s still early in this tragedy, and events are yet to unfold. So stay close to what’s top of mind for your network (and the rest of us) through this week and next.

Go ahead and schedule coming campaigns across channels, but review what’s scheduled on a daily basis. Engage at social listening at every point along the way.

8. By End of April—Craft a Crisis Communications Plan That Includes Shared Tragedies Like This One

I recommend placing review of queued-up communications at the top of your crisis communications checklist, whether it’s a crisis within your org or outside of it.

Crises like the Boston Marathon Bombings and the ensuing scares are shared crises. In many cases, crises outside of your organization impact your network of supporters and partners equally, if not more than, crises that effect your nonprofit.

Review these useful insights from nonprofit marketers and fundraisers like you.

How to Communicate in the Midst of Tragedy: 9-Step Checklist

Update: How to Re-Assess and Re-Engage

Review these useful insights from nonprofit marketers and fundraisers like you. Please add your thoughts, experience, and questions.

Like you, my heart and head are heavy in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing [or relate this guidance to the latest mass tragedy—there are so distressingly many of them]. Especially since I feel so helpless.

I had a completely different post planned for the morning after but wanted to respond a.s.a.p. to the questions, worries and just totally-wrong communications I’ve seen going out since the bombings and all the fear-inducing activities that have followed it already.

Most of this outreach was harmless, but simply a mismatch with what’s on our minds right now. Because most of us are feeling horror, sadness, fear, uncertainty, and a sense of helplessness and vulnerability.

Here are my right-now recommendations for your organization’s response to this crisis and to others that, unfortunately, we will face together. Already follow-ups are undermining our collective sense of safety and well-being.

Please share your strategies, and add your questions and feedback here. We are so much smarter together.

 1. Immediately—Get Off Auto-Pilot

Given our collective state of mind, some of the nonprofit outreach I saw post-Boston-Marathon bombing was off the mark—like the e-invite I received at 7:19 PM that day from Save the Children via Harris Interactive, asking me to respond to its survey.

This email came in as the details of deaths and serious injuries continued to flow, including the death of an 8-year-old boy and the critical status of his mom and sister. It was obviously auto-scheduled and on auto-pilot.

As a result, this ask missed the mark by 1,000 miles, coming across as a huge “who cares.” If I was in charge of this survey, I’d put it on ice for now.

Be aware that we could have all so easily made similar mistakes. I have. In fact, this was just one of many pre-scheduled tweets, Facebook posts and emails I saw in the hours following the bombings when we were in the spell of first shock.

These “business as usual” communications, at a time when nothing was usual, which caused a huge disconnect. And yes we’re all just trying out best at times like this, but slow down.

Our state of mind doesn’t get more ungrounded than it is right now. Be ultra-sensitive.

 2. Immediately—But Don’t Go Dark Either

Your cause and work is vital to making this a better world.  And although it may seem easiest to go dark right now, please don’t. Your network counts on your work to carry our world to a better place.

Proceed slowly and strategically, based on accurate and timely insights and thoughtful assessment, but do proceed. The last thing we need is staying stuck right here.

 3. Immediately—Activate Your Relevancy Lens

Relevance rules more than ever in the shadow of a crisis or tragedy like this one. What’s top of mind for your network is the only lens that matters, now more than ever.

Put yourself in the shoes of your prospects and supporters. What are they focused on now? It’s likely to be fear, horror, sadness, empathy, helplessness and/or anger. That’s your cue.

Your own agenda must fall behind for the first few days post-crisis—at the very least—unless there’s a real, organic link to bombing-related issues.

It’s never productive to communicate into that environment at the moment of. You’re not missing an opportunity if you pause to assess and re-tune, and you risk alienating your network if you blindly push on with plans.

4. Immediately—Show You Care & Offer Right-Now Help

Show your support for the affected community and empathize with the shock and sadness your supporters are likely to feel via Twitter or a brief Facebook post.

This is a same day or next two days approach in most cases; after that it’s not additive, and will seem like you’re jumping on the bandwagon. If you’ve missed that, fine. Just note for the next time.

Social media is an ideal way to let your supporters know you’re with them right now, and to share words of comfort. Plus any tangible help you can provide. That’s the kind of response that puts a human face on your organization.

Here’s a good model tweeted by the Community Foundation of Sarasota County.

Post-Boston1

5. Immediately—Pause Scheduled Outreach Till You Review

Immediately un-schedule what you have lined up to release the day of the crisis and for the balance of the week at the very least. You’ll reschedule what’s in line with your base’s state of mind after a brief review.

Stay real, and stay respectful. That will ensure your relevance in good times and bad.

6. A.S.A.P—Review Your Marketing & Fundraising Plans for the Next 10-14 Days

> Link your message to the bombing only if there is an organic link (e.g. children’s health and well-being, violence prevention, gun control, public safety, anti-terrorism.) Otherwise, avoid trying to capitalize on a tragedy. You’ll fail, miserably.

If your organization isn’t working to help the Boston/Marathon community or related issues, consider taking a couple of days off from your asks. Those in support of your issue are already making contributions and circulating petitions. But it’s too raw  today to start persuading others, or even showing them how they can help avert future disasters like this one.

> Depending on the mood and focus over the course of the week, pick the right time to dive back in with a moving forward focus. That may be in a few days, but may be more.

Instead, craft your outreach for down the line (that may be a few days, a week or even later—you’ll need to assess for your community and your organization) so you’ll organize most powerfully,  galvanizing disheartened supporters to join you in action for a better future. The exception, of course, is if you’re helping the affected community directly.

> Change any metaphors or analogies you use that feature bombs, explosion and the like in not-yet-published content for the next two weeks, at least.
T
hese are some of the most-used references, usually used in a positive way (but there is no positive now). Think exploding with daffodils (from a Facebook post morning after the bombing from one of my favorite botanical gardens) or the fact that the star’s first Broadway show absolutely bombed (in the e-newsletter scheduled to drop the day after the bombings from one of my performing arts clients).

Comb your content carefully. Over-caution is the way to go here.

> Get speedy input on your revised approach today with colleagues on the ground and members of your marketing advisory group

These are the folks who are in touch with your base (and are your network members), and you need their insights.

If you don’t have a marketing advisory group already in place, reach out to a few current supporters in each of your segments, asking for five minutes of their time for a quick call.

7. A.S.A.P.—Share Your Revised Approach With  Colleagues & Ask Them to Share What They Hear

Even though your colleagues’ may not have been aware of your plan for your marketing and fundraising outreach going forward, update them on what’s changed and why.

Here’s why:

  • It’s just basic respect, and you should do this on an ongoing basis.
  • Many of these folks are in close contact with your target audiences in their daily work, and have the opportunity to focus those conversations appropriately—but only if you share your approach!
  • They’re also most likely to get the feedback that shows you you’re taking the right path, or have to recalculate. Ask, train and support them in doing so. It helps all of you!

8. Next 10 to 14 Days—Move Forward With Your Ear Close to the Ground

It’s still early in this tragedy, and events are yet to unfold. So stay close to what’s top of mind for your network (and the rest of us) through this week and next.

Go ahead and schedule coming campaigns across channels, but review what’s scheduled on a daily basis. Engage at social listening at every point along the way.

9. By End of April—Craft a Crisis Communications Plan That Includes Shared Tragedies Like This One

I recommend placing review of queued-up communications at the top of your crisis communications checklist, whether it’s a crisis within your org or outside of it.

Crises like the Boston Marathon Bombings and the ensuing scares are shared crises. In many cases, crises outside of your organization impact your network of supporters and partners equally, if not more than, crises that effect your nonprofit.

What are you considering changing, or unsure about? Do you have guidance to share?  

Communicating in the Shadow of Disaster – Practical Tips for Nonprofits

What is the place of nonprofit communications in the wake of disaster, particularly when this most recent crisis of epic proportions—the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disasters in Japan—is rightly dominating our minds and conversations, as well as the media?

For a nonprofit, the answer lies in the way (if any) your organization is involved in the relief effort. The following guidelines derive from an analysis of news of, and fundraising for, recovery efforts around the Japanese earthquake and Pacific tsunami disasters.

For organizations providing disaster relief services in Japan

Make it clear why your organization is well-equipped to help. Be as specific as possible.

  • The Salvation Army, having worked in Japan since 1895, was well positioned to provide immediate rescue help and medical care before many other organizations could get going.The Salvation Army immediately crafted compelling messaging emphasizing the value of its long-established operations and relationships in Japan, and the breadth of its services: “The Salvation Army in Japan immediately dispersed teams following the disaster to the most severely affected areas where they are distributing basic necessities to survivors. These teams will also assess the damage to discern the next steps in their relief efforts.”

    “The Salvation Army has been at work in Japan since 1895, operating more than 80 centers there, including two hospitals and four childrens’ homes. We have nearly 200 officers, 3,000 members and nearly 1,000 employees already at work in the country. We are a part of Japan’s communities and dedicated to their recovery.

  • Save the Children’s appeal focuses on the unique role it provides in disaster relief—helping children and their parents deal with the trauma. The organization is creating “safe places” in Japan that provide the structure and routine children crave.I learned about this much-needed focus via a moving interview of a Save the Children staffer in Japan. He told a number of stories about the children and families he’s working with, which made a huge impression. Here’s one family’s story.
  • Mercy Corps stresses its close partnership with Japanese charity PeaceWinds to deliver emergency supplies. The partnership enabled MercyCorps to get the effort going within a few days, getting “tents, blankets, cooking fuel, tarps, rice and bread to families evacuated from homes in the tsunami-devastated city of Kesennuma. Your donation will be used to meet immediate and longer-term needs of earthquake survivors.”

Communicate broadly, clearly and visually (if possible) about how donations are managed, where they are going and what your organization’s relief effort is achieving.

That comes after thanking donors immediately (and often) and adding them to your donor database for follow-up. Donor behavior in giving to the Haitian earthquake relief effort showed that interest in the relief effort fades much more quickly than your organization’s need for support.

More immediately, you’ll need reliable, timely reporting out, even though you’re frequently working with technological and logistical constraints. This is the time to put social media tools, from Skype to Twitter, to work for all they’re worth. Communicating on disaster relief work is where these tools make a huge difference in sharing the focus and impact of your work on the ground in real time via podcast, photos and/or video.

  • The American Red Cross’ home page features the many ways it’s communicating to donors, prospects and others right on its home page. Channels include video, blog posts and press releases. Its report-out on aid and impact is outstanding, as it has been with previous relief efforts.
  • U.K. charity ShelterBox is documenting the progress it’s making in delivering its trademark shelters in a box via this blog, supplemented by photos that do a great job of telling the story. The posts are thorough and specific, a style that conveys the organization’s expertise and value and builds trust on the part of prospective donors and other supporters.In addition, Shelterbox is keeping its community up to date (and enabling them to spread the word) via its twitter feed.

Be thoughtful in your use of graphic photos of the disaster.

  • The press is working for you by publicizing shocking photos of the disaster (not to mention the videos floating around YouTube, and the tens of thousands of photos on Flickr).
  • Some journalists argue that graphic photos (such as those of dead children) are too much. Others assert that the seriousness of disasters like this one necessitates the use of photos to convey the gravity of the situations, especially to a jaded U.S. audience in the midst of an economic downturn.

Follow-up to transition disaster donors into loyal donors.

  • Giselle Holloway, IRC’s Director of Direct Response, reminds us that “a person doesn’t truly become a donor until they make their second gift. When donors join your organization through an emergency, you need to start cultivating them immediately so you can retain them after the crisis is over. Send them an e-mail or letter that thanks them for their support, welcomes them to your organization and educates them about your broader mission. You also might want to make welcome phone calls to new donors at higher giving levels or try to convert them to monthly giving. And don’t forget to send all your new donors updates on a regular basis that show how their gift is making a difference.”

For organizations fundraising for relief efforts, but not directly providing help

Be proactive and specific in conveying the process for distributing donations and where/how/when the money will be spent.

  • Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) launched a Japan Earthquake Relief Fund to solicit donations for nonsectarian earthquake relief efforts, carried out through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), a 94-year-old humanitarian aid organization that works in over 60 countries worldwide. JDC is “partnering with the Japanese Jewish community to provide funding to a local NGO for emergency needs including food, water, and shelter in the disaster region. JDC acquired substantial expertise in earthquake and tsunami-related response in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Maldives, and India following the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004.”

Explain why your organization has chosen to get involved as a pass through for donations.

  • This role, which is probably an unusual one for your organization, has the potential to confuse your established audiences. Help them understand what you are doing, and why.
  • JFNA does a great job of explaining why it’s getting involved in raising money for relief work. Several reasons are cited including its ability to reach out to its national network of regional Federations to encourage them to raise money for JDC’s relief work (a fundraising machine, already in place).

For other nonprofits continuing with fundraising and communications outreach

Be sensitive to inappropriate pitches.

  • You may actually go as far as to acknowledge the magnitude of the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disasters, and the contributions your donors and prospects are likely to have made. In doing so, you craft the opportunity to talk about your issues (the environment, shelter and health are directly related) and/or service recipients and the fact that these needs persist in the face of these tragedies.Fundraiser Jeff Brooks characterizes disaster giving as “above-and-beyond giving,” and cautions, “There’s no need to take away from the need in [Japan]. Relief giving is not taking gifts away from you.”
  • Remember that your audiences have been immersed, whether they have wanted to be or not, in disaster coverage.

Relate your work to relief work when relevant—but don’t overstate.

  • Make sure you don’t overstate a connection between your organization, services or programs and the disaster.
  • At the same time, acknowledge the earthquake. Pretending the disaster didn’t happen is the worst mistake your organization can make. And homelessness is homelessness, be it among survivors in Sendai or Philadelphians living in poverty.

Continue with your planned communications and fundraising campaigns.

  • Don’t get nervous and pull the plug on carefully designed plans. Yep, many journalists are focused on the Japanese relief effort and other front-page news. But if you have a timely pitch, make it.
  • However, if you are planning a once-a-year bash or fundraising campaign and it coincides with the week of a disaster, consider delaying it. Otherwise, move full steam ahead.

Plan to communicate even more effectively around the next crisis.

  • If your organization isn’t focused on relief, or passing through contributions, it’s likely that you’ll be on the sidelines next time round.
  • While this experience is still fresh, sketch out a one-page plan of what you’ll do next time round. This approach will help you avoid panic at that point, and stay as productive as possible with marketing and fundraising communications.

I recommend you continue to track how these organizations, and others, are communicating on their relief efforts or in the shadow of the disaster in Japan. There’s lots to learn about how your organization can improve its outreach, in times of disaster or, better yet, days of calm.

Nonprofit Messaging Crisis Cripples 8 of 10 Organizations

The overwhelming response to our recent survey on nonprofit messaging reinforces how vital it is for your organization’s messages to connect with key audiences.

Relevance (i.e., connection) is a prerequisite for conversation and thus, for communications success. If your messages are off, your organization will fail to engage your base. And, without that engagement, there’s no way you’ll motivate them to act – give, volunteer, register or advocate.

So, based on our findings, it’s clear that strengthening messaging is a priority for many of you. I urge you to digest the findings below to learn more about the state of nonprofit messaging today, and how you can shape messages that do connect.

Here’s the survey if you’d like to review questions asked while digesting the findings.

Most Nonprofit Messages Don’t Connect Strongly with Key Audiences

Eighty-four percent of nonprofit communicators say that their messages connect with target audiences only somewhat or not at all. That’s 915 nonprofit communicators working with organizations of all sizes, issue focus and geographies who rate their messaging as failing to generate the conversations they need to.

Looking at the flip side, only 16% of nonprofits rate their messages as connecting well. This is a dismal success rate, especially since it’s not due to lack of effort. Survey respondents report working extremely hard to achieve their marketing goals: huge effort with minimal results.

That’s a very serious problem.

Behind the Disconnect: 86% of Nonprofits Characterize Their Messages as Difficult to Remember

Most nonprofits report that their messaging suffers from lack of inspiration (73%), poor targeting to audience wants and needs (70%), and difficult to remember (86%). Three strikes and you’re out.

Few communicators laud their messaging for its strengths: Only 13% of organizations characterize messaging as cogent while 8% describe their messaging as potent.

These comments from survey participants explain why their messages fail to connect:

  • “Our messages need to be more succinct to communicate how effective we really are.”
  • “We don’t move our base to action.”
  • “We have individual elements that are ok solo, but no unified path.”
  • “Our messages aren’t hard-hitting or targeted enough. So they fall flat.”
  • “We need to shape messages that are simple enough for staff to remember and feel comfortable in repeating it to others.”
  • “Too much jargon. I can’t even understand what we’re saying.”

Inconsistency Reigns Supreme, Leaving Confusion and Annoyance in Its Path

There are numerous tactics to craft more relevant messages. However, when aiming to increase relevance, it’s imperative to go beyond delivering a few relevant messages here and there. The real challenge is to consistently deliver messages that connect.

Here’s the rub: Less than 50% of nonprofits report consistent use of their core messaging (organizational tagline, positioning statement and talking points). That means that even though most organizations have taken the effort to craft messages, those messages aren’t used consistently across channels (website, direct mail, email), audiences or programs.

Inconsistency breeds confusion and annoyance. When your network has to decipher what organization is reaching out to them (because the messages are unfamiliar) and what you’re trying to say (because it’s new to them), you’ve failed. They just won’t do it in the noisy, cluttered message sphere.

Your Checklist for Messaging that Connects

Most nonprofit communicators (78%) see these characteristics as crucial for messaging that connects:

  • Clear
  • Focused
  • Concise
  • Engaging
  • Unique
  • Memorable

What’s Getting in the Way: Effective Messaging Stymied by Lack of Focus and Leadership Support

Survey respondents share many of the same barriers to (and frustrations in) improving messaging. Here are the leading obstacles to doing better:

  • Lack of leadership support
  • Too busy
  • Concerned about expense
  • Diverse audiences
  • Complex programming
  • Blinders, e.g. lack of external perspective
  • Colleagues, volunteers, members untrained as messengers.

Here are respondent comments about their barriers to creating messaging that connects:

  • Lack of Leadership Support and/or Understanding
    • “Funds are prioritized for fundraising, not marketing. Our leadership doesn’t understand how the two are halves of a whole. How can I build that understanding?”
  • Staff and Leadership
    • “Too many cooks. Each department and location has their own ideas and frequently don’t check in with marketing to see if it’s ok to use them.”
    • “Hard to engage, reach and train staff in our 41 locations.”
    • “Hard to shape a useful message development process, as board members have widely divergent perspectives and are very involved in communications. Help.”
    • “No time to train/educate/empower staff, board and volunteers to understand and deliver messages.”
  • Complexity of Issue Focus
    • “It’s tough to create effective messages for an anti-poverty project that focuses on education and long-term change over time in a foreign country that is not in ‘crisis’ mode (such as Sudan or parts of Africa), yet is still one of the poorest in the Western hemisphere.”
  • Diversity of Program Work
    • “How do we find a way to speak for more than 32 programs in a targeted way while maintaining consistent organizational messages?”
  • Lack of External Perspective (a.k.a. blinders)
    • “Our messages are typically crafted from the ‘inside out,’rather than shaping them to the wants and needs of specified audiences.”

There’s Huge Potential for Stronger Nonprofit Messaging: Three Steps to Take You There

These survey findings are incredibly useful in showcasing what’s critical in making messages work, and what it takes to get there.

Here are my recommendations for your first three steps to stronger messages.

  1. Ensure that your organization’s strategy and goals are crystal clear
    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been hired to develop a message platform (tagline, positioning statement, talking points) for an organization but can’t get to ground zero because there’s no agreement on organizational direction and goals. Without clear organizational goals, marketing goals can’t be defined but without them it’s impossible to define the right audiences to engage. If this is your situation, your problems are bigger than weak messaging. Get on it!
  2. Build understanding and support of leadership and colleagues — You need their insights and reach
    The three most-cited barriers to effective messaging (lack of leadership support, too busy, and concern about expense) underscore the degree of messaging crisis. Communications succeed only when it’s built on effective messaging. Refusing to invest the time and money it takes to craft those messages will undermine your entire communications agenda. It’s an investment your leadership can’t afford not to make. But here’s what you’re up against: Nonprofit staff members most focused on making the most of their messages are communicators (58%), fundraisers (40%) and program staff members (21%) in order of survey participation level. That’s important because it highlights that communicators have a lot of work to do to develop support for and input in the message development process. Cross-organizational participation is even more vital once your messages are ready to roll. Your colleagues are your primary on-the-ground messengers via their workday conversation and communications.
  3. Start with your tagline — Less is more
    It’s always harder to write something shorter than longer, and your tagline is as short as it gets. It is the absolute essence of your messaging. Moreover, your steps in the tagline development process build the insight you’ll need to craft a potent positioning statement and key messages or talking points (the other two elements in your message platform).

Consistency is the Be All and End All of Messaging Impact

There are a numerous tactics to deliver more relevant messages. However, when we aim to increase relevance, we don’t mean that we simply want to deliver a few relevant messages here and there. Simply developing a compelling welcome email is not enough. The real challenge in email marketing is to consistently deliver relevant messages.

Make it easy for your network to recognize that a communication is coming from your organization by being consistent – in language and tone – in your outreach to each segment.

Tell Me about Your Messaging Hopes, Challenges and Strategies

Please leave a comment below on what you’re doing to strengthen your messages (at the organizational or program/campaign level) and what’s getting in your way. Thank you.