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.