How to Create a Nonprofit Style Guide: 7 Steps to Greater Consistency and Impact
Here’s a problem nonprofit communicators like you share with me time and time again: Due to the ubiquitous nature of information and promotion, we’re all bombarded by content—every waking minute.
Consistency Is the Long-Term Solution
Consistency – cross-channel and over time – is the key to your audiences absorbing your messages, and for them to be able to “whisper down the lane” – repeating those messages to friends and family. Keep in mind that this consistency must stay flexible, to be adapted when the channel, audience or other factor is radically different from the norm.
No other form of communication is as powerful as this natural network which exponentially extends your organization’s reach. And a style guide helps you make it happen.
A Style Guide Is Your Path to Consistency
An easy way to ensure clear and consistent communications is to create an editorial and visual identity style guide, made available organization-wide as an ever-accessible PDF.
Everyone needs to be on the same page when it comes to getting the word out. The standards featured in your style guide will make it easy for them to do so, reducing time spent, errors made and endless frustration.
A style guide also makes it unnecessary for you and your colleagues to re-invent the wheel each time, saving you a great deal of effort while increasing your marketing impact.
How to Create Your Organization’s Style Guide
Here is a step-by-step approach to putting together, or updating, your style guide.
- Review your communications by spreading a full range of them out in front of you, including pages printed out from your website, e-news, blog, Facebook page and online fundraising campaigns, as well as print materials.
- Jot down standards that work best for the editorial and graphic guidelines outlined below. Traditionally, style guides covered punctuation, spelling and other editorial guidelines. I suggest you expand this concept to include visual guidelines as well so you and your colleagues have a single point of reference to shape communications.
- Craft a usage policy, outlining who (partners, volunteers) can and should use your organization’s graphic identity elements and how.
- Get input on your draft from colleagues and external audiences if possible. These conversations are a key way to get insights from the folks who matter most (your audiences) and buy-in from your colleagues who you want to use the guide.
- Make it as brief as possible—ideally a max of 6 pages—so people can quickly find what they need.
- Feature the contact info for the Consistency Czar—the person on your team in charge of the style guide—so that your colleagues can easily ask questions. You’ll revise the style guide to include responses to frequently-asked questions, and revise existing content more clearly when you hear that colleagues don’t understand it.
- Launch it with a training session for your colleagues—See below.
The primary purpose of editorial guidelines is to address topics specific to your organization that are not adequately covered in the standard published style guides, such as The Chicago Manual of Style or The Associated Press Style book.
In addition, your style guide summarizes your organization’s approach to the most-frequently-raised questions of style, topics that are dealt with in greater detail in these manuals, in order to offer a quick, but more comprehensive, reference tool.
Questions of style, unlike many questions of grammar, usually do not have a right or wrong answer. Instead, establishing a preferred style is helpful so that your consistent presentation can be maintained throughout an array of materials that may be produced by many different individuals.
Having a set of predetermined guidelines will also save those individuals the time and energy required to develop their own guidelines.
Guidelines should include:
- Your organization’s name (spelling, abbreviations or acronyms that work)
- Names of your programs and services
- Your address, phone number, emails, website and social channels (should you begin writing your url with “http://” or simply with “www”)
- Your tagline
- Your positioning statement: The two or three sentences that establish your position in the philanthropic world and how it should be included, as a whole, in most communications
- Talking points for staff and board members: Key messages that briefly cover the who, what, when, where, and how of your group, and how they should be incorporated in most communications
- Person, tone and voice
- Word style preferences (preferred spelling and capitalization, e.g. web site vs. website, grant making vs. grantmaking)
- Words not to use
- The title of the published grammar style guide that your group uses: Share the title of the guide that your writers need to follow when deciding whether to insert that final comma or not, or selecting the right preposition to follow the word parallel (to or with). Most importantly, buy print or online copies for all who need to use it!
Review these top two published grammar style guides, talk to colleagues, and select one if you haven’t already (partner links):
Since the power of a strong visual identity can only be realized through consistent application, these standards are crucial for colleagues throughout your nonprofit to follow.
Elements should include:
- Organizational and program logos: Sizing; colors; position on the page; what elements should be included when logo is used
- Color Palette: Official colors and details on how those colors are to be used
- Typeface (e.g. all newsletter headlines are in Times New Roman, Bold, 14 pt.).
- Layouts, templates
- Web, e-news and other online templates
- Photo and image library.
Putting Your Style Guide to Work
Your next step is to distribute the guide and ensure that staff and consultants are clear on its content and how to use it.
An in-person training session is often an effective way to introduce the guide, answer any questions and ensure that your colleagues view it as an aid (fewer open issues, decisions, delays) to them, rather than a dictum imposed upon them.
Remember to refresh your guide on an ongoing basis as questions come up and preferences are determined.
Useful Models–Nonprofit Style Guides
You’ll see that these examples range from a one-pager, which might be enough for your organization, to Rutgers’ multi-page guide. The more complex your organization, programs and audiences, the more depth (and, unfortunately, length) you’ll need in your style guide.
Consider contacting your communications colleagues at these organizations to learn more about the development or implementation of these guides:
- CHIP and Children’s Medicaid Campaign Graphic Identity and Branding Style Guide
(A good example of a mid-level style guide with graphic focus)
- Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center Editorial Style Guide
- National Association for Music Education Style Guide (editorial and graphic)
- Rotary International Visual Identity Guide
- Rutgers University (These guides are the ultimate, and probably more than you will need.)
Does your organization have an editorial and/or visual standards guide? If so, please share the link and/or how the guide has helped (or not) here.