I imagine that many of you, like me, feel completely inundated with requests from a variety of social causes that range from helping disadvantaged children in faraway places to helping feed the hungry in your own community. It used to be just the snail mail that piled up. This has been followed by the explosion of awareness-raising and requests for money and contest votes via Facebook and other social media channels. I find this all exhausting, which is deeply ironic, since I run a nonprofit organization that often makes requests like just like these.
The rising cacophony of messages related to social causes across an ever-increasing variety of media channels is growing so loud and discordant that it threatens to drown out any one message -- no matter how compelling or worthy. Leaders in the social sector are collectively wringing our hands over how to communicate in ways that resonate and spur action about how our organizations address key problems in society.
But some of the best communications help is coming from a source that might surprise some readers -- Citi. For the fourth consecutive year, Citi Community Development is making a strategic investment in select nonprofit community development organizations that serve low- and moderate-income individuals and communities, with a goal of leveraging greater technology and communications capacity to better drive and achieve their missions. This focus on capacity building, communications and technology is not surprising to me. My nonprofit, EARN, has received strong support from Citi since we were founded in 2001 -- in the form of funding and board service from Citi executives.
The connection between mission and communications capacity might not seem obvious, but to successfully address the massive and complex problems nonprofits tackle in a rapidly transforming media environment, we need proportional levels of competency and resources. This is very hard to do in any economy, let alone a deep recession. The folks at Citi understand this -- communications guru (and Vice President of Citi Community Development) Sandy Fernandez leads this charge for nonprofits and community development organizations around the country from his office in New York. According to Sandy, successful communications capacity building programs for nonprofits rest on five essential pegs:
1. Create/clarify message platform
Every nonprofit needs to examine and evaluate its message platform to determine if it is aligned with current goals, long-term vision, and the state of the industry. A strong message platform is the basis of all internal and external communications, yet you'd be surprised at how few nonprofits devote time and resources to this foundational piece. If you don't have one in place, get cracking!
2. Identify spokespersons
Recognizing that everyone in your organization is a spokesperson, it is critical to identify a roster of media-ready spokespeople. Conduct regular media trainings (including on-camera exercises) with core executive team to ensure the effective and consistent delivery of core messaging in a variety of scenarios (e.g., media, donor, customer, partner, etc.). Reinforce the importance of everyone getting "on message" and everyone's role within the organization as "message ambassadors" to ensure consistent message pull-through in all communications vehicles.
3. Conduct external outreach
Look at your organization's timeline of goals, set the calendar, and determine communications anchors (e.g., new hires, program announcements and events, awards, panel and conference participation, issuance of proprietary data/statistics, etc.) for news announcements and media and customer-awareness campaigns. Befriending the calendar helps sustain a steady drumbeat of news, sustain momentum, and increase your organization's following.
4. Ramp up capacity & social media efforts
Ensure that your website is designed to effectively utilize social media, your organization has a strategic communications plan and that your staff is trained in the utilization of these tools. Social media channels have enabled nonprofits -- especially those with limited resources -- to reach stakeholders in increasingly creative ways. See if you can repackage existing materials (e.g., case studies, training materials, tips and best practices, etc.) into content that can be repurposed for social media campaigns. Include Facebook and Twitter handle on all email signatures, documents, and correspondences.
5. Initiate thought leadership campaign
Investigate relevant industry awards, conferences, panels, and other speaking and networking opportunities. Establish key nonprofit executives as leading voices in their fields through drafting op-eds and bylined articles, regularly contributing to blogs, and using these vehicles to have a unique and active voice in the larger conversation with customers, donors, and peer audiences.
Sandy's focus on the importance of technology and communications represents an innovative way to think about how financial institutions and other donors might help nonprofits achieve their goals. Simply, it all starts with the message. A nonprofit might be doing incredible, unprecedented good: if its message isn't crystalline, and if that message isn't slicing through the clutter, the organization will not reach its stakeholders. Mastering communications skills sets and strategically building technology platforms have become integral to the vitality, success, and sustainability of nonprofit organizations. Money talks, as the expression goes. But good communications and technology speak volumes.
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