It was George Bernard Shaw who observed that “the greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has occurred.” You’re busy, you work long hours, and you’re passionate about your nonprofit mission. Unfortunately, it’s entirely possible that you are less effective in your communications than you think. Consider whether your organization has made the following missteps:
1. Failure to define the problem. You may have the most innovative, most effective programs in the state, but if we don’t understand why your nonprofit exists in the first place, it’s hard to appreciate the great work you’re doing. Without a problem to solve, it’s also difficult to make a convincing argument that you need volunteers, donations or grants. Don’t assume people understand the magnitude of your issue or that they “connect the dots.”
2. Using verbs that are vague. It’s a lovely sentiment, but watch your reliance on the word “help.” We’re all part of the helping sector, after all. Think about the clarity of using more precise verbs, i.e., “We pay for,” “We meet weekly with,” “We provide transportation,” etc. If a nonprofit says, “We help keep seniors in their homes,” does this mean they’re putting padlocks on the doors? Watch out for the verb “serve” for the same reason. Did you spend an hour with this person . . . or a year?
3. Omitting an essential fact. It’s only for people over age 65. It’s free. It’s by referral only. We operate in two counties. It’s a 24-hour program. It’s for Catholic schools. It lasts six months. Half of our funding is federal. And so on. Have a stranger listen to your best elevator speech and then ask them who, what, when, where, how, and why.
4. Failure to explain what makes you unique. This is what is called your “only-ness.” Remember that there are thousands of nonprofits in your region. “We are the only nonprofit in our neighborhood/county/state/ region that __________________.”
5. Overwhelming new audiences with too much information. Tell me what the problem is, and precisely how you address it. Then let me breathe and ask questions, refill my coffee, or click on a link. Use short sentences and break up long paragraphs. Let the power of your information speak for itself. Beware of any powerpoint or video that is longer than a few minutes. Ask for questions. Use humor. Break up mind-numbing data with storytelling.
6. Use of jargon or acronyms. This seems to be an especially prevalent problem in health care and public sector offices. A related consideration is whether the audience you’re communicating to is likely to be confused, bored, intimidated, or offended by the vocabulary you’re using. What generation are they? What technology do they prefer? What is their level of education or understanding? What is their direct connection to your cause or your industry?
7. Providing no data, old data, or bad data. Good data may still be meaningless if there is no context, i.e., “We provided housing for 200 families last month.” (Is that a lot? What is the gap—the unmet need? Is this a tragic shortfall–or should we be celebrating? How does this number compare to your work one year ago?)
8. Lack of a target. “Project Ozma” was an experimental broadcast in 1960 of interstellar radio waves into outer space, just in case someone was out there to receive it. Do not do this. Think before you write/speak/blog/blast: who is most interested in your cause? Who donated to you last year? Who is likely to need you this year? Who has what you seek? Which reporter covers your region/issue? Your communications budget of dollars and hours is limited, so make it count by using a laser-sharp focus.
9. You are too ambitious. If you cannot seem to maintain your 20-page website, then focus on five good (current, clean, engaging) pages. You also need to find the right frequency for your outbound communications: too infrequent, and your target audience will forget about you; too often, and they will find you annoying and shrill.
10. Your message changes too often. There is a natural assumption that our own taglines, creative, and campaign slogans must be stale (not because of any actual research, but simply that we ourselves are sick of hearing them and seeing them). Enough with the changing, the altering, the noodling. Find the right message and stick to it, repeat it, spread it, blast it, weave it in.
With all due respect to Mr. Shaw, the greatest challenge in nonprofit mission communications is that you must connect with people in a meaningful way. Often you get one chance to do this, so be savvy. Your connection may be on a thoughtful or academic level, depending on your target audience. More likely you need to connect on a visceral, personal, and emotional level. Either way, make the connection!