How Does Your Garden Grow?

How public relations maximizes fundraising

Imagine your resource development efforts as a large garden. Each row or section might represent initiatives such as donors, grants, or fees for service. Special events might be a colorful section of flowers at one end. A capital campaign could be a hearty crop of pumpkins and squash; planned giving might be the perennials around the border.

With planning, ongoing care, and sufficient water and sunshine, your garden will flourish. It is probably not a coincidence that some of the best practices in fund-raising have a kind of agrarian theme–we are taught to ‘plant the seeds’ of awareness and understanding among prospective donors, and we carefully ‘cultivate’ major gifts over the long term.

Continuing this metaphor for a moment, the energy you direct to public relations and positioning to support your fund-raising “garden” would represent assigning the right fruit or vegetable to the sunny or shady areas; adjusting your efforts to the time of year; appreciating the differences in moisture, temperature, and humidity; preparing your soil prior to planting; controlling pests; and adding nutrients or fertilizer throughout the growing season. In other words, you can have a garden without these efforts–but adding them helps ensure that your fund-raising will blossom and produce the maximum harvest.

Would you sprinkle seeds on barren earth and expect them to flourish? Would you put a cactus in the shady bog under the canopy of a large tree? Of course not. Without appreciating your total environment and paying attention to critical factors–i.e., whether your organization’s mission/brand is known by key people of influence, and you have strong relationships throughout your industry and community–you are not going to raise the money you need to thrive.

Another way of considering the relationship between positioning and raising money is that some organizations jump straight to ‘the ask’ or frantically submit grant requests without a targeted strategy or relationships in place. This is like planting a garden without tilling the soil or consulting the calendar. Some nonprofits do not realize that they are simply not positioned to raise money. Their efforts do not bear fruit over time, and they do not know why.

In this metaphor, it’s the consistent, parallel, joint efforts of development and communications that brings the greatest results. Your communications work “prepares the soil” with awareness and education; your development work “plants seeds” by submitting grant applications and sending out appeal letters; your communications “nurtures” the garden with media messages and local outreach; your development staff tracks the “yield.”

Often smaller nonprofits have a fund-raising professional who doesn’t have the capacity to do marketing/ communications, too. Public relations is considered an afterthought, a nicety, something to postpone until your staff can double in size. But the connection between raising awareness and raising money is key.

So what can you do this growing season to make your nonprofit “garden” produce a maximum fund-raising bounty over time? Here are a few considerations to fertilize your thinking:

  1. Build that brand. What do you want people to think about your nonprofit? What do you want them to feel? How do you hope to persuade them to act? If you’re not thinking about your brand equity, defining your brand in words and phrases, you’re missing a huge opportunity. And a strong brand is a fine foundation for fund-raising.
  2. Messages on your mind. Come up with about three carefully worded sentences or slogans. Start with your mission statement plus some key phrases. One might be based on correcting a misconception people have about you.  Memorize these, repeat them everywhere, and do staff/board orientations and training around them. Put them on the back of your business card. Put them on the bottom of every email. Write articles about what each one means. Design campaigns around them.
  3. Cultivate consistency. Support your messages with a crisp, managed visual identity. Used properly, your logo, typefaces, and colors showcase that you have your act together–that you are worthy of volunteers’ time and donors’ dollars. To the extent that your physical offices or location are viewed by donors/funders, do you project an organized, productive, welcoming climate? Make sure there is not a disconnect between what you claim to stand for and what impression you make.
  4. Stock your tool shed. Make sure you have an array of current, well-written printed and electronic literature or products ready to go and easy to find, including an annual report. (Need new ideas? See #7.)
  5. Get more feedback. Ask someone who is not familiar with your nonprofit do an “audit” of your web site and report on the ease of finding needed information. Weed out pages that are too much to read or simply out of date.
  6. Always have one-page, bullet-point sheets ready for any reporter who calls or a Board member who might have a chance to speak to a club or group.
  7. Plant that initiative you’ve been meaning to start: convene a MeetUp group for your volunteers; create a Facebook page for your fans; invest in a portable tabletop exhibit with crisp graphics and strong images that tell your story. Ask a local videographer or digital imaging studio to donate their services for a three-minute vignette about your mission to put on your web site, hand out on DVDs, and post on YouTube–they get a terrific portfolio piece and you get a powerful communications tool.
  8. Exercise media muscle. You have wonderful stories to tell. Don’t be afraid to hear from a reporter–initiate the lines of communication yourself. Know which reporters cover your industry. Send them emails when the coverage is good (or erroneous). Let them know that you are a credible, readily accessible source of information. Build open relationships based on mutual interest and trust. Don’t wait to get acquainted in a crisis.
  9. Spread your outreach generously this summer. Who are the people in your community who ought to know about your organization? Start a list of elected officials, other nonprofit executives, chamber of commerce leaders, religious leaders, and activists, and make some breakfast, coffee, or lunch dates. Offer to give talks; attend other events. ¬†Mobilize your board to be your “ambassadors,” too.
  10. A well-planned, enjoyable special event can really blossom for you: it raises money at the same time it reinforces mission, brand, and awareness. Not all events must make money, especially when they’re new. Meanwhile, beware of staff- and volunteer-consuming events that bring in dollars but do little to educate and engage people.

In closing, think of public relations and positioning as part of the essential water and sunshine for your fund-raising garden. Without the boost from such elements throughout your growing season, you may well face a discouraging harvest.

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