Nonprofit Marketing: If you want to stand out, speak up!

How to create compelling messages that move audiences to action

If you want people to listen to your nonprofit’s messages, you need to make them feel something—joy, sadness, anger. They need to get emotionally connected. This is a special challenge for nonprofits. To get people’s attention, you have to say something interesting. And yet, we often recoil at that thought, lest it cause controversy or anger. Instead, we create safe, sound and happy messages that don’t move people to action. People don’t pay attention because we don’t give them anything to pay attention to. To find new supporters and keep your current ones, you need to do or say something interesting and let go of the fear of offending. How can you do that?

The goal is not to convince people to care about your organization, but to have a strong message that attracts like-minded people to you. And if you are doing or saying something different, someone is not going to like it—and that’s OK. The like-minded people will love it. That is the foundation of the concept of “courageous communication.” If you are a risk-averse nonprofit, this may seem especially daunting. Here’s how your organization can become more courageous communicators and attract the attention you need and deserve.

1. Let go of relationships that don’t work.

We’ve all had personal, familial, professional or romantic relationships that didn’t feel quite right. It’s the same way with our audiences. Do you spend copious amounts of time and money on people who don’t and won’t care about you? Do you beat your head against the wall because your marketing doesn’t get more involvement or investment from these groups? Maybe it’s time to let them go. Some audiences aren’t worth your time, energy or money.

You can’t convince people to care and you waste a lot of time and money on relationships that don’t work. If you are afraid of making them mad, they might not be your people. Don’t be afraid to say goodbye.

Use data to make your case. How much time and money do you spend and for what return? Figure out where your energy needs to be directed, then detach with love from those who never loved you that much anyway.

2. Be grounded in what you stand for.

Standing strong in your message to attract like-minded people means understanding what your organization stands for and being confident in communicating that. How do you do that? Develop and publish belief statements. Belief statements are five to seven statements that describe who you are as an organization, what you believe and why.

Here are the belief statements for Episcopal City Mission, a group that ministers to children in juvenile court custody:

“We believe that all children deserve a second chance.We believe in the healing promise of God’s presence. We believe in providing a safe environment, free from judgment. We believe children aren’t disposable and are worth our time and attention. We believe the children we serve are more than the worst thing they have done. We believe being there, providing a ministry of presence, is healing. We believe the calming presence of our chaplains reassures the children that someone cares about their spiritual well-being.”

After reading these, do you feel more connected to this group? Do you have a greater understanding of what they do and why? No one can argue with an organization’s beliefs—they are subjective. They are clear and concise statements about what’s important and valued.

Work with your leadership to come up with your own belief statements, and then live by them. This is critical to courageous communication because if a public issue arises or a news story crops up and you wonder if you should say something, then you have your belief statements to guide you.

3. Participate in conversations you didn’t start.

You can’t ignore what is going on around you. Answer these questions so you know when the time is right to speak up on issues in the media.

  • Does the issue or story align with our mission and with our belief statements?

  • Is the issue or story of value to our audiences?

  • Would our participation in the issue or story add to the conversation

If you can say yes to all three questions, then speak up.

Courageous communication doesn’t mean you speak up about everything all the time. It means you speak with a purpose to attract like-minded people to your organization.

4. Adopt consistency and repetition.

Strong communication means saying the same thing over and over and over again. It means maintaining a consistent look and message, which takes discipline. Know that your brand has value, and if you make a change, you need to weigh that change against the brand value.

So, to get attention, let go of the audiences who don’t love you and focus on the ones who do, standing strong in your message. If you are doing or saying something interesting, it won’t please everyone, but it will please those who matter most.

Maryanne works with nonprofits to move from operating out of fear and scarcity to confidence and abundance, so they can attract like-minded donors and raise more money. She is author of Courageous Communication and founder of Courageous Change workshops.

Maryanne Dersch