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The first two questions I ask in a communications audit
By Rick’s StraightTalk / January 25, 2016

1. Do you know what you're selling?
2. Who do you hope will buy?

surprised – maybe even shocked – that even sizable nonprofits and foundations didn’t know what they were trying to “sell” via their communications (or sometimes at all, but that’s a topic for strategic planning).

Most of you, however, have a primary “buyer” in mind, in a vague sort of way, namely donors. Not necessarily a particular differentiation between existing and prospective, big and small, legacy and annual, etc. Just “donors”.

Hmmm. A bit difficult to evaluate your communications if you’re not sure what you want out of them. Let’s ask and answer those key questions.

Selling is seeking a transaction, and you should be

Okay, maybe you don't like the word "selling". Well, choose another word if it will make you feel better. But your nonprofit should have an end transaction in mind every time you “communicate”.

In your communications, if effective, you offer your time, resources, services, and/or products in exchange for grants and donations, important influence, behavior modification, and clients, for example.

Done right, your communications:

  • stimulate people to vote, conserve energy, eat their broccoli, pay their share of taxes, play nicely with their neighbors, volunteer at the animal shelter, take a starving artist to lunch, house the homeless, coach the Little League, play the banjo, be civil, and follow the Golden Rule, whatever your organization's mission
  • advertise your organization’s capacity to meet the donor's emotional and economic needs in exchange for a donation
  • lure the best possible people, partners, businesses, governments, and colleague organizations to join your mission
  • encourage staff to work their hardest
  • keeps current clients happy while bringing new clients to the door.
    You do want all that, don’t you? And more, I bet.

(I know you communicate a lot, by the way, even more than you think you do, well beyond the traditional “box” of newsletters, annual reports, websites, Pinterest, and Instagram. Communications includes the way you serve clients, the frequency of your meetings with prospective and current donors, whether you hold open houses, the underlying message of your website, if a person or a machine answers the telephone, how often you convene staff meetings, if you belong to the Chamber or Rotary, and so much more.)

Now, let’s discuss to whom you’re talking.

Who’s the who?

You have key constituencies and each one – and each person within them -- wants your undivided attention. (So do you and I, by the way. There’s no “them” and “us” when it comes to wanting to feel special.)

Makes communicating a bit complicated, doesn’t it? You’d like to invite “everyone” to your annual meeting, write your annual report for “everyone”, create your website for “everyone”.

Alas, when you do, your message becomes bland, boring, and middle of the road. I don’t know who said it first, but you cannot bore people into action (I’m thinking of having a shield of arms made with that motto). And yet, nearly every CEO writes just such a letter to open his or her nonprofit's annual report (sigh).

I occasionally train childcare advocates advocating for statewide policy change. My first exercise with them is always to ask the Mister Rogers question (from my hometown of Pittsburgh): "Who are the important people in your neighborhood?" These are the typical Top 20:

  1. Parents
  2. Prospective parents
  3. Children
  4. Teachers
  5. Board of directors
  6. Immediate neighbors (who could complain or be volunteers)
  7. Local businesses (who could complain or be donors and vendors)
  8. Building inspectors
  9. Local State Representative
  10. Local State Senator
  11. Local City Councilperson
  12. Childcare association or coalition or colleagues
  13. Vendors
  14. Donors, small, medium, and large
  15. Prospective donors, as above
  16. Foundations, current and prospective
  17. State agency: licensors
  18. State agency: if providing subsidized child care slots
  19. Volunteers, substitutes
  20. Health, social services, mental health, etc. providers

Visualize that list; the people in their roles are so different. A single mechanism, e.g. the same annual letter, is not going to lead to the successful transaction (remember those?) you want from each. Otherwise I could tape record the same phone message to my brother, my aunt, my daughter, my sister, and my son. Would be cheaper, faster, and more efficient. And everyone would be pretty p****d.

But we’ll save that for another time. Thanks for reading!

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