Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Development and Communications Equation

There's the do you combine development and communications? In small nonprofits, there is rarely the staff to have robust development and communications efforts. In larger nonprofits, that actually have staff or even departments solely devoted to these two things, there often seems to be a chasm between the development arm and the communications arm. And now, more than ever, as the scramble to survive continues on, these two elements (working in harmony) are even more critical. Good advice from Jessica Berk Ross. Worth mulling over at the next staff meeting. Bunnie

The Development and Communications Equation
by Jessica Berk Ross

This past year has been a challenging one. The economic downturn has put pressure on all organizations to increase efficiency and to do more with less. While that’s not a new mantra for nonprofit organizations, those competing for philanthropic dollars have a renewed sense of urgency. They have an even greater mandate to gain mindshare, communicate relevance and demonstrate impact in order to secure the funding they need to further their mission.

2010 is poised to be an even tougher year than 2009 for nonprofits. Giving levels have been nearly nonexistent, leading to what may be a particularly dismal period in the next 12 months. It is a critical time to evaluate organizational communications and how messaging and outreach can effect real outcomes--both programmatic AND financial.

Development Outreach is Communication

“We want to launch this new initiative, but need to secure funding.”

“We’ve applied for a grant to support this program. Without it, we won’t be able to operationalize this initiative.”

“Our usual donors have been bombarded with requests this year. How can we compete?”

Statements like these have become all too familiar over the past year. It’s a tough time to be raising funds even for the most worthy of causes. But there is something you can do so that your efforts have a greater impact. One important – but often overlooked - way to optimize development outreach is by thinking about it through the lens of strategic communications. At its heart, development outreach is communications. It is reaching an audience – in this case donors rather than, say, consumers, shareholders or the media – to build awareness and spur them to action. But far too often, the development and communications functions are almost entirely separate within an organization. When combined, though, these functions are far more effective--and efficient-- than when operating independently.

As one development consultant explained, “At least 80% of the non profits I work with have communications tools that are ineffective. I do my best to try and improve it, but I don’t know that a development professional is the right person for that job.”

It’s Not Either/Or But Both

Ruder Finn, a national public relations agency, has many clients in the nonprofit and advocacy world. Very often, at the crux of the business challenges these clients face is development. Ironically, though, that is seldom what we are tasked with at the outset of an engagement
Many of these organizations either think about communications OR development, but rarely about both at once or in an integrated fashion. As we begin to work with a client on a specific program – perhaps a Web site launch or a new initiative – the discussion quickly turns to development. These programs require funding and adequate funding requires effective development outreach. . It becomes clear in a very short amount of time that communications objectives are inextricably linked to fundraising efforts.

On the flip side, communications outreach around a particular program must take into consideration messages already in the pipeline related to raising funds. You don’t want to bombard the same audiences with disparate, uncoordinated messages. If a development related message goes out one week, the collateral piece you send about your new report the following week may be met with either aggravation or confusion.

It can be far more effective to look holistically at your outreach. Leverage the tools that already exist to share news or launch a product. Do you have a donor letter going out? Why not use that to also share information on that new report? By only reaching out to donors in a very strategic, thoughtful manner, you are likely to have a far greater impact.

A Few Tips

A more integrated approach to communications can yield far greater results. And it doesn’t have to be complicated, overly time consuming or costly. It only requires a few simple guiding principles:

1. Key messages. Having a set of consistent talking points that are then referred back to and woven into all of your communications goes a long way to building a strong brand. It can elevate the level of awareness of your organization with your donors (and, by the way, any other audience with whom you are communicating). It also makes developing new materials a lot easier – you already have a starting place for the language you’ll need to use.

2. Create an outreach timeline. Establish a framework for a combined

development/communications program. At the beginning of the annual planning process, ensure that the development and communications director are not only coordinating, but have worked together to map out a timeline for donor outreach throughout the year. In short, embed development within the overall communications program.

3. Personalize the message. An integral part of success is creating awareness of your organization’s value to the community and to society as well as building an awareness of the financial need. Quantify and personalize your mission and objectives as much as possible. It’s the old “what’s in it for me” message. Targeted communications – ones that resonate with each audience including individuals, corporations or foundation - demonstrating why that person should care about your organization’s mission will create a more favorable giving climate by conditioning the marketplace.

4. Keep it up. Sustained and ongoing communications to funders and potential funders is critical. It is important to establish touch points at regular intervals throughout the year. You may have an annual dinner, but how often are you communicating with donors and potential donors in between these events? Are you updating them on progress regularly? Are you sharing good news in a timely fashion? You should be reaching out, at a minimum, on a quarterly basis.

5. Variety is the spice of life. Ideally, outreach will take place across a variety of mediums – electronic, print and face-to-face – to accommodate the different ways people absorb information. Consider what tools – collateral, events, e-mail updates, newsletters, and social media – will help you gain support from new prospects and maintain relationships with existing funding sources.

6. Social media works! Social media – including sites like Facebook and LinkedIn as well as blogs like this one – are an absolutely essential part of every organization’s communications and development programs. If you think your donors aren’t using them or you just aren’t taken them into consideration, you may be missing opportunities. If you’re not comfortable with them, there are many (free) opportunities to learn more. Organizations such as Vocus ( frequently host free webinars that can be very instructional.

Build it in

It starts with the strategic planning process. To make your communications and development programs a success, integrate the two from the outset. As you embark on your planning for 2010, think about increasing the impact – and the return on investment – of development programs by more efficient use of communications resources. With this adjustment to your overall operating model, you may just make a very challenging year a lot more manageable.

Jessica Berk Ross is the managing director of the Washington, DC office of Ruder Finn. With over 20 years of strategic communications experience, Jessica is adept at helping clients in both the nonprofit and corporate world meet their organizational objectives.

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