For the last four years I’ve had the privilege of serving on the board of an amazing nonprofit in Milwaukee. We are a basic needs organization, helping people in poverty, with substance abuse and mental illness, people who experience homelessness, and families in domestic violence situations. We are a voice for the voiceless and are often the last phone call people make when they don’t know what else to do.
Communicating what we do can be a challenge, especially to the broad mix of donors and other stakeholders who support our mission. How nonprofits tell their story – and the context in which they share it – is critical to their longevity and success.
In addition to this board, I’ve worked in Communications and Public Affairs for one of the largest AIDS service organizations in the Midwest as well as for the state’s housing finance agency. I represent small and medium non-profits in my job here at Capstone. I’m on the board of a modern dance company as well.
Good Public Relations for a nonprofit requires more than just “marketing” who you are. It requires you be fully prepared with a crisis communication plan in place, as things can often go wrong. And you need to be thoughtful in how you tell your story to your stakeholders. A few thoughts:
Define yourself: Better than the elevator pitch, this is how you concisely explain your mission, your programming and your customer.
Everyone on the same page: Everyone from the board of directors to senior management to receptionists and volunteers need to know that definition inside and out. When someone is asked who they work for or where they volunteer, everyone should be able to share that mission with pride.
Get help: Let’s be honest, budgets are tight. Often the development staff is tasked with handling issues of communications as well. An in-house communications professional can and should do more than press releases and the occasional Facebook post. They help with speeches, fund raising appeals, and promotional materials. A good one will build relationships with reporters who will give you the coverage you deserve.
Get more help: An outside consultant can be equally effective – and sometimes more of what you need. Don’t count on getting everything pro bono, but there are definitely firms who are willing to meet you on pricing or to go the extra mile for you. Even at full price, it might be cheaper than a staff person with benefits, plus you typically have access to multiple talents within that company.
Bad things happen… but so do good things: As I mentioned earlier, crises happen. Even – and perhaps especially – nonprofits need to be prepared to address media, their staff, and those public and private donors who want to be assured that you are addressing the situation. Spokespeople need to be identified and trained. But also, be proactive in promoting the good things. Don’t wait until after an event, or a positive report is issued, to lament that no one covers good news. They do – and it’s usually because someone has worked with a reporter to get him or her lots of information ahead of time.
For those of us who volunteer or work at nonprofits, it’s no secret that there is a lot of great work being done by nonprofits each day. Our quality of life is enriched and people’s lives are literally transformed because of these organizations. With the right communications and public relations strategies, your work doesn’t need to be a secret.
Kate Venne is the Director of Public Relations at Capstone National Partners. If you’re interested in media training, contact Kate to find out more.