Communications for non-profits: a primer


Non-profit organizations, in practice and perception, have been fairly lean operations. In the past, the communications function has not always been top priority for some organizations due to limited resources. Even when it was a consideration, communications was seen as a tool to manage media for event promotion or to engage donors to grow revenues.

In fact, for many community-based non-profits, communications has either fallen to volunteers to manage or it has been added to the very long list of other duties required of the executive director. Having a separate communications person, much less a budget for communications, especially for small organizations, was, until recently, highly unusual.

That view is changing. Today we live in an age where we are surrounded by multiple channels of information. Regardless of what we do, where we live, and what we care about, we either worry about getting too much information, not enough, or the wrong kind. Non-profit organizations need to be responsive to a host of concerns, both on going and emerging.

Recognizing assets

On the plus side, most non-profits know what they need and why they need it. Their needs are usually simple: money for programs and services, people (either volunteers or clients), community action, and social change. Non-profits are also very creative in stretching dollars and working with others to achieve shared goals. They often have knowledgeable staff who are passionate about their cause and want to see positive action result from their efforts.

Sometimes though, the pressures for working in the non-profit sector can deflect staff and board focus from long term issues and perspectives to short term ones because the demands and the immediacy of urgent concerns and unmet needs tug harder for attention from overburdened staff. It becomes easier to stick with what they know, with proven approaches they are comfortable delivering, in increasingly shorter timeframes.

However, being nimble and flexible does not mean you shouldn’t implement a more formal approach to communications planning in a non-profit environment. Here’s why. For example, over the years, I have heard the following comments and complaints from managers, board members, and frontline staff:

• “I saw this amazing newspaper insert and now I want you to write one like it for our organization.”

• “I am on this board and we either get way too much information or too little, and none of it seems to matter in the end – staff just do what they want.”

• “I’m trying to explain why we need a coordinated approach to our communications efforts, and I am not getting anywhere.”

These statements reflect the three common challenges I see in communicating for non-profits:

1) Lack of clarity on audience needs, both internally and externally, and consequently, resulting in ineffective implementations of strategies and tactics suitable for achieving the organization’s vision and goals;

2) Lack of appreciation for effective communications between board and staff to ensure appropriate board governance;

3) Lack of understanding of the role for communications and the need for a comprehensive communications plan with strategic directions aligned with business goals.

One of the ways we can be more effective communicators in the non-profit sector is by developing capacity for communications at all levels through assessment, strategic planning, partnerships, and judicious use of resources, both human and financial.

Dealing with challenges

1. Understanding your audience(s)

In many non-profits, there is a tendency to think of either clients or donors as the principal audiences. Much of the work around communications is focused on reaching out to them either to provide service or to solicit funds so services can continue. However failing to include employees and board members as targets of communications efforts is short sighted.

When there is a lack of clarity about audiences, there is a risk that communications will become tactic driven. Without a strategic approach to planning, implementing, and evaluating communications to connect audiences to the organization’s mission, vision, and mandate, non-profit communications can be reduced to a series of tactics driven by a need to show outputs and not necessarily outcomes or measureable results.

2. Respecting the board’s need for information

Today we expect greater accountability from our voluntary and non profit organizations: they may solicit and rely on donor funds, they may receive grants from tax payers via public agencies, they may provide services, many of them to vulnerable populations, or some combination of all three. Being an effective steward means having the right information to make good decisions, to promote the organization’s brand, and to take appropriate action to achieve the vision.

Having a strategic communication plan that describes the steps the organization will take to connect with its audiences, inside and out, is key. So is clarity about roles and expectations. Developing effective communications processes to supply and act on information is a key part of board governance.

Board members who feel they have too much or too little information feel disconnected because there is no direct line between information, decisions, implementation, and results. Board members are volunteers and they don’t want to be rubber stamps nor do they want to be micromanaging every single step an organization takes on its journey to achieving its goals. They want to contribute in a meaningful way to a cause or issue they care about.

3. Understanding the communications function

Fear is a primary cause of resistance to change: staff and volunteers in small organizations worry about having enough time, money, and knowledge to get what they need done. Sometimes staff feel taking the time to understand or learn a dimension of a new role means they will now have to carry it out. Or they worry that a new responsibility will take away from what they feel are more important functions.

A good way to deal with this fear and resistance is to engage staff in building a communications plan for the organization, especially those organizations that rely on a small staff (less than five) and volunteers to achieve their goals. Working collaboratively provides a great way to share information about timelines, deadlines, resource allocation, and results.

Building in opportunities to learn new tools, have fun, and be creative in developing and implementing strategies and tactics can demystify the communications process for others. Forging links between different programs or departments, aligning communications goals with business needs, and setting benchmarks for success are all ways you can foster understanding for the value communications brings to non-profits.

Most importantly, employees, like external audiences, need to know why it matters. Reigniting the passion your staff, your board, and your clients feel about the issues you care about is critical.

Ensuring success

Effective communications takes time, commitment, resources, and strategic thinking. It need not take a whole lot of time nor a great deal of resources if you harness the creativity and energy your staff and board can bring to the table. Simply remember these three things:

• Know your audiences.

• Respect their need for information.

• Engage internal audiences as well as external ones. Bring all these elements into a comprehensive plan that identifies needs, opportunities, goals and measureable objectives, strategies, tactics, implementation, and evaluation.

Focusing non-profits on strategic communications planning does take time, but there are tools and resources to help you. Here are a few:




For more information, you may also want to contact your local chapter of various communications associations such as IABC or CPRS or PRSA. IABC in particular has several chapters that offer the “Gift of Communication”- a program to help non-profits develop capacity for communications.