Communications for Non-Profits

Communicating an organization’s messages to its target publics/audiences is an important area of work for non-profit organizations. The success of an organization’s communication – whether it is non-profit or for-profit – is often linked with its overall success. An organization can be doing great work, but in most cases, it needs to be sharing its progress, its programs and services, and its discoveries with the public to remain relevant.

The area of communications includes a whole array of different functions. The most common communication functions for non-profits include: advertising, annual reports, advocacy campaigns, communication planning, copywriting/newswriting, editing, employee/internal communications, event planning, external communication, fundraising/sponsorship communications, graphic design, mail-out/distribution, marketing, media relations, member/stakeholder communications, newsletter/magazine/journal production, presentations, public relations, public speaking & speechwriting, social media & networking, survey research, trade shows/displays, visual identity/branding and web sites.

While communications encompasses many different forms, the communication process is based on simple principles. A message or communication is sent by the sender through a communication channel to a receiver, or to multiple receivers (target audiences). The sender must encode the message (the information being conveyed) into a form that is appropriate to the communication channel, and the receiver(s) then decodes the message to understand its meaning and significance. Misunderstanding can occur at any stage of the communication process. Effective communication involves minimizing potential misunderstanding and overcoming any barriers to communication at each stage in the communication process.

An effective communicator understands their audience, chooses an appropriate communication channel, hones their message to this channel and encodes the message to reduce misunderstanding by the receiver(s). They will also seek out feedback from the receiver(s) as to how the message is understood and attempt to correct any misunderstanding or confusion as soon as possible.

Organizations are encouraged to ensure their communication has a two-way flow. It is very important in today’s communication environment, that information is not only flowing out of the organization to its publics, but it is also coming back into the organization in the form of feedback or evaluation. This is essential to building communication channels that are meeting the needs of the publics served.

Many organizations build a strategic communications plan to articulate the impact of their communication channels. The plan should be firmly rooted in the organization’s values and mission. Yet that is not sufficient for its success. It must also be based on an awareness of how people form opinions. A good strategic communication plan will show that key messages, communication tools, and policies are all aligned with its overarching goals and objectives. Sure you can get a lot of hits, followers or likes, but good communication accomplishes concrete goals. Being strategic means planning so that the communication used has the right message, sent at the time, reaching the right audience, which will receive the message and act accordingly. Essentially, it’s about making the right choices.

Making the right choices comes down to experience, and more importantly evaluation. Evaluation helps organizations identify the best channels and tools for communicating to an audience and achieving results. Identifying evaluation opportunities should be part of all communications work.

Often people use the terms communications and marketing interchangeably…but there is a difference. Marketing starts from the point of view of the audience, with messages that meet the audience where it’s at and steer them towards a product that will meet their needs. It has been said that marketing appeals to the heart. Communications typically appeal to the head. Communications tend to be based on information the organization wants to share – opinions and facts – written in a way that will connect with the audience’s interests, such as those that appear in organizational newsletters, web sites or social media posts.

Other links:

What is Strategic Communications? Idea: Fresh ideas to advance scientific and cultural literacy. March 16, 2011. 
Marketing and Communications in Non-profit Organizations by David Williams.  Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership, Georgetown University, 2009.