What makes some nonprofits heavy hitters who bring in millions in donations? A strong communications strategy.

A communications strategy is all about understanding why people donate to charities, and utilizing that knowledge to talk to your supporters. So, why do people donate to charity? You might be tempted to say, “Well, people donate to charity based on the quality of the work they do and the difference they make in the world!” But unfortunately the effectiveness of a charity is not a factor in most people’s charitable giving. Whether they’re giving for the “warm glow,” offsetting a tax burden, or publicly supporting a cause, most people do not give to charity out of pure altruism. And what big nonprofits know about charitable giving is that donors’ identities are a huge part of their decision to give. Reporting on your nonprofit’s effectiveness is important, but it’s more important to connect with donors’ values and identity. It’s not an easy thing to do, but creating a communications strategy is how your nonprofit can start.

In this post, we’ll break down how to develop your messaging, create your plan, coordinate your staff and start communicating better with your supporters and community.

Why is communications planning important?

To start with, your communications strategy will help your nonprofit pinpoint messages that will connect with your donors — and keep you on message. Taking the time to create a communications plan will help you coordinate your channels, your staff and revisit your messaging for 2018. A communications plan will help you keep your appeals to donors and your marketing consistent, so you provide a seamless experience for your supporters and deliver consistent messaging.

But, more importantly, a solid communications strategy is the foundation you’ll build all of your efforts on in 2018. All of your emails, social media posts, website revisions, blog posts, mailers, events, printed collateral … these will all harken back to your communications strategy. Your communications strategy will help make content production easier, and help you understand your audiences.

Sharpening your ax

The quote above, which is commonly attributed to Abraham Lincoln, is a perfect example of the importance of planning. Obviously, if you sharpen your ax before chopping down a tree, it’ll take less time. And, by the same token, having a nonprofit communications strategy in place will mean that it takes you less time to plan year-round. Instead of starting from scratch each time you’re planning a new campaign, putting together an email, or scheduling a social media post, you’ve got a sharp plan at the ready. You’ll save yourself a lot of time and effort down the line by doing your foundational planning at the start of a new year.

Building a foundation

Imagine trying to build a house without blueprints. If building a house were as simple as hammering plans of wood together, we’d all be architects! But it’s more complicated than that — and that’s why you need a blueprint. Your communications plan is your nonprofit’s blueprint. It’s the foundation upon which your nonprofit will build all of your communications.

And a strong foundation will hold your nonprofit up during busy times, or a crisis.

Engaging your community & donors

Building your communications strategy will help you hone in on the messaging that works. As we mentioned, people don’t give with their heads. They give with their hearts. The strategic planning process will help you find the messaging that connects with your community and supporters. It will help you communicate in a way that speaks to them, gets them invested in your work … and motivates them to support it.

Communications strategy made easy

You can find templates for communications strategies online. But they can be a little intimidating! And, even worse, they can lead you down rabbit holes that aren’t a great use of your time. Is a creating SWOT analysis matrix really necessary? Does it help you achieve your goals? We think not. Your time is precious, and we’ve devised a communications strategy planning method that keeps you focused on what will help your nonprofit the most and get you communicating better.

We’ve broken down communications strategy planning into 7 easy steps. We’ve pared the process down to the naked essentials, so you can get your planning done and start communicating. And we’ve organized these steps into a downloadable worksheet so your communications team can hit the ground running.


1. Identify 3-5 key messages

What’s a key message?

Key messages are broad, high-level concepts and statements about the work your nonprofit does. People ultimately don’t care as much about what you do as why you do it. Your key messages are your nonprofit’s why. And that why in your key messages are what supporters and donors will connect to, because they share those ideals, principles, and values.

You’ll need to identify your key messages so you can weave them into your communications. Your key messages are bells you will be ringing in the background of every email, social media post, your Mightycause page, and so on. They will help build that connection to your message, and add weight to your communications. For instance, an email inviting people to a bingo fundraising night may seem light and trivial. But grounding your bingo night in your key messages will make it seem more important for your supporters to show up.

How do you find your key messages?

Most often, these are in your nonprofit’s mission statement. You shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel when you identify your key messages! But programmatic priorities may change from year to year, so you’ll want to think about the driving force behind your nonprofit in 2018.

If you’re not sure, talk to your leaders, or jot some ideas down to discuss with them. Another thing to do is look at your priorities and goals for 2018, which were (in most cases) set by and approved by your board and your executive director. Boil these goals down to a value (a why, not a what) and you can find your key messages.

2. Identify 2-3 timely messages

This is where you can get a little more specific about what your nonprofit is doing in 2018. What’s changing this year? Do you have any milestones coming up, like an anniversary? What do you want everyone to know about your nonprofit this year? As with your key messages, you don’t want your timely messages to be too specific (since you’ll need to apply them to all of your communications). But with these messages, you can get more into the nitty gritty of what your nonprofit is all about in 2018.

3. Identify your channels of communication

How are you talking to your supporters and donors? You’ll want to include your most important entry points and tools of communication here. These obviously include your digital channels, such as your Mightycause page, your website, your social media accounts. But you’ll also want to include any other important channels for your nonprofit. For instance, if your nonprofit has a brick-and-mortar facility and in-person touches through your lobby are frequent and important, be sure to include it!

4. Identify your audiences

Who are you talking to? This step is a jumping-off point for audience segmentation. You’ll want to break down your audiences into specific categories. You’ll go beyond “donors” and “non-donors.” Break that up into “volunteers,” “major gift donors,” “one-time donors,” “monthly donors,” “non-donor social media followers,” “non-donor email subscribers” and so on. Be careful not to make this repetitive of your channels of communication! Your list of audiences will help you further hone in on who you’re talking to and how you’re talking to them so you can make your communications feel more specific and personal.

Multiracial group of men and women

What is audience segmentation?

Simply put, audience segmentation is separating your general audience into groups so you can talk more specifically to their interests and the relationship they have with your organization.

People respond better to communications when it feels personal. This goes beyond a personalized greeting in an email. If you’re a highly engaged volunteer for a nonprofit, imagine getting an email from the organization you spend hours working for each week, on your own time, that doesn’t acknowledge the relationship you have with them. Or being a major gift donor, and getting an email asking for a $20 donation. Audience segmentation prevents those gaffes.

When it comes to emails, it means breaking your master recipient list into smaller lists. Then, when you send an email, you tailor it to each list. That doesn’t mean you need to send a radically different email, but changing a few lines to be more specific to the audience, the call to action and changing minor details can make a huge difference in your response rate. Audience segmentation is also important if you’re advertising on social media or anywhere else online.

Integrating your audiences

Audience segmentation is also an important part of creating an integrated marketing experience. Integrated marketing and communications is a technique that creates a seamless experience for your supporters. It ushers them into every area of your nonprofit’s work. A key part of this process is understanding how people come to your nonprofit, how they show their support, and how they interact with your organization. So, if creating an integrated marketing experience at your nonprofit is one of your goals for 2018, this step is particularly important.

Integrated Marketing Communications for Nonprofits: A Primer

5. Set your communications goals

In order to measure the success of your communications, you’ll need to set goals. You’ve already got your big-picture programmatic goals set for 2018. This is where you’ll set goals specific to your communications efforts. And, of course, they should be SMART goals. That is, they should be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.

Think about how your communications efforts can assist your larger goals. Are you looking to increase your reach on social media? Expand your email list? Get better open rates on your emails? Overhaul your website? How can you use communications to further your mission?

Then, break those ideas down into actionable steps. For instance, if your goal is to have a bigger impact with your emails, you’ll want to pull your data from your emails for 2017. What was your average open rate? How many people typically clicked through to a link (this is your clickthrough rate, or CTR)? Where do you want to be at the end of the first quarter? At the end of 2018? Set specific goals (e.g., “get average CTR to 4% by end of the first quarter”) and define the metric you’ll use to determine your success in meeting your goal.

6. Define and refine your workflow

One of the most vital things to do in nonprofit communications is to create a solid workflow. How do you and your team get things done? There are so many things to keep track of. And at a small nonprofit where you have staff wearing many hats, it’s easy for things to fall between the cracks. If you’re busy putting out fires every day, you might forget to, say, get content to your direct mail marketing company by your deadline. And if you tend to fly by the seat of your pants, you might find that volunteers and other staff members aren’t able to keep track of the tasks you have piling up in your head. So, you need to come up with a streamlined way to communicate and get things done.

Identify your team

This may seem simple, especially if you’re a small team (or a team of one). But it’s important to make sure you know who’s on your communications team and assign roles. You may have turnover, changing roles and responsibilities, so hammering out who is on your team and what they are responsible for makes it much easier to communicate with each other.

  • Identify your team: For smooth communications, you’ll want to assemble a team of people who can meet regularly. And leave no stone unturned! If you have a volunteer who’s awesome at creating videos, or a staff member who is a social media savant, get them on your team. The more talent you can assemble, the better your communications will be.
  • Assign roles: Make sure everyone knows what their job is. It may sound funny, but lines often become blurred at nonprofits, especially when you have lots of people filling in wherever necessary. You may have five different people posting regularly on your Facebook page, but no one’s in charge. So, appoint a social media manager, and a captain for every other important tool of communication.
  • Create an email list: Create an email list with all of your team members so you can easily communicate and schedule meetings.

Schedule a standing meeting

Once you’ve got your plan in place, keeping your team talking and moving forward with your plan is paramount. A communications plan is a living, breathing thing. Get a standing communications meeting on your schedule. You can move it from week to week as needed. How often you meet with your team is up to you, but at least once a month is good start.

You’ll want to make sure you send out an agenda so you can keep things on track, and assign someone the task of taking and distributing notes. (It’s amazing how many people can sit in the same meeting and come away with totally different information!) This will develop a sense of accountability for your team, and create a reference for them in case anyone forgets what was decided at a meeting.

Develop your process

This is the part that may take some trial and error and some creativity. What works for one nonprofit’s communications team might not work for another at all. But here are the bones of the process:

  1. Determine tasks and subtasks that are necessary to achieve a goal, create a piece of content, or develop a campaign
  2. Assign the tasks and subtasks
  3. Determine a reasonable deadline
  4. Turn in completed work

You can create your own system, or look into investing in task management software like Basecamp or Asana.

7. Put it all together

Once you’ve gotten these steps completed on your worksheet (or on your own), the final step is to just start working. 

Schedule your 2018 planning meeting

Get that first meeting on the schedule and get your whole team to attend. Go over your 2018 communications plan. Answer any questions, get feedback. And then move into planning your first fundraiser, divvying up tasks, assigning projects. Basically, go forth and fundraise!

Create an editorial calendar

So, this may not come together immediately, but a great kick-off project is the creation of a communications calendar. It should encompass all of your communications channels (social media, your Mightycause page and campaigns, direct mail, events, etc.) and be easily accessible to your whole team. For that reason, you should keep it online.

It’s also helpful to assign someone on your team the task of maintaining the calendar. Their job will be to ensure that it’s up-to-date, accurate and reflects the most recent information.

You can create your own calendar using Outlook or Google Calendars, free templates in Word or Google Docs, or find free resources you can use online.

Use the “Communications Funnel” for content creation

Okay, so those key messages and timely messages you spent time outlining weren’t just a thought exercise. They’re designed to be used. So, here is how you utilize them: with the Communications Funnel.

Nonprofit Communications Plan funnel

When you’re creating your content (meaning, an email, Mightycause campaign, blog post, whatever), you push your content through the Communications Funnel.

Let’s say you’re having a spaghetti dinner fundraiser for your animal rescue. You’re putting together an email to invite people to your spaghetti dinner. You’re going to push that through the funnel. First, you push it through your key messages — why is this spaghetti night so important? Connect it to your core values. If one of your key messages is that your animal rescue helps find homes for animals in your community, explain that the proceeds of the spaghetti dinner will help you find homes for even more animals. Then, you push it through your timely messages. Let’s say one of your timely messages is a commitment to “saying yes” to helping more animals in 2018. “Your participation in our spaghetti dinner will help us say yes to even more animals in need in our community!” And, voila, you’ve got your content.

In the space of an email, you’ve invited your supporters to your event, while also reminding them of your “why” and weaving in one of your important goals for 2018.

Get the worksheet

Now, the only thing left to do is download the free communications planning worksheet and get to work! 


You can also check out our communications planning webinar for extra tips and discussion.

Leave a Reply