By Peter Gamache, Ph.D. & Jackie Sue Griffin, MBA, MS, Turnaround Life, Inc.
We’re pleased to share this discussion—with tips you can implement for your nonprofit—with Jay Wilson, VP of Communications with our partner, National Strategies Public Relations, on the crucial role communication plays in philanthropy.
Jay, given your 25 years of experience in communications, particularly for fundraising purposes, what do you see as the role of communications in philanthropy?
Communications play a critical role in development (or fundraising) work and can be quite different from what we think of when we talk about public relations. In development communications, you typically have a focused message for a specific audience. While the messaging changes depending upon the audiences and the circumstances, the bottom line in development communications is that your efforts are fundamentally working to do one of two things: Either you are communicating to bring people and organizations into the fold through financial or in-kind support, or you are ensuring they feel good about the decision they made to provide this support.
On the front end, development communications professionals will help you develop messaging targeted to both broad and small audiences. Cases for support are in this first category, along with more typical public relations platforms like web sites and social media. In the second category, the work entails highly tailored fundraising proposals, usually for major gifts.
After a gift has been made, communications work focuses on stewardship, ensuring that the donors feel good about having invested in your organization. This can be done through a variety of means, including print and electronic newsletters, video, and even (and perhaps especially) hand-written notes.
What are some great examples of communication you’ve seen? How can a nonprofit emulate that?
All great communications work features the same basic elements—a strong graphic identity, powerful messaging and a tie between the two that speaks to the brand of the organization in every platform and context. While there are many examples of great brand messaging, each begins with the same first step—research.
Great fundraising campaigns, and their accompanying communications programs, begin with research. Communications strategists will ask internal and external audiences about the organization’s mission, values and goals. Both fundraising and communications plans should be built from the results. It’s remarkable how often primary research leads to dramatically more powerful fundraising campaigns!
What’s the biggest communication fail in philanthropy, and how can we guard against it?
I think you have to be careful not to fall into a one-size-fits-all trap. Doing something that is cookie cutter only works in a bakery. Nonprofits sometimes rush the process on the front end, skipping the research and planning needed to ensure success. If you don’t take the time to build a campaign and a communications plan that speaks to your audience, you’ll fail to engage them in a meaningful way. This failure will do more than simply cause you difficulty on the communications and marketing front, it can—and often does—lead to failure to reach a fundraising goal.
Jay Wilson, APR, CPRC is an award-winning communications and marketing professional with more than two decades of experience working in all facets of the communications industry. During his career, he has developed and implemented award-winning branding programs for universities, foundations and billion-dollar comprehensive fundraising campaigns.
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