As we prepare to close the books on 2015, it's a good time to reflect on the year we've had, make resolutions for the year ahead, and think creatively about how we can achieve our goals.
For foundations and nonprofit organizations, this often means shoring up plans and budgets in support of organizational strategies. And for those responsible for their organization's communications (or who take an active interest in the organization's communication strategy), it's also an opportunity to apply a critical eye to sharpening the effectiveness of those communications in terms of advancing the organization's goals.
Depending on the state of your nonprofit's brand, you may be looking to embark on a large-scale initiative like a rebranding or website redesign. Or you may be targeting ways to optimize, strengthen, and extend the materials you already have in place. Whatever the case, to help you increase the impact of your nonprofit's communications in the year ahead (and beyond), here are seven of the most common, high-value areas the organizations I meet with are interested in exploring.
If your organization has never committed itself to a brand strategy engagement, it's hard for me to understate the value of a branding process for surfacing insights, sharpening your communications focus, and strengthening your case for support (whatever form that takes). Similarly, if you have a brand strategy that is a few years old, here are some things you can do to make sure it still conveys who you are, what you do, and why what you do matters.
Listen to your audience. If your organization works on complex issues that are hard to unpack or lend themselves to jargon-laden language, reaching out and listening to members of your audience provides invaluable feedback and a much-needed perspective. An effective research interview process designed to explore core strategic questions is an incredibly effective way to evaluate how well-aligned your organization and its goals are with the expectations of your audience. It's also a great way to gain insights into how your target audience uses language to frame the issues you all care about — ensuring that your communications strategy is focused on your audience, speaks to it, and rings true.
Strengthen your sense of identity. If your nonprofit has a clear mission but the ways you go about making change have evolved over the years, clearly communicating that evolution is essential. Because a nonprofit's brand is as much about internal cohesion and capacity as it is about words and images, spending some time and money on developing an internal-facing brand handbook for your nonprofit that distills your mission, vision, and values can create an asset that, when shared with staff and partners, will strengthen the organization's culture and sense of purpose while providing an actionable blueprint for the kind of compelling messaging and experiences folks in your organization are asked (and expected) to deliver.
Deliver a consistent point of view. If your nonprofit's communications lack consistency and cohesion, it's a good bet you’re sending out mixed messages that undermine its mission. Creating well-defined brand guidelines is one way to ensure your organization presents a unified image that speaks well of its effectiveness. And if you already have brand guidelines but they feel a bit dated and/or do not support new types of collateral such as data visualizations and infographics, a quick refresh of the guidelines is a great way to maintain brand continuity while making sure your communications keep pace with innovation both in and beyond your organization.
Increase your communications efficiency. Speaking of consistency and cohesion, if your organization has a variety of presentation decks, event materials, and program collateral that has been developed over the years by different people, it's likely it has less of what I'd call a communications design system and more of what can only be called a communications hodge-podge. Spending some time and money on developing a suite of tools and templates that are easy to use and which work together not only will provide the kind of brand consistency every organization needs, it will increase productivity and help you respond more effectively to opportunities by speeding up production of the kind of high-quality communications your organization deserves.
Understand your users. If your organization is about to embark on a website design/redesign, starting with an effective UX research process is a great way to make sure the site's content, features, and user experience align with what your audiences want and expect. And if you launched a new site recently and think it's great but haven't asked your target audiences for feedback, focused UX research is a great way to uncover and target high-value improvements that can boost your presence and strengthen your overall communications strategy.
SEO and analytics. Assuming search engine optimization matters to your nonprofit, developing an SEO strategy that starts with an analysis of your site's build to see how well it is optimized for SEO, along with an evaluation of things like backlinks and social media strategy, is an excellent way to identify and fix areas that are negatively affecting your site's organic search performance. Similarly, if you’ve implemented Google Analytics or another web analytics package, you already have volumes of valuable information that can be used to figure out where to target your usability and design dollars. It just requires a team to identify what you want to understand, then digging in.
Learn from what your peers are doing. If you're planning to evaluate your site to determine whether a complete overhaul is called for or not, market research on peer organization websites is an excellent complement to user interviews and analytics analysis. For example, best practices for designing content-heavy websites call for a certain approach. If your organization is looking to disseminate knowledge to a wider audience, evaluation aimed at understanding what's effective (and what isn’t!) will make it a lot easier to see where your site is performing well and where there is room for improvement.
With 2016 right around the corner, every organization needs to make choices – soon – about how best to allocate resources in ways that advance its mission. And communications is just one piece (albeit a very important one) of the pie. I hope the above suggestions have provided you with some good ideas about how to increase the effectiveness of your communications, as well as arguments that support your case for being given the resources to do so!
In the meantime, a happy and healthy New Year to everyone. I look forward to continuing our conversation on nonprofit branding, design, and communications in 2016!
Matt Schwartz is the founder and director of strategy at Constructive, a New York City-based brand strategy and experience design firm dedicated to helping social change organizations achieve greater impact.