6 Communication Challenges for Nonprofits (and What to Do About Them)
We love working with our nonprofit partners and being a part of the good they’re doing in the world. But it also gives us a front-row seat to some of the unique challenges they face, particularly when it comes to marketing. Here are six of the biggest communication challenges nonprofits face, and our take on winning solutions for each.
Challenge #1: Only Communicating When You Need Money
As a nonprofit, usually the biggest reason for any marketing efforts you spend time and money on is to bring donations into your organization. There’s nothing wrong with this—you need money to do the important work you’re doing. But only communicating with your donor base and community network when you’re looking for donations can become a problem pretty quickly.
Think about how it feels to be on the other end of that communication. If you donate to an organization, wouldn’t you start to get “donor fatigue” if they asked you for money every time you heard from them—even if you were passionate about their cause? This kind of communication can leave you with a burned-out donor base that’s stagnant at best, and definitely not the engaged, growing group of supporters you hope for.
The way to solve this problem is simple: consistent communication. If you only reach out to people when you need money, they’ll get tired of hearing from you. But if you’re consistently reaching out to them, telling your story and helping them understand the impact their support is making, they’ll be eager to partner next time you need help (and, even better, to encourage others to do the same).
Marketing and communication can’t be just about fundraising and development. Your communication supports the growth of your entire organization. It makes your fundraising more effective, it brings new people into your cause, and it keeps the people already engaged with you passionate about what you’re doing.
Challenge #2: Working with the Board of Directors
It’s true that your Board of Directors brings essential expertise and guidance to your organization. But it’s also true that they usually aren’t involved in your day-to-day operations. They aren’t in the trenches with you, working through the daily challenges and issues that can get lost in the midst of high-level strategic conversations.
This means, at times, there can be a disconnect between the experience of the boots-on-the-ground members of your team and members of the Board. And, even if your organizational leadership and team is ready to embrace a communication and marketing strategy for the good of your mission, the Board may not always be on the same page.
Unfortunately, there’s not always an easy solution to this problem. But the place to start is always with clear and open communication. If you’re struggling to get buy-in from your Board of Directors on making communication a priority, look at it as an opportunity to enter into a conversation.
The biggest priority to any Board of Directors is the health of their organization. And the fact is, the health of any organization starts with healthy and strategic communication. It grows your donor base, keeps it vibrant, and helps you stay consistently engaged with the people who matter most to your mission. Understanding why communication is important, even from a high level, starts with understanding its potential to strengthen everything your organization is doing.
Challenge #3: Working with Donors
Let’s just state a fact: without money, there is no mission. Doing good in the world isn’t free. And so, donors are important. They always will be. And when you have people who have shown that they’re willing to give money to your organization, it makes sense that you’d want to hang onto them.
But operating with the goal of keeping your current donors happy can lead to a fear-based mindset. It can keep you from branching out in ways that make sense to your organization—maybe in new directions where you feel like God is leading you. It can keep you from wanting to look like you’re changing, for fear of turning them away. It can keep you from wanting to look too “slick” so you won’t be accused of stewarding their donations poorly.
Fear of unhappy donors can be paralyzing. And it can keep you from tapping into the full potential of what good communication can do for your organization.
If you find yourself struggling with the pressure (real or perceived) to keep donors happy, ask yourself (or consider asking them) one question.
What do your donors actually want?
Well, if they’re donating to your organization, it means they care about your mission. If they care about your cause, it means that they would likely be in favor of anything that would help grow and support your mission. So, if they understood the power that communication and marketing hold to grow and support your mission, they would—or, should, at least—be on board.
So, speaking of communication—communicate! If you’re launching a new website, help them understand the way it will enable you to tell your story and bring more people into your cause. If you’re updating your brand look and feel, help them understand that it will make you more relevant to younger generations of potential donors to keep your organization alive and thriving. Even if you’re going through a challenging time, they want to understand so they know better how to help.. Help them understand how your marketing efforts are helping you increase the good you’re doing in the world.
One last (brutally honest) side note: sometimes, when you make decisions that you believe are right for your organization, you’ll lose donors as a result. You just will. But if you can accept that reality as you go into big decisions, you’ll be empowered to make the decision that is truly right for your organization and the people you’re working to serve.
Challenge #4: Figuring Out Who You’re Talking To
Pop quiz: when your organization sends out communication, who do you want to reach?
If you said “everyone,” you’re not alone. That seems ideal, doesn’t it? The work you’re doing matters, so anyone and everyone should want to be involved. And just imagine how your impact would increase if everyone knew about your work and got involved. Right?
Here’s the problem with that line of thinking: when you try to communicate with everyone, you end up communicating with no one. You’ll send out messaging so broad that it won’t turn anyone off, but so bland that it won’t bring anyone in, either.
Your marketing will tell the story of an organization that is probably doing good work, but in a vague sort of way that isn’t particularly exciting to anyone. You won’t incite passion. And when you’re working to draw people into your cause, passion is exactly what you need.
It might sound scary, but if you’re communicating well, you’ll actually cut out a large segment of people from wanting to hear your message. But by doing that, you’ll attract the people you do want to work with—people who will personally buy into your cause and who will care about it enough to bring other people in as well. At Fervor, we call them your Ideal Advocates™, and they’re absolutely crucial if you want your mission to grow and succeed.
This is just good marketing: define your smallest market, and then communicate clearly and intentionally with them. It’s the most efficient way to bring people into what you’re doing. Want to raise your potential for growth through the roof? Get to know your Ideal Advocates™—who they are, why they care about your mission, where and how you can best reach them—you’ll find where their story intersects with your story, creating an unmatched opportunity to dial in your communication and make your overall communication strategy more effective.
Challenge #5: Neglecting Internal Communication
The most important people to your mission are your people—the ones you work with side-by-side every day to make your organization’s vision a reality. Without them, the work doesn’t happen, and it’s crucial for them to be passionately bought into the work you’re doing. So, why is it so easy to forget to include them in your communication strategy?
Well, for one thing, it’s counterintuitive. It goes against conventional wisdom to focus time and effort on communicating with people who already care enough about your work to actually sign on to do that work. It might feel like a questionable use of resources. But, ask yourself this:
What’s the potential cost of not communicating with your people?
Over time, that cost could be disengagement. It could be a feeling of not being cared for, not being valued, or not really having a voice. When it comes to the people who you need to be most passionate about your mission, that’s not a place you want to be. If you lose them, you not only lose their passion for what you’re doing, but you lose the history and knowledge they bring to the table. People and their skills are the greatest assets we have. It’s worth investing in them and communicating to keep them.
Start valuing internal communication. Start believing that some of the most important communication you can do is with the people you work next to every day. Start taking real, tangible steps to prioritize it.
Not communicating with your people can cause disengagement. But communicating with them well can bring a renewed sense of energy and passion and demonstrate to them that they are valued as an important part of the good your organization is doing in the world.
Set habits that will give you healthy internal communication. Create a regular monthly or quarterly newsletter about what’s going on to keep people in the loop. Make the communication two-way by taking time to listen to the people on your team, too. What’s inside shows on the outside. Make sure it’s something you’d be proud of showing off.
Challenge #6: Money
Marketing costs money. Especially good marketing. And for lots of nonprofits who are operating with finite resources and far less budgetary margin to devote to communication than for-profit businesses, even reaching out to an agency can be a non-starter.
The fears are understandable. Can you afford to pay for a strategic communications plan? And if you do, will you have the internal resources to implement it? If not, can you afford to pay someone to do that also?
These are legitimate concerns. But allowing them to steer you away from marketing completely can leave your organization at a standstill when it could be thriving in new ways and reaching out to new people.
Unfortunately, we can’t direct you to a marketing agency that works for free. But we’d like to propose an alternate way of thinking about the cost of putting a strategic communications plan in place.
It’s true that good communication isn’t free. But what you get in return is well worth the cost—both metaphorically and literally. Our client partners average a 122% return on investment when their engagement with us included a Brand Impact Assessment™ (strategy) and work from our Integrated Marketing Team for at least 6 months (implementation). That’s a very literal payoff.
But the most exciting part is the way your return on investment stretches beyond a balance sheet. A strategic communications plan gets your name and your mission in front of new people. Those people could be new employees for your organization, new donors to fund your efforts, and new volunteers who will give of their own time to make your vision a reality. With good communication, your organization grows, and your potential grows with it.
The natural instinct for many nonprofits is to direct their funds straight into their programs—the most direct route to impacting people. But putting the right communication in place heightens the impact of your organization so that those same programs are helping even more people. The marketing itself becomes like a program—a way to make sure your organization is doing the most good for the most people.
Your Mission, Our Expertise
At Fervor, we exist to come alongside faith-led organizations and nonprofits who are doing good in the world. Our nonprofit focus means that we are passionate and experienced in dealing with the specific challenges that nonprofits face. We care deeply about helping you grow your impact on the world.
If this thinking resonates with you, we’d love to hear more. Reach out to us with questions or to schedule a meeting and see what our strategy services can do for you. Let’s talk about how we can partner with you to do The Most Good Possible.