Influencing the Conversation About You

Does your nonprofit have an image you want to change?

To successfully affect a change in your image, you need to define who you are to the community. You need to tell your community precisely what you do and how you do it. You need to know the values that permeate your organization and its operations. You need to determine the words, phrases, and symbols that best communicate to the world the essence of your nonprofit.

Your agency’s logo may be the most familiar symbol of your essence. And you may think that you develop a logo based on what the decision makers like and dislike. Not true. In fact, branding is big business in the for-profit world and can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And it is based on careful research and objective data.

To create a logo that communicates the essence of an organization, a branding firm will ask a sample of your nonprofit’s internal and external constituencies for feedback. We talked about getting community feedback in What Does the Community Really Think of Your Nonprofit? Branding professionals know the questions to ask to get the best responses. And they have knowledge that we don’t. For example, they know that color evokes an emotional response. And that the colors that you use are an important part of how people experience you. For a quick and dirty look, Google your logo’s color meanings and see what emotions are elicited when people see your logo.

Same with fonts and pictures. What fonts you use communicate aspects of your agency’s personality. As do the type of pictures and photos you use in your communication materials. Every aspect of your communication materials tell people something about your organization. A branding organization can help you identify all those aspects. The goal is to come with one, unified image of your nonprofit that you can use to tell the world about you. So that everyone in the community who comes across you gets the same message. So that you can start taking control of the conversation about who you are.

If you have the connections and can get a branding firm to do some pro bono work on your behalf, great. You may also be able to garner a capacity building grant that will cover the project expenses. If you can’t get something donated or funded, shop around and find a consultant you can afford. The money is worth the investment. The long-term benefits of good branding leading to more community support far outweigh the short-term financial costs.

Value Propositions

To entice potential supporters to interact with your organization, tell them the benefits of doing so. As we discussed in Who Do You Think We Are? only a fraction of the community will interact with you out of the goodness of their heart. Plus, as we also saw in What Does the Community Really Think of Your Nonprofit? nonprofits compete with one another, and sometimes with for-profits, for scarce resources. With community support, particularly financial support, being one of those resources. Make sure that potential supporters know their investment in you is worth it.

First, define the audiences you are trying to reach. Are you looking for volunteers for board leadership? Do you need talented staff? Do you want to increase your donor base? Are you looking for more volunteers to help with program operations? For fundraising? Are you looking for more clients? Do you want to reach your community partners and other nonprofits? Do you want to strengthen relationships with your business community? Or the media? Are you trying to send messages to legislators? Just what groups, specifically, do you want to engage in deeper relationships with? If you are a large enough nonprofit to have fundraising, marketing, and advocacy staff, make sure you all coordinate your efforts to include all organizational audiences. 

Next, determine the interests of each group. For example, potential board candidates may want to do something meaningful or network with like-minded people. Staff may be looking for meaningful work experiences, good pay, benefits, or social experiences. Community partners and other nonprofits may be looking for ways to leverage resources or expand services to clients. Businesses may be looking for ways to promote their products or services or reduce training costs. Media outlets might be looking for human interest stories about their communities. Legislators may be looking for voter approval. Or something else. Do some research if you have to. Just find out what is important to and valued by your target audience. Again, coordinate efforts between marketing, fundraising, and government affairs staff.

Then outline the benefits of what you do and how you do it for each group. You want to communicate how the results your nonprofit attains benefits them in a way each specific group will understand and value. For example, you may want a legislator to know that you can reach 1,000 in your community and 70 percent of them vote. That legislator may want to be a speaker at one of your events, or advocate for your agency to receive funding. Or you may want a health care insurance company to know that for every $1 people invest in your services like yours, the health care system realizes $6 in saved costs through reduced emergency room visits. A contribution to you saves money. Facts like these can be used in both marketing and fundraising materials, particularly the case for support.

Yes, you may have to research facts. Yes, it may take a lot of time you don’t have. If you don’t have a lot of time, see what types of grant research has been done. Sometimes you can extrapolate answers from there. Or start small, with one target group rather than several. Just like the investment in branding, the investment in determining your value to different constituencies will be worth the effort.


Once you have your individual value propositions down, look at them in a broader context, that is, what does your organization say about how it benefits the community, what does your community say about how you benefits it, and what do your competitors believe about you? And encapsulate those answers into one sentence, Try it. I warn you, though, it’s harder than it sounds. You’ll need to put some thought into it. Again, just like your research and branding efforts, it is worth it. Because what you end up with is a statement of your unique value to the community. In marketing language, it is known as a unique marketing position statement. In fundraising language, it is the basis for your case for support. With a unique marketing position statement, you can start influencing public perception of what your nonprofit is and all the good you do. In ways that make you more than a good cause. Which helps you attract a diverse donor base. You start controlling language and perceptions about you. And you start standing out from the rest of the pack. Often it is useful to hire an experienced facilitator to guide this discussion.

The key to getting your message across is that it is simple and that it is repeated. Like everywhere, in every communication vehicle you use. For example, the logo on your letterhead. The wording in your staffs’ email signatures. Your website. Your social media posts. In your newsletter articles. In your press releases. During radio and TV interviews. When you make public speeches. In all your fundraising appeals, including grants, annual appeals, major gift materials, and capital campaign materials. In your marketing and promotional materials. Over and over again, repeat the same core message and use the same value propositions, fashioned to be directed to the different target audiences.

You want to make sure you drill the message down to the staff and volunteers inside the organization too. The biggest and least expensive communication channel for getting your message out to the community are your paid and unpaid staff. Employees spend most of their waking hours at work. Volunteers know your agency from personal experience. They talk to their families, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Who in turn talk to their spouses, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Remember Joanne’s ex-board member friend who had a bad experience at the unnamed nonprofit? How many people do you think heard about it? How many people do you think her spouse told? What did that do for the nonprofit’s image?

So, make sure your messaging is consistent in your strategic plan, marketing plan, communications plan, and case for support. Especially since these documents lay the basis for your external communications. Also make sure the language you use to describe your nonprofits is included in your staff and volunteer training manuals, because, as we have discussed, staff and volunteers are the best or worst mouthpieces you’ve got.

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