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Seize the upside of a downturn

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Courtney Newman

Courtney Newman

Courtney Newman

It’s no secret that nonprofit budgets have been extremely challenged by the current recession.

There is less money from all sources – government, foundations and individual donors – at the same time that need for services is increasing amid ongoing layoffs and foreclosures.

Overall giving in the United States declined last year by 2 percent, the largest drop since records have been kept, and giving numbers are likely to show a decline for 2009, too.

But this “era of need” is also an opportunity for nonprofits to reassess how they operate, especially from a communications standpoint.

Effective communications help organizations rally volunteers, inspire donations and create alliances that can help them weather the economic storm and thrive in the future.

Following are six tips to consider as you hone your communications strategy:

Discuss your challenges – Be sure to involve key stakeholders, including staff and board members, in an ongoing dialogue about difficult decisions. Doing so will expand your pool of creative ideas for addressing problems and build trust with key audiences.

Refine your mission statement Make sure your mission statement is focused, concrete and easy to articulate. Donors need a clear understanding of what they’re investing in, and volunteers, who are often your organization’s most enthusiastic ambassadors, need a simple message to pass along to others.

A good example is micro-lender Kiva’s mission statement: “To connect people, through lending, to alleviate poverty,” a directive that has helped encourage 500,000 people to give small loans to micro-business owners around the globe.

Demonstrate your value – It’s not enough to define your mission clearly; you’ve got to demonstrate a quantifiable impact on a social problem. A simple statistic combined with a human story is an effective approach.

For example, Women’s Initiative for Self Employment tracks and quantifies its impact on poverty (average client income more than doubles four years after program participation) and brings the issue of microenterprise to life with the success stories of its graduates.

Network to share best practices – Talk to other nonprofit professionals to learn how they’re meeting current challenges. Online communities like IdeaEncore.com, now in its beta-testing phase, make the sharing of best practices easier than ever.

Partner to amplify your voice – Consider teaming up with other organizations that address similar issues. Unlikely alliances, like one between hunters and environmentalists to conserve land, can be especially powerful if you’re hoping to garner the attention of media or deliver your message to new audiences.

Explore social media – If executed in a clever way, social media can be a powerful tool to tap into new, younger donors. For example, Charity: Water’s “Twestival” on micro-blogging site Twitter organized a series of 200 off-line charity events around the globe that raised awareness of the need for clean drinking water and $250,000 from 10,000 new donors.


Courtney Newman is vice president of social impact at Allison & Partners, a strategic public relations and marketing company based in San Francisco. She also is an adjunct professor of communication studies at the University of San Francisco.

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