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The development and communications equation

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Jessica Berk Ross

Jessica Berk Ross

Jessica Berk Ross

Although the recession is, arguably, abating for much of the country, the worst may still be ahead for nonprofits.

With 2010 just around the corner, organizations are struggling to gain mindshare, communicate relevance and demonstrate the necessary impact required to secure funding.

Development – in concert with communications – is the key to differentiation and success. But the majority of nonprofits may not be approaching outreach in the most effective way.

It’s a tough time to raise funds, even for the most worthy of causes. The good news is that, with a little strategic planning, you can set yourself apart and ensure that your efforts have greater impact.

An important, but often overlooked, way to optimize development outreach is by thinking about it through the lens of strategic communications.

At its heart, development outreach is communications. It is reaching an audience – in this case donors rather than, say, consumers, shareholders or the media – to build awareness and spur them to action.

Many organizations either think about communications or development, but rarely about both at once or in an integrated fashion.

It can be far more effective to look at outreach holistically; a more integrated approach to communications can yield far greater results. And it doesn’t have to be complicated, overly time consuming or costly.

It only requires a few simple guiding principles:

Key messages. Having a set of consistent talking points that are then referred back to and woven into all of your communications goes a long way to building a strong brand and articulating your organization’s mission.

Create an outreach timeline. Ensure that the development and communications directors are not only coordinating, but have worked together to map out a timeline for donor outreach throughout the year.

Personalize the message. Targeted communications – ones that resonate with each audience including individuals, corporations or foundations – will create a more favorable giving climate by conditioning the marketplace in advance of the “ask.”

Keep it up. Sustained and ongoing communications throughout the year to funders and potential funders is critical to establishing a relationship.

Variety is the spice of life. Consider what tools – collateral, events, e-mail updates, newsletters, and social media – will help you gain support from new prospects and maintain relationships with existing funding sources. Different audiences prefer to receive information in different ways.

Social media works. Social media is an absolutely essential part of every organization’s communications and development programs. If you think your donors aren’t using them, or you just aren’t taking them into consideration, you may be missing opportunities to engage with them.

As you embark on your planning for 2010, think about increasing the impact – and the return on investment – of development programs by making more efficient use of communications resources. With this adjustment to your overall operating model, you may just make a very challenging year a lot more manageable.


Jessica Berk Ross is the managing director of the Washington, D.C., office of Ruder Finn. With over 20 years of strategic communications experience, Jessica helps clients in both the nonprofit and corporate worlds meet their organizational objectives.

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