Five Good Ideas ®

Five Good Ideas to get your communications fundamentals in order

Published on 24/02/2022

How strong are your non-profit organization’s communications fundamentals? After two years of communications emergencies, now might be a good time for a review.

During this session, communications advisor Marlene Oliveira considers the importance of specific frameworks, tools and tactics, including your non-profit’s strategic plan, brand, website, and storytelling. As you watch the session, explore how building strong content foundations can help you feel more confident and effective as a communicator. Then reflect upon your organization’s communications fundamentals and make a plan to strengthen them.

Five Good Ideas

  1. Use the strategies and frameworks that you already have
  2. Always come back to your audiences
  3. Let branding be your guide
  4. Give your website content the attention it deserves
  5. Deliver your nonprofit’s narrative over time




Presentation transcript

Note: The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Elizabeth McIsaac: Now, while many of you are dialing in from across Canada, and I believe we also have a number of international participants today, I’d like to begin today’s session by acknowledging the land where we live and work and recognizing our responsibilities and relationships where we are. As we’re meeting and connecting virtually, I encourage you to acknowledge the place and land where you are. I acknowledge that I am, and Maytree is, on the traditional territory of many nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnaabek, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples, and is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.

I also acknowledge that Toronto is covered by Treaty 13 with Mississaugas of the Credit. This territory is covered by the Dish with One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between Haudenosaunee and the Ojibway and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the lands and resources around the Great Lakes.

So today’s program. How strong are the communication fundamentals in your nonprofit organization? After two years of communications, emergencies, and pivoting, and shifting our positions and trying to be responsive, now might be a good time to review where you’re at.

In this five good idea session, Marlene Oliveira, will look at the various aspects of communications, including your organization’s strategic plan, your brand, your website, your storytelling. She’ll explore how building strong content foundations can help you feel more confident and effective as a communicator. Marlene is a communications advisor, specializing in content strategy and writing copy for nonprofit organizations. She’s worked in the sector for more than 20 years, and since 2008, she has been running her own consultancy called Moflow, through which she solves content challenges for a wide range of nonprofit organizations.

For Marlene’s full bio, plus her ideas and resources, please download the handout in the chat. And for now it’s my pleasure to hand it over to Marlene. Over to you.

Marlene Oliviera: Thank you very much, Elizabeth. Before I really jump in, I just want to acknowledge that this is a very heavy day for a communications presentation, but I’m going to rely on my notes and I’m going to focus on delivering the session that we promised you, and that way it will be available for you as recording to repeat or review perhaps on a better day. Again, thank you for the introduction and the warm welcome, and thank you to everyone joining us today. I’m really honoured to return to speak at Five Good Ideas since I did speak for this series in 2014.

Now, as Elizabeth mentioned, I have been working in the sector for more than 20 years, and I’d like to shed a little light on the experiences that have informed my current work. So, straight out of university, I was handed the keys to the local branch of a large health charity. I was trusted basically to figure it all out on my own as a staff of one person, and this first two years in the sector was a crash course on everything: fund development, programs, communications, volunteer development, governance, even facilities management and bookkeeping. It was an amazing introduction, and also a story that I think is familiar to many.

Next I spent six years managing the communications portfolio for the same health charity. Again, this was a multifaceted role within communications because it included public relations, internal communications, behaviour change communications, corporate communications, and brand management. And then in 2008, when I decided to strike out on my own, I immediately focused in on content. So I’ve spent the last 14 years supporting nonprofit organizations of every size through content strategy and copywriting services, and the ideas that I’m sharing today, and my take on the communications fundamentals are a synthesis of all of these experiences combined. So over this hour, we’re going to talk about my five ideas for getting your communications fundamentals in order and five good resources to help you do that.

Now I’d like to say that the five ideas I’m sharing today are not new. So this is not going to be an hour spent on innovating or pivoting. But what I do hope to do is remind you of the frameworks and the fundamental elements that you can lean on to feel confident and strategic and supported as you deliver communications for your organization. We’re going to review the basics that I believe you should have in order based on my bias as a content strategist and copywriter. And as we move through the hour, I’m going to give you the opportunity to reflect, assess, and maybe even make a plan for what getting the fundamentals in order might look like for your organization.

Since we only have an hour, I’m going to suggest that you start each reflection and then set aside some time to revisit and continue reflecting after the webinar. For anyone who might have a printer, and I know that might not be many, I did develop a worksheet, so separate from the handout, a worksheet that you can use during these reflections or after the session. I believe the link to the worksheet will soon show up in the chat. And if this is not available to you, I promise a pen and paper will do the trick, and we’re going to bring up each reflection on a slide so it’s available to you.

So, Markus is going to bring up the first slide for us now, and I’d like you to consider the question. The question I’m posing to you to kick off this session is, do you regularly use your strategic plan and priorities to guide marketing communications decisions? Why or why not? So take the time to maybe write down the question and start to provide your answer and any thoughts that come with that why or why not. So, are you using your strategic plan? Does it guide your marketing communications decisions? I realize there may be a lot of why not, including not having a strategic plan. So just be honest in your answer there just for yourself.

And as you wrap up that reflection, I would like to acknowledge that there is a very good chance that you have been innovating for the last two years nonstop. Elizabeth alluded to that. And for more than a decade before that, delivering communications has meant keeping up with constantly changing tools, channels, platforms and technology. So it’s been one innovation after another. And after years and years of innovation and learning and experimentation, there is a good chance that your messaging and your communications might feel disconnected from any kind of a plan.

Constantly being in creative or reactive mode is exhausting, and constantly starting from scratch is exhausting. And this is why we cannot overlook the importance of communications as an extension of your organization’s strategy. So my first idea and the first communications fundamental is to connect your marketing communications to your organization’s priorities by using the strategies and frameworks that you already have. My hope is that first and foremost, this does include your strategic plan, and along with it, your mission, vision and values. Because if you are not aligning your communications efforts with an overarching strategy, how can you prioritize or determine what success looks like, work toward your goals, or know that you’ve been successful?

Now, in addition to your strategic plan, you may also have departmental plans that operationalize it, getting stuck on those words. For example, your communications plans and brand strategy, fundraising plans, advocacy plans, program plans, or others, depending on your organization and your approach. But this first idea is about just giving yourself time to think and make strategic connections. It’s about using the frameworks you already have when making individual communications decisions and broader plans.

In my own work with content strategy and copywriting, I’m often asking really simple questions to my clients. Like, “Why is this tactic important? Why now? What priority does it support? What are we trying to achieve?” And I often get the feedback that these are difficult questions to answer, but the organizations I work with, very often have the frameworks that hold all of these answers. They’ve just been forgotten amidst the constant need to produce and act. Here are a couple of examples from some recent website content planning projects.

In one case, I was working with a large organization and a large fundraising team on making improvements to website content that supports them. And multiple team members within fund development including individual giving major gifts were each advocating for their real estate on the website, and advocating for their preferred approach to website content, and they had been going in circles. But the strategic plan and fundraising plan the organization already had specified priority areas and approaches that guided our decisions and helped us to clarify the role of the website in supporting fundraising.

In another example, another organization did not have a strategic plan, very grassroots organization, and they needed to update their very old website to better reflect their impact and their approach. In this case, their advocacy priorities were clear. Their advocacy priorities were determined several years in advance and were still relevant and guided their work. So we use those priorities along with a few others to make decisions about content prominence and hierarchy on the new website.

So this idea about looking for the frameworks you already have and using them have been with me since those first two years I mentioned in the sector, because fending for myself, one thing I did have was a strategic plan and critical success factors, and I clung to these, and the memory of the value and the relative safety of working toward those priorities as I figured everything else out has really remained with me. So if you have the strategies and frameworks, use them. If they are collecting dust, think about why that is. Are they relevant and useful but simply forgotten and underused? Then definitely dust them off and use them as a guide and a decision matrix.

Be the team member who brings those plans and strategies to life and enjoy the confidence that comes from knowing that your efforts are directly linked to and support your organization’s priorities. So that brings me to resource number one: How to create communications objectives from nonprofit strategic goals. It’s in your handout, the first handout shared, and it’s a blog post by Natalie Noel that she wrote for a blog I used to run called the Nonprofit MarCommunity blog. When you head over to the blog, you’ll see that we’re no longer publishing there, but there’s a huge library of content.

And this post from Natalie is so foundational because it shows you exactly how to draw a line between a strategic plan and communications objectives, and then how to make a communications plan. So, thinking about your first reflection, if you answered no during our first reflection, here are some potential actions that you can take based on our first idea of using the strategies and frameworks that you already have. So first gather the frameworks and plans that you do already have, and look for alignment with your current marketing communications, and use these frameworks when planning upcoming activities this year.

And if you have none of these, then drive the conversation about the connection between communications and priorities. Ensure that communications is a strategic function by asking the right questions and driving communications planning. So this takes us to our next reflection and our second slide. My second question for you is to consider, can you identify your nonprofit organization’s core audiences and list them in priority order? So right now at this moment, whether you have the handout or not, just taking pen and paper, can you write down your core audiences and maybe prioritize them?

And then as you make this list, the second question is a yes or no, but you might have some thoughts you want to jot down in terms of why or why not, do you regularly consult audience personas when you’re planning or designing your marketing communications? So do you have a core group of audiences defined that you know that you’re working to reach, and do you have audience personas in use to guide your communications planning? So as you finish that reflection, I’ll return to just state my second idea today, which is always come back to your audiences. Always design communications with a primary audience in mind, because if you don’t have a clear sense of who you are trying to reach, how are you going to reach them?

The second communications fundamental that we’re talking about today is clearly identified and prioritized audiences. If marketing communications is to support organizations’ priorities, who must you reach to achieve your goals? When I had the opportunity to present to Maytree, eight years ago, and since I still come across this often, I’ll repeat, the general public is not an audience. And for those big general public fans, and I’ve met many, I’d like to suggest that if you do an excellent job of reaching a specific group, your communications are going to be more compelling and interesting even for audience members outside of that group.

I know that as nonprofit communicators we have many audiences, but it’s not possible to be all things to all people all of the time. Instead, prioritize who you are going to try to reach, during what time periods and via which channels. Audience personas are a valuable tool for this. They help you to put your audiences front and centre. They help you to get away from that very, very common tendency to be internally focused when making marketing communications decisions, and to find that place between what we want to say as an organization and what audiences want and need from us, so that we can be relevant and useful.

So this brings me to resource number two. It’s a podcast episode from Big Duck’s podcast called, “How can you use donor personas to guide your communications?” The title has donor personas, but the principles apply to any audience personas. And I’m recommending this podcast episode because it touches on two important points. One, more inclusive approach to persona development, and two, putting personas to good use in making communications decisions. So for point number one, a more inclusive approach to persona development, we are seeing a shift away from focusing on demographics because they tend to reinforce bias and they tend to reinforce stereotypes.

I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a really caricature-like persona named something like Suzy Soccer Mom. So you can imagine how many people are being excluded when we go down that demographic road. Instead, as they say in the podcast, move toward psychographics, things like common actions, beliefs, and values shared by a group. And this helps with that second point of putting personas to good use in making communications decisions, because personas help you to factor in your audience’s habits. They help you to anticipate their concerns and questions. Personas also help you to consider behaviours. Very importantly, it helps you to consider communications preferences, for example, publications that your audience reads or things that are interesting to them, and sources of information that they trust.

So by consulting your audience personas, you’ll do a better job of meeting audience needs, prioritizing tactics and making decisions about where to show up. So, here are some potential actions to consider based on the second idea, always come back to your audiences. First, revisit, and if necessary, reprioritize your organization’s marketing communications audiences. And then, second, make sure that you are consulting your audience personas regularly and use them to plan your marketing communications and update them as you need to.

All right, it’s time for reflection number three. My question for this reflection is, do you consult your organization’s brand strategy when making creative, messaging or content decisions? Why or why not? I’ll give you a moment to think about that and think about why or why not? And I am not watching the chat closely so I can stay focused on the session, but I did see the question just now, what is a brand strategy? So, let’s use that as a jumping point into what I’m going to talk about. All right, so we could fill multiple sessions on the topic of branding, but today I’d like to focus on using your organization’s brand as a support and guide rather than thinking of it as restrictive. And I will get into what the elements are.

But my third idea for today is to let your organization’s brand be your guide. I know many organizations do not have one, and I see that in the chat that I did notice, but your nonprofits brand is another communications fundamental, because without it, what is connecting your marketing communications? So, earlier in the hour, I included your brand strategy in my list of frameworks that you need to make sure that you’re using.

I have always loved having frameworks for my work and thinking back to my solo days at the branch, I clearly remember the day the organization released a complete set of brand guidelines. It was like a gift and a huge help to me, since I had latched onto nothing but our logo colour when creating any materials that I needed to create. And there were a lot of red photocopied brochures and flyers coming out of that office in 1999.

So what are the elements of a brand or brand strategy that can guide you? Well, I suggest to work with what you have. Most organizations that I work with have at least some form of visual identity. So a visual identity would include your logo, should include your fonts and a colour palette. It might include guidelines for imagery or illustrations, and it might include other visual elements. So this is an obvious starting point. Use these parameters and make sure that you’re leveraging these assets to deliver a consistent look and feel in your marketing communications.

But you can go further. Even if all you have is a visual identity, often the process of developing one includes something like a positioning statement, some form of statement that defines what makes your organization unique and that distills the essence of who your organization is. And every communication that you deliver should support this main idea, your positioning statement. Almost always, development of the visual identity includes the development of a brand personality, which is simply a list of character traits that describe your organization.

And these traits should inform your approach to graphic design, but they should also guide the voice and tone of your content. So, your positioning, personality, and your visual identity are important, but in my opinion, a brand is not complete without a platform of key messages. Again, I’m biased. Content and messaging. So, key messages. They break your positioning down into supporting points. Sometimes you’ll hear them referred to as proof points, brand pillars or your brand narratives. These key messages are a set of central ideas, and key messages make it easier to roll out your positioning in your content and messaging.

Your key messages describe what you need to say about your organization, and done well, they describe your identity, who you are, your why, what you stand for, the challenges you are addressing, your how, your approach to providing solutions and your impact, the difference you seek to make. Together they form a narrative about your organization that can serve as the backbone for many communications and messaging decisions. And when you draw from them, your communications will be connected and cohesive. Remember that I talked about using frameworks in order to stop constantly creating from scratch. I love creating within constraints.

A little silly example is, I’m hopeless when it comes to setting up decorating, and I worked in this home office for 13 years having done nothing but purchased a $100 worth of furniture on Kijiji. And then in 2020, I bought a rug, and that rug just set off a chain reaction because I love parameters. So it inspired me to paint the walls and what colour to paint, buy some new furniture, decide what art to hang up, get a sense of colours and textures for things like plants, which you can see I got and went a little bit gung ho with. Planters, curtains, other little elements, and it all started with that rug. So I bring that up because key messages should work in the same way.

You can pull elements to help determine what to say or how to shape your messaging in different situations. And I did many of these in my time in-house as a communications manager. I used these examples that I’m about to share. So I used our brand platform to come up with multiple years different themes and visual approach for our organization’s annual report. To figure out what to include in a corporate brochure or an introductory video about the organization. To figure out which stories to tell in your direct mail campaigns. To decide what to say or feature in your organization’s displays. Maybe you’re getting ready to develop a new set of banner stands as you get ready to go back out into the world.

They can be used in many ways, like deciding what to post on social media, in employee or volunteer recruitment, in orientation, in public relations and public speaking, grant writing, editorial planning, and many, many more uses. So, they’re so invaluable, and that’s why I think they’re so foundational. And a great thing about the messaging component of your brand is it’s relatively easy to update when needed without touching your visual identity. And because post-COVID might be an excellent time to consider this, that brings me to my next resource. It is also from Big Duck. You can tell I love Big Duck. And it’s also by Farra Trompeter, who is one of the co-hosts of the podcast I listed. It’s an article called, “Is your brand healthy? Four steps to give it a checkup.”

So in this post, Farra explains in detail how to do this checkup and determine what you need to do, whether you need to retrain on your brand, refresh your brand or rebrand. So, when you think about our third reflection, if you haven’t been leveraging your brand, here are some potential actions to consider. Put your brand to use as a framework for your creative and messaging decisions. If your brand needs to be updated, make a plan for doing so. And if you have neither a visual identity nor a messaging platform, you really don’t have a brand or a brand strategy. I suggest that you start by defining your brand positioning, your personality and your key messages.

In my experience, the key messaging platform can start to inform and guide your work right away. You can hit the ground running once it’s developed, while you then move into the process of visual identity development, which is a much bigger undertaking to roll out in terms of updating materials. So, that brings us to our fourth idea, and our fourth reflection. A couple of questions for you for this reflection. The first is, does your website convey who your organization is, how you do your work and the difference that you seek to make?

And feel free to take a moment to just head over to look at your website as if you were a stranger to it. Think about why or why not. What makes it strong in these ways or what’s missing? And I do have a second question for you: Does your website offer opportunities for visitors to learn and engage with you in ways that are useful to them and that align with your nonprofit’s priorities? When you look at your website with a stranger’s eyes, can you see the value that it offers to visitors, and can you see that strategic alignment that we’ve been talking about? This might take some poking around after the webinar. So, I’ll move on and recommend you to come back to those reflections.

So for years now, people like me have been reminding you that your website should be a priority because it’s your organization’s digital home base. We have been asking you not to lose sight of that by overcommitting resources to social channels, if it’s at the expense or neglect of your website. We have been reminding you that your website is a place for engagement, where your audiences cannot just get information, but take the actions that you want them to take. So this is why your website and its content, to me, is a communications fundamental. Your website needs to be the reliable go-to destination for anyone trying to find you online.

This idea may have been brought home really hard when everything moved online two years ago. In the absence of any in-person interactions, your website had extra heavy lifting to do. And when it did, how easy was it for people to learn about the programs and events that you had to move online? How easy was it for supporters to understand what you do and how you were responding to COVID-19? So maybe your website was in great shape and it served you very well, which is amazing.

For some organizations, a few minor tweaks and content updates allowed you to respond and adapt, and for others, the existing website was not up to the task and you might have had to figure out temporary workarounds, maybe relying on social channels, or I know a number of organizations who threw up dedicated pages using landing page builders or micro sites using Google sites. So after all this, there is a good chance that your website probably needs a little or a lot of care and attention.

And my fourth idea is to give your website content the attention that it deserves, because without strong content that guides and serves visitors, is your website even able to do what you need it to do for you? So this brings us to my fourth resource and it is a post that I wrote for you. I pulled together a blog post called, “Content updates or rethink your nonprofit’s website content approach?” because I have a lot I’m about to say on this topic and I wanted it all captured for you in one place. The post captures and actually expands on the next few things I’m about to share about figuring out the approach you need to take to your website content right now.

So, there are two ways, I think, you might approach this. The first one is to simply tackle the content updates that your website needs, because website content should be continuously tended, at any given time, there are probably a few pages that need your attention, and maybe even right now you know exactly which pages they are. If not, consider pages that have become out of date in the last year or two, pages that need to do a better job of answering questions, pages that support engagement that you’ve initiated elsewhere, such as on social media or direct mail campaigns, pages that are just glaringly missing, missing program descriptions, for example, or pages that are embarrassing.

Every organization has pages that are embarrassing because they either were severely out of date or they were written piecemeal or hastily in the first place, or, what I think is the worst, written by committee. So I have a lot more details and prompts in the blog post in the resource I share. Now, after you consider these prompts, do you realize that you have a few pages that need to be updated? If so, then make those updates, they’re important.

But if you are now realizing or after you have more time with this idea, you are realizing that a few tweaks and updates are not going to be enough, then my second suggestion is to review your overall website content approach. Maybe it’s time to really consider your overall approach, which can be the case if your organization has undergone a major change in focus or in priorities, if you’ve shifted your approach or offerings, if you’ve gone through a rebrand, if you’ve launched major new campaigns or if it has simply been a few years.

So if it has been years since you took a holistic look at your website content, there is a good chance that your organization has gone through more than one of the changes that I’ve just listed. And if this is the case, I really strongly suggest you consider starting with a website content strategy. This is a strategic and planning exercise that puts content first and that you invest in to get it right. It involves working with your colleagues and it should be consultative because you’re looking to establish alignment, agreement and clarity around really important things like your website’s purpose and goals for engagement, your priority audiences, the voice and tone of your content, the key messages it must convey, and of course, the content that will make all of this happen, that will deliver all of this.

The priority categories and topics that you need to feature. Their hierarchy, all of the content that will deliver your messages and support your objectives, because your website is a house for this content, a home for this content. And so once you’ve made all of these strategic decisions, you can then assess. Maybe you can actually implement them on your current site. In which case, keep going, adding a few pages here and there and updating or building content. But if not, and if you realize that you need a redesign, you’ll enter that process with clarity and strategic alignment.

So, thinking about our fourth reflection, if you wouldn’t proudly direct people to your website, here are some potential actions to consider based on this idea of giving your website the attention it deserves. Start by evaluating the level of care and attention your website needs, and then either make the necessary content updates or start working on your new website content strategy.

And this brings us to our fifth idea and our fifth reflection. Right now with your pen and paper, make a list of the stories that your organization has shared recently. I’m going to suggest maybe stories you’ve shared in the last six months. And these can be stories that you have shared in any format or any channel, including written or video or podcast delivered through social media, on your blog, in direct mail.

So trying to think, maybe poke around your organization’s website right now, if you’re not in charge of storytelling, and see if you can just list, just list a one line description of the last few stories. And as you’re making this list, reflect on those individual stories. Does each one have a clear purpose? Is it obvious to you? And if you created the stories, do you recall precisely why you decided to share the story? Again, as you look at this list, I’d like you to consider whether these stories work together in any way or complement each other. So, these are yes or no questions, but feel free to add notes about why or why not again.

And this reflection takes us to my next idea, which is to ensure that your storytelling delivers your nonprofit’s narrative over time. So remember the relationship between narrative and stories. Your organization’s narrative is big picture. It’s overarching, and it should be rooted in your nonprofit’s brand. Your narrative is about who you are, what you do, why you do it, and the difference that you’re making. So when you tell stories, they should work together and build on each other. Individual stories don’t have to communicate everything at once, but each one should deliver components of your brand narrative. One story at a time.

So today when I was talking about branding, I’ve been using the words “key messages,” and actually I use “key messages” and “brand narrative” interchangeably. I’m used to “key messages.” It’s how I was introduced to brand messaging platform. But these next points maybe illustrate why I’m moving toward using the language of “brand narrative.” Remember the types of key messages that I listed earlier, and I’ll recap them now. So, your identity. Aligning stories with your identity means stories that reveal who you are, what makes your organization credible and trustworthy, and stories that illustrate the context in which you work.

Your why. These are stories about the challenges and the issues that you are trying to address, and that shed light on your purpose or vision. Your how, stories about the solutions that you are implementing to fulfill your purpose. So, these are the stories that bring your offerings and your operations to life. They introduce a human face by featuring your volunteers, your staff, founders, leaders, and others. And then your impact, these are the stories that illustrate that you’re doing what you promised to do. They highlight your everyday successes and the big picture outcomes that you’re working toward.

So this idea is about selecting your stories from a unified source of inspiration, which I believe should be the key messages that comprise your brand narrative. From this starting point, you can then exercise creativity about how you’ll craft the stories and the ways that you’ll deliver them. Again, thinking of it as a launching pad instead of a restraint, and enjoy knowing that because your brand was developed strategically in a strategically-aligned way, so will your storytelling be. So this brings me to my fifth resource. It’s called, “The benefits of building a narrative organization.” And it’s an article that was published on the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Now, it’s a little bit old. It’s an old article. It does have some dated examples and references, but it is the resource I liked the most when I was researching something for you, because it’s specific to the nonprofit context, and it has helpful prompts for thinking about narrative and the role of storytelling in different areas. For example, your brand identity, which I’ve really focused on, bringing your brand personnel to life, delivering your organizational narrative, engagement, how stories can help to humanize your organization, leadership, how stories can help you to build credibility or trust or share your vision or inspire change, and then knowledge sharing. So making sense of the data, demystifying your cause or issue or working to change dominant or harmful narratives.

So, if you do not have a strategically-aligned approach to storytelling, then here are some potential actions to consider based on that fifth idea of delivering your narrative over time. First, plan your stories out well in advance, trying for six months at a time, acknowledge that you might need to be flexible and make changes. But when you use this longer timeframe, you have time to ensure that each story is delivering a component of your organization’s narrative. And whether you have a narrative in place or not, you can be more consistent in your storytelling and more strategic in your storytelling by ensuring that with each story that you develop, you start by clarifying your priority audience, your purpose, your key message, and your call to action for every single story.

And that brings us to our wrap-up. So today we talked about the following ideas. We talked about using the strategies and frameworks that you already have. That was number one, because if you don’t align your communications with a broader strategy, how can you prioritize, know what you’re working toward and know if you’re successful? Our second idea was to always come back to your audiences, because if you don’t have a clear sense of who you are trying to reach, how will you reach them? The third idea of let branding be your guide, because if you don’t, you will be constantly creating from scratch and creating disconnected messages along the way.

Idea number four, give your website content the attention it deserves, because without strong content, what is your website able to do for you? Make sure it can do that heavy lifting you need it to, and that it can be a support and a hub for all of your communications. And idea number five, deliver your nonprofit’s narrative over time, because if you don’t tell the right stories, how will your stakeholders understand who you are and what you do?

So at the beginning of this hour, I told you my ideas wouldn’t be really new or flashy, but I wanted to return to the basics, give you the opportunity to reflect on what you have in place and what you need, because by getting them in order, you will have a foundation for making wise and efficient use of communications resources, and you’ll be supported in making strong decisions.

So I asked for you to do those reflections today, to help you think about where you need to begin, what do you already have in place and where can you build upon strengths? Set aside time, if you can, after today to add to your reflections. I know we have a few people from organizations that have brought multiple team members on, so you can take the worksheet or the prompts and use them as an agenda for a discussion about communications, a meeting, and either on your own or as a group, you can use these prompts and ideas that are in my remarks and in the worksheet. So start where it makes sense for you and then keep building from there to get your communications fundamentals in order.

Now, as I mentioned, I was trying not to be distracted by the chat. I did see a lot of conversation about resources and additional points. So I do want to note that I write about all of these topics on my blog for nonprofit communicators. So when you head over for resource number four, take a look around. You might find some of my other writing helpful, and this year I’m going to go deeper into this idea of fundamentals. So if you want to sign up and get my email updates, go to my contact page to stay in the loop. All right, that’s it, thank you very much, and over to Elizabeth.

Elizabeth McIsaac: No, thank you very much. That was just terrific and so comprehensive. There’s just so much in there, and all the comments in the chat are indicating that people are really getting a lot out of this because we all know that communications are fundamental. It’s the best way of putting the mission forward and moving your strategies ahead. There’s a few questions. I want to start with a really basic one, which is, say you don’t have any of those fundamentals. You don’t have a strategic plan. You don’t have a brand strategy. You haven’t identified your audiences in a strategic way. Where do you start? What’s the first step in getting your fundamentals in order?

Marlene Oliviera: Yes. I have to recognize that we have a mix of people on the call who may or may not have the ability to say, we need a strategic plan so that I can follow it as a guide, but I did present the five ideas in the order of where you should start and where you should go next. So, if you have a strategic plan and you haven’t been using it, that is where you should start. That goes hand-in-hand with audiences. So those two are combined. If you don’t have a strategic plan, you can take the role as a strategic player within the organization as a communicator and bring those conversations forward about, how can I support priorities? What is it you would like me to support in a proactive way? What is coming, and how can I play a role in supporting it?

So it can start with those conversations, and then I really did design everything to work together, because if you have a strong brand, that will help to guide your messaging on your website, and if you have those in place, you’ve got a hub to leverage your storytelling and inform your storytelling. So, I hope that helps.

Elizabeth McIsaac: I think so. As you were speaking, so these are a couple of questions that came while you were in the middle of your presentation, and there’s more questions coming in, and I encourage people to please put your questions in the Q&A box so that I’ll see them. And for those people who are asking, yes, this will be posted on our website, and yes, the resources and links will be there too. You used the term, your “audience persona,” and so one person said, “Help me understand the term.” And someone else also said, “Can you give us an example of a persona?” “What information would be included? Can you explain how to create these if we don’t have them?” So can you dive into that a little bit.

Marlene Oliviera: To give a really quick answer, I do believe, I hope I’m not wrong, I have an article on my website with a list of guides to creating audience personas. If I’m wrong, I’m going to follow up with the Maytree team, but I don’t think I’m wrong. It needs to be updated, but I don’t think I’m wrong. But personas are really a description, and traditionally we would give a name and even a face to someone who represents one of our core audience groups. So I talked about Suzy Soccer Mom, and we used to say, “Who would be a great volunteer? Who are we trying to recruit?” “Suzy Soccer Mom, that is our ideal volunteer.” And we gave her that name and we put a little stock photo there, and we described who she was.

And, in a way, that’s still a bit of a starting point, but what we’re moving toward doing with personas is saying, here’s a group, this is a group of people. So let’s say mothers of children of a certain age who are committed to their community, and these are their values. And so you start to write these things down, those psychographics. These are their values. This is what they believe is important. This is what they know about our organization. This is what we want them to know about our organization. This is what would motivate them to volunteer. These are the questions they have about volunteering.

So you go down the road of really exploring, and there are many ways, you can hire outside firms, but in my experience, nonprofits are so connected to their stakeholders so much more so than if we were selling products. So many times the team has a lot of these answers, at least enough to get away from just thinking about our internal motivations.

Elizabeth McIsaac: Do you need to talk to them, the people themselves? Do you need to get the outside input?

Marlene Oliviera: I mean, it always comes down to resources. And so, I don’t always when I work with organizations, but it is a great idea, especially if you can talk to more than one person, so you don’t go down a road of bias, building it all around one person. It’s a great stakeholder relations exercise to include people who you do know who are already, say, volunteers and get them to reflect on some of these things and share them with you, showing them that you care about them and also learning along the way. So, yeah, I would do that.

Elizabeth McIsaac: Great. One of the audiences that many nonprofits are often trying to reach is media. Is that a strategic audience? And how do you build that into the strategy?

Marlene Oliviera: I would say so. I think it depends on the nature and the approach of the organization. For a lot of organizations that do really on-the-ground grassroots service delivery, first and foremost, it might not be a priority audience. It’s probably on the radar to some level, but for organizations really involved in policy change and wanting the issues to get covered, wanting the issues to get covered in a certain way, wanting to bring constituents into the conversation and showcase real stories, yes, I would definitely consider media to be an audience in those cases. So you really need to think about, again, back to the strategic plan, is media relations a significant lever in what we were trying to do? And then go from there.

Elizabeth McIsaac: This is a question that’s a bit of order of operations. You’ve identified a number of key fundamentals. Which comes first? So, would you say you need to develop a brand strategy before a comms strategy? Is there an order of operation?

Marlene Oliviera: I love that. I always say communications questions, the answer is, it depends, but it does depend. I think a brand strategy, if you don’t have one, you’ve got to put the work in, because it is a compass for your communications. If you have one and it’s still relevant and you can leverage it and maybe you just need to tweak the messaging, or you can work from it, then you can move on to your communications planning and communications strategies. But I do think the brand as a communicator and as someone who used to do brand management, I have benefited so much from being able to work from the brand as a starting point. So, I guess that is my answer.

Elizabeth McIsaac: Okay. That’s great. This is a technical question, so I can even explain it entirely. In focusing on website content, do you suggest SEO keyword marketing approach and using keywords to drive content creation? So maybe you can take that apart for us.

Marlene Oliviera: I think I can. So I am also not a technical expert even though I work on websites all the time, because what I do is try to strip away the technical conversation to focus on communications and effective communications, and then we build around it. However, obviously SEO can be a way to attract people to your website.

Elizabeth McIsaac: And what is SEO?

Marlene Oliviera: Oh, I’m so sorry. So that is search engine optimization-

Elizabeth McIsaac: Thank you.

Marlene Oliviera: And that is attracting people to your website through search, through using the right words and phrases in your content. That means that pages of your website will show up in search results. It’s definitely important. There is no question, but in my experience, so many organizations don’t have the underarching strategy and jump straight to SEO, and it can …

Let me distill it this way. A really great website that really meets the needs of your visitors and it features quality content, will in a general sense do better in terms of attracting search traffic and relevant search traffic, because the other nuance here is that sometimes people get overly-invested in stuffing their website with keywords to attract search, and they don’t actually attract the right people. So it’s just really about putting your audience first. And then yes, I have resources on my website about search engine optimization too, but in a meaningful way.

Elizabeth McIsaac: Now, I know this is going to be a depends answer, but I’m going to ask it anyway. So realistically, how much time should you allocate to putting together a plan. Part B, big picture, how much activity should be included in the six month window and how much energy do we apply at which timeframe? So, I know it’s going to be, “It depends,” but a little bit of, I guess, some ballparks around how much dedication of time and to get what done.

Marlene Oliviera: Yeah. Are you thinking this question is about the basics that I talked about today and the timeframe for that?

Elizabeth McIsaac: I think so.

Marlene Oliviera: Yeah. So these are not quick fixes. They are fundamental, so they are investments, for sure. Again, depending on whether you do the work internally, whether you bring in external help, and what that help might look like, I would say that any of these phases I’m talking about could be in the range of two months to six months. If you are a small, nimble organization and you need a brand messaging platform, yes, you can develop one in two months. That might be super quick. You might want to take more time for stakeholder engagement, but you can. A larger organization: no way that you could do that. So, it depends.

And then same thing with the website content strategy. I think you would want to give yourself two months and you might need longer. You might be able to do it more quickly, depending on the size and complexity of your organization. Storytelling. The great thing about storytelling is you can start immediately today to just be more strategic about storytelling and which stories you tell. But, same thing, it’s editorial planning. I think you would want to put some time in it, but that is a little bit of one of those, you can build it as you move.

So, I think if you have none of your communications fundamentals in order, and you’re looking at 2022, I think it would be wise to say, “We’re going to spend half the year behind the scenes while we do other things to get these rolling and get these foundations laid.” That help?

Elizabeth McIsaac: I think that’s a great answer. It’s also 1:58, and so I’m going to close it off there. There’s lots more questions, and I think we would have to have you on for half a day to get everybody’s questions answered. But I think that you’ve shared with us some really great resources, some great tools, really key reflection questions to get the wheels moving and to figure out where does the work need to happen, and every organization’s going to be different, and it depends on the size, where they’re at, and what they’re trying to achieve. So, I think you’ve given us amazing fundamentals to get to work.

Marlene Oliviera: Thanks.

Elizabeth McIsaac: And what I want to do is thank you on behalf of everybody, because this was just absolutely terrific. I think you’ve seen lots of thanks in the chat room and into the Q&A box. So, really a terrific presentation, great advice, more than five good ideas. So you have overachieved. I want to thank you, and a big thank you to our online audience for being with us today.


Marlene Oliveira

Communications Advisor and Copywriter, moflow

Marlene Oliveira is a communications advisor and copywriter specializing in content strategy and copywriting for non-profit organizations. She has worked in the non-profit sector since 1999, including a two-year crash course in a grassroots role, and six years as the national communications manager at a large Canadian health charity. Since 2008, Marlene has been running her consultancy, moflow, through which she solves content challenges for a wide variety of nonprofit organizations through.

Marlene’s approach is to tap into the knowledge, experience, and expertise her clients already possess, to help their communications “flow.”

Marlene on social media: