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Feb 13, 2014 | Insights

Shaping Your Message

Don’t let your nonprofit’s message get lost in the daily flood of information.

In the age of “information overload,” getting your nonprofit’s message to the intended audience is more difficult than ever. When you add in email, mail solicitations, advertising, newscasts, etc., even Bill Gates has had to admit that people are finding it increasingly difficult to sort through an ever-growing flood of information. “It’s overwhelming,” stated the world’s information guru. [1]

Daily, media bombards U.S. residents with more than 200 commercial messages [2], with advertising expenditures topping 125.3 billion dollars in 2009  (yes, billion) [3]. And this whopping figure – in the midst of the worse economic downturn since the Great Depression  – was down more than 12% from the previous year. For decades, the American public has been barraged with scripted, tested and refined messages every day.

With for-profit behemoths spending that kind of money to get their message out, what does this mean for the average nonprofit organization?

If you want to effectively promote your organization's programs, services – and just as important – the issues for which your organization advocates, you don’t stand a chance in this environment without a clear, effective message.

The Elevator Speech

What’s your organization’s strategic position?

We’ve all experienced the frustration of seeing our nonprofits define themselves with different and often conflicting messages, never really getting it right. But to keep changing direction is ineffective – not to mention inefficient from a resource standpoint. Why not get your strategic foundation in place, and then get creative? Effective communications and marketing is not just about producing stunning creative products. Those products have to support and project the strategic positioning of the organization.


If you can’t clearly define the essence of your nonprofit in a sentence or two, in what we call your positioning statement, you are not ready to begin an effective marketing campaign. We’ve all heard about the proverbial “elevator speech.” You should all be able to define the essence of your organization in the time it takes an elevator to get from the first to the third floor; in other words, in one or two sentences.

Most of us really can’t do that. “Our mission, vision, programs, issues (fill in the blank) are too complex,” we counter, “and we need way more than two sentences to cover all of the aspects that define us.”

The Critical First 30 Seconds

The clock is ticking.

Unfortunately, clients, partners, funders, prospects, the media and the general public have neither the time nor the inclination to sort through expansive ruminations on why your organization and its mission and services are the best thing since sliced bread. You’ll lose them in 30 seconds – or less.

In fact, most marketers will tell you that the first 15 to 20 seconds are critical for gaining your audience’s attention (whether the group is small or large). And you have the same amount of time to establish yourself, and by extension your nonprofit organization, as credible and knowledgeable.

Be brief and clear.

Clarity is fundamental to influencing the opinion of the various audiences important to the success of your organization’s program work. Your communications positioning statement and a simple set of messages to support it provide a foundation for all of your communications and marketing initiatives. This positioning should be viable for every important audience from employees to the media to the communities you serve.

Every program, advocacy campaign and fundraising effort should start with these basic tools. If your organization does this initial “messaging” work, the positioning and branding of your organization will be evident in all of your marketing and communications materials and initiatives.