Until very recently, the communications and development teams sat on opposite sides of the office and had little reason to talk with each other. This arrangement – in which the two departments of nonprofits and socially responsible businesses operated in a silo, often lead to communications professionals being left out of planning meetings about business strategy and fundraising. Since these two functions are indispensible elements for any nonprofit, it made communications professionals, well, a bit more dispensable. But thanks to the evolution and adaptation of some clever communications professionals, this arrangement has merged and improved.
Lean nonprofits like Share Our Strength are a good example of how social impact can be used as a fundraising tool to expand the scope of its impact. This summer in my Cause Consulting class, we had a guest visitor named Clay Dunn, who serves as Chief Communications Officer for Share Our Strength and joined the organization with others to launch the ‘No Kid Hungry’ campaign. Their model, in which they use storytelling to both humanize and localize the impact that the organization is having, has worked allowed it to have a greater impact. It expanded from a $12 million annual budget in 2010 to more than $50 million in annual revenues in 2016, increasing its organizational capacity across the states and allowing it to hire new people.
Share Our Strength defines the problem in more relatable terms. It speaks of the need in a simple, “1 in 5 kids in America struggle with hunger,” versus the harder to grasp “16 million children in America struggle with hunger.” In communicating the power of a donation, Share Our Strength uses an equivalency based on its work around the country: “just $1 can provide a child with up to 10 healthy meals.”
Many nonprofits have been slow to adopt search engine marketing because they don’t understand it well enough to justify the expense to their board. Share Our Strength uses paid search to push the No Kid Hungry campaign to the top of many people’s Google browsers, encouraging people to be a part of the solution. After viewing the ad, they can either ‘Join the Hunger Core’ or make a one-time donation. Their smartly designed ad loudly displays an amazing statistic that everyone can understand: 1 in 5 U.S. children struggles with hunger. Nonprofits that have embraced Google Adwords are more likely to be satisfied with the use of their communications budget, since every dollar spent means that someone has looked at your content, decided they were interested and clicked through to your website.
On the ‘Our Stories’ section of the website is a short but powerfully aspirational video about ending childhood hunger in America. Nonprofits tend to want to cram everything they do into videos that are 10+ minutes, but savvy communications directors will resist this temptation. Also, rather than portraying childhood hunger as an impossible challenge to overcome, the upbeat music, positive tone of the narration and images of smiling, active children makes the viewer feel empowered that they are capable of making a difference. Above the video link is the line, ‘Together we’re feeding the future,” which gives visitors a sense that tackling this problem is a team effort. There are stories throughout the website of children who have benefitted from having breakfast in the classroom, on the sports fields and beyond. The mission is clear – to end childhood hunger. The benefit of the organization’s efforts is also clear – the 16 million American children that struggle to find food.
But ultimately, if a communications pro wants to get a seat at the table and eventually hire new people, they will have to peg their efforts to revenue for their organization. That is where the email list comes in. As a communications or marketing professional, you want to bring as many supporters into the funnel of support as possible. So if they believe in the mission, you want to give them content to read and excite them about the important work you are doing. But that is not enough.
Content is king. Storytelling is one of the most effective ways to get buy in for these types of organizations.
There is an entire blog-style section of the ‘No Kid Hungry’ campaign. According to research by the Georgetown Center for Social Impact Communication, 90% of stories had a clear hero. This website is no different, and has heroes everywhere you look. An example is the school administrators that have gone above and beyond, coming in early to feed hungry children before school. The emotion-driven appeal is strong and effectively delivered throughout the website.
Getting supporters to subscribe to the email list is an essential crossover tactic that communications professionals use to stake out their ground in the fundraising operation of their organizations. The visible email opt-ins are easy to see on the Share Our Strength ‘Our Stories’ page, where they don’t distract from the quality content, but are easily visible and visually appealing in a way that is consistent with their branding scheme.
For organizations like Share Our Strength, email is their bread and butter. It should be central to the development strategy of almost any organization, but it is especially crucial for a nonprofit that wants to inform supporters about its recent success stories, the immediate need it serves, the impact that supporters are having and how to take action. Email gives organizations the (seemingly) personal touch that a website never could.
Emails or websites can be a good place for the description of the organization’s offer. A short, specific description of what the organization is asking of its target audience and what the audience will get in return must be executed tactfully. It doesn’t have to be a tangible return item, but it can be a feeling or a community to join. And of course, there must be a strong, timely call to action. Communications professionals are uniquely qualified to write this type of material, and it can have a major financial impact on the organization when done effectively.
The job that Clay Dunn has done at Share Our Strength has put him in position to expand his team and has allowed the communications team a seat at the table in meetings where they may have previously been an afterthought. Tying an organization’s fundraising operation with effective content creation, email marketing campaigns and seamless social integration has helped communications professionals reimagine what is possible in the field of social impact communications.