Rising Above the Clutter


By John A. Martin, CFRE

When times are tough, integrated fund raising and communication strategies matter more than ever. Yet for many non-profit institutions, maximizing communications potential is a difficult task, often taking a back seat to the more pressing issues of service, annual fund raising, and organizational goals. Combine that with the fact that many institutions are insular, with message planning happening from the inside-out rather than from a more effective outside-in market perspective, and cutting through the daily deluge of consumer information (it’s estimated the average adult receives up to 3,000 informational messages each day) can be a daunting challenge.

Rising above the clutter requires a compelling message that will not only capture your audience’s atten-tion, but be persuasive enough to hold on to it. Taking the time to craft such a message is key. Rushing the process usually results in “me too,” internally focused, irrelevant communication, which is ultimately a waste of money. Many times goals are set and messages developed through wishful thinking and ratified by a few senior staff and volunteers, when a marketplace perspective is what is required. Furthermore, companies often pro- ceed with creating a message without ever considering: who will hear it, what they want the recipient to do, or how the message will make the recipient feel about the value the organization delivers.

Your communications program should not be about changing an attitude or a behavior, but about creating increased awareness, recognition, and support for your institution and its important work. The goal is support and expansion of your fundraising effort—reaching your stakeholders with the information they need and want; developing targeted and strategic communications and public relations activities that build the relationships you need, today and for the future, and creating messages that inform, interest and activate.

In terms of timing, a communications pro- gram cannot start early enough. Communication helps support campaign goals but it takes planning and resources to generate positive awareness, attitudes, and enthusiasm, to build credibility, and to surmount obstacles. It takes more than a newsletter—more than a few press releases—more than a few on-air pitches. It requires a strategic communication plan, and the creativity and long-term view to carry it out. It requires the commitment from the institutional staff and volunteer leadership and the necessary resources to do the job.

Here are some specific things to consider as you develop your organization’s communications program:

Institutions must strive to achieve “brand pinnacle.”

If your campaign is to be successful, a concerted and deliberate communication effort will have to be carried out. A positive and aggressive program must be devised whereby your institution expresses its goals through “branding” and a closer working relationship with its key publics. First, you must reach out to the “key opinion” leaders in the donor community and enlist their support for your institution by educating them on the “value” of your institution. Second, you must build on the relationship with strategic partners—preferably with a brand that has a reputation for being “trustworthy.” Trustworthy brands are becoming the donor’s roadmap through a giant worldwide bazaar in which tens of millions of other sellers are trying lure your donor away.

Special focus will be required in the case document and all literature must be specific with regard to the program elements of the campaign. A powerful worthiness based case is more important than ever today. Institutions must be prepared to address three critical case questions: Why this organ- ization? Why these projects? Why now? With these messages clearly articulated, communi- cating the importance of the mission and the campaign to the donor community becomes the primary task.

Positioning is the basis for all of your communications.

Too often institutions have multiple themes and taglines that confuse the donor community. By having one meaningful, targeted positioning statement as a guide for all communications, you will convey a consistent image and, most important, a consistent message.

Identities create a brand image.

Image means personality. The personality of an organization is an amalgam of many things. Many marketing activities besides your insti- tution identity contribute to image. These include, among others, public relations, advertising, fund raising, special events, and crisis management.

The Opportunity.

Today’s environments are multimedia, multi-channel, and multi-sensory and digital communications, transportation, products, and services are becoming global. The consumer is bombarded with images and messages. It is not enough just to focus on your core competencies, quality, and customer value. To achieve campaign goals it is imperative to develop a powerful point of differentiation using branding to create positive overall stakeholder impressions that depict the multifaceted personality of your institution.

The Attributes of a Good Message.

Your message must grab your audience’s attention and make them want to listen to and explore what you have to say. It is best if your message connects with the interests of your audience, and conveys in a clear, understandable manner what you want your audience to do. As you create your message, realize that messages that inform are different than messages that intend to catalyze an action. Carefully consider your objective.

A good message is focused and succinct. It speaks to how you can solve your audience’s problem, why they should trust you, and why they should do business with you over and above anyone else. It needs to be relevant and in language your market understands, not peppered with technical jargon or industry terminology.

Generational Messaging.

Your messages need to be crafted to address the generational values of your stakeholders. That means you need to know and understand the five American Generations and where your donors fit.

Repetition, Proof Statements, Consistency.

Your message needs to be car- ried out in everything you do—not just grab the audience once, but reinforce why the audience should continue to pay attention. Include solid evidence which proves that what you are saying is true. This lends credibility to your position, and will further hold your audience’s attention. You might consider having different proof statements depending on the interests of your target market to make your message even more effective.

While your core messages do not need to be repeated word for word, the meaning behind the messages need to be clearly articulated in every communication. Different types of communication vehicles may lend themselves to different ways of paraphrasing your message. Therefore, think of your core message as a framework or map so that you do not stray from the points you want to make. David Ogilvy, one of the architects of the advertising industry, was fond of saying: “Three tips for getting your message out. Tip 1, repetition. Tip 2, repetition. Tip 3 repetition.”

Focus on One Goal.

Trying to communicate too many things dilutes your message and will diminish the probability that your audience stays tuned to what you have to say.

Measure, Adjust, Evolve.

Once you have developed a compelling and relevant message, continually monitor and track it to ensure your audience is listening to you and interpreting what you are saying in the way you want. Consider regular surveys or focus groups to make sure your message communicates value and is compelling and relevant for your audience.

It is especially important to evolve your message when the market landscape changes, when a key event such as a merger or acquisition occurs, when your institution moves into a new market space or when you have gained traction in an existing market. For smaller institution it is essential to evolve the message as the company grows, changing from a focus on acquiring investors to attracting customers.

Speak With One Voice.

Once you have cre- ated your compelling message, make sure that you train the entire organization on it. Speaking from a single, unified voice is a very powerful tool for putting your organization on a path for growth.

About the Author
John Martin has more than 30 years experience in the not-for profit field, on both the organizational and consulting sides. Through his consulting work with clients seeking counsel for major capital and endowment campaigns, Mr. Martin has earned a reputation as one of North America's top strategists for the not-for-profit sector. His brash mix of social concern and aggressive business smarts has helped raised hundreds of millions of dollars for colleges, hospitals, human service organizations and arts and cultural groups throughout North America. John Martin was chosen the 2007 Professional Fund Raiser. He can be reached via email: martinmgi@cs.com