Marketing/Communications: The Flip Side of Foundation Applications with Allison Chisolm, Choice Words/Chisolm & Co.

The program development has been done; a budget developed. You have a fantastic proposal written with a compelling need that any funder would want to fund, right? So you send it off to a new foundation prospect, and what happens?

If they don’t know your agency, the first thing the reviewer(s) will probably do is look at your website. Has it been updated in the past year? Or the past decade? Is it easy to understand and navigate? Does it show how effective you are at serving the population /demographic you serve? If not, that will say a lot about your agency’s capacity and ability to attend to detail. Does it tell an uplifting story about succeeding despite the odds, or just a tale of woe?

The next stop might be Guidestar for your tax filings. Are you up to date and on time with your filings or no? How much are you raising through fundraising from individuals, foundations, and corporations? Are your top employee salaries in line with the state or region?

If all these things appear in order, why hasn’t the foundation heard of you before? Do you have adequate fundraising staff capacity and/or administrative capacity? Do you issue media releases? Are you quoted in articles about your field? Are you considered a thought leader?

See the importance of being known? Foundation funding is so competitive, that if you haven’t attended to the marketing/communications side of running your non-profit, then you will be at a distinct disadvantage to obtain grant funding. And as for direct mail solicitation, the situation is even worse. When trying to obtain new donors, chances are poor that they will open your envelopes if they don’t recognize your name, let alone make a gift.

Just like you need a development plan with a good foundation strategy, you need a robust communications plan as well, preferably one in sync with your upcoming grant deadlines. To delve more into this topic, I interviewed Allison Chisolm, Principal of Choice Words/Chisolm & Co., of Worcester, Massachusetts.

Q. What is the biggest marketing mistake that you see in nonprofits?         

First, not having a communications plan and second, not supporting that plan with a budget. There are some exciting things that you can do that may go beyond the usual tactics. But whatever steps you choose to take, they need to work as part of an overall communications/marketing strategy. Effective communication cannot be an afterthought.  There is no one-size-fits-all communications plan, so you have to know your audience. Who do you need to reach? “Everyone” is not a productive answer. Are millennials a new target for your organization?  Or people at the other end of the generational spectrum? Having a clear idea of your target audience will dictate which forums and venues you join, both electronically and in person.  No one can afford to be everywhere.

Q. How can they create a solid communications plan if they have a small shop?

Take at least a half day away from the office to focus on goal setting for the organization, and how communications fit into meeting those goals. One needs to support the other. Create a communications plan for the year. If that is too much for existing staff, then a plan can be outsourced to a consultant. Bringing in an outside third party is a good way to get a fresh look at your marketing materials and communications. A consultant doesn’t have pre-existing notions of what you can or cannot do, so this process could break your organization out of old habits.

Even if an organization brings in a consultant, the implementation of the plan and communications still need to be undertaken by staff, to explain your mission and demonstrate to donors and prospects how your organization achieves results.  That said, nonprofits can pick and choose pieces to outsource if they need to. For example, a communications plan, or social media/website updates could be done by a consultant. Or writing up profiles/testimonials who have benefitted from services or the agency newsletter writing, to keep it updated.

Q. What is your favorite advice to give a new client?

Be clear about your expectations. I work best when I understand your organization’s goals and desired outcomes. Even if you outsource work, I often advise clients that managing communications remains a time commitment on a nonprofit staff’s part. In fact, staff time should be included in your marketing and communications budget.

Also, be open to creative ways to fund ongoing communications. Are there grant funds you could seek to overhaul and update your website and/or marketing materials?  Can you identify potential in-kind donations? Can you redirect budget line items that are no longer serving the agency well? Or can you partner with a similar group with similar needs to split the cost of services?

Communications consultants typically work in one of two ways — on an hourly basis, within a monthly budget, or on a project basis for specific campaigns.

All questions are good questions. Asking questions helps us both move ahead to clearer communications of the organization’s mission and goal – and greater awareness among the audiences who need to know more about you can achieve.