Missed Connection: 6 common nonprofit communication failures

Missed Connection: 6 common nonprofit communication failures

September 20, 2018 by jga_admin

Guest Blogger:   John Thomas, Writer/Strategist, JTPR, Inc.

Nonprofit organizations do amazing things. Things like curing diseases … feeding people … making art accessible to the masses … helping communities come together and fight injustice. 


Unfortunately, some organizations that do those amazing things wither and die, not because they fail to perform, but because they fail to get their messages out to the people they need to receive them. Whether they’re trying to raise money or engage people in their mission, they fail to connect with the right people.

As you consider that statement, note what I didn’t say: I didn’t say these lost organizations didn’t send messages. They probably sent a lot of messages. But they didn’t send them effectively.

Nonprofits find innumerable ways to drop the ball on communicating, but most of those fumbles can be attributed to a few consistent mistakes. Following are a half-dozen of the most common failures, and some quick cures that can help your organization communicate more effectively. 

  1. The failure to send a concise message. If you haven’t boiled your message down to its essence, you need to keep boiling. The classic “elevator speech” concept is a good guide, but elevator rides seem to be getting shorter and shorter. Here’s a better guide: Boil that message into an old 140-character Tweet. When you can do that, you’ve got a clear, concise and simple message. 
  1. The failure to know what you’re trying to make happen. Sure, you have organizational objectives, but do you know what you’re truly trying to make happen with a particular communication? Ask yourself, “What do I want people to physically do when they get my message?” Pick up the phone? Write a check? Go to my website? Figure out what you want people to literally do and you’ll sharpen your objective. 
  1. The failure to define a target audience. Yes, your message is so wonderful it should be received by everyone who ever walked this green earth. Unfortunately, that’s not possible, no matter how much you have to spend on marketing. Zero in on those people who can truly make a difference, identifying them as specifically as possible, and then communicate as directly as possible. 
  1. The failure to let the message rise above the data. Yes, measurable results and hard data help you make your case, but more data doesn’t help you make your point more effectively. On the contrary; numbers can be numbing. If your message is obscured by metrics, your audience won’t engage with it. Choose the two or three data points that reinforce your messages, and drop the others. 
  1. The failure to focus on benefits. Many nonprofits like to engage in chest-thumping … endless recitations that seem to finish the sentence, “We’re great because …” They highlight awards. They talk about how hard they work. They show off their credentials. Instead, they should highlight their impact. Work on completing this sentence with a few powerful benefits: “With our organization, you get …” 
  1. The failure to speak English. The nonprofit world is like any other – it has its own lingo. On top of that, in the last couple of decades, as the nonprofit world sought to “become more business-like,” it unfortunately embraced business-speak. So, now a lot of nonprofit communications mix corporate jargon with nonprofit terms and throw in a big scoop of cliché (“donor pipeline,” “granular,” “move the needle,” “outputs versus outcomes,” and so on), resulting in a language that leaves most people unmoved. Imagine your audience as someone who doesn’t live in the nonprofit world. No one’s going to say, “I didn’t give to them because they didn’t use enough jargon.” But they might say, “I didn’t engage with them because I didn’t understand what they do.” 

Remember: You’re not communicating to impress. You’re not communicating to assert your importance. You’re communicating to send a message that moves audiences to action. And if you fail to do that, eventually, you’ll fail as an organization. 


John Thomas is co-owner of JTPR Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations firm that works with nonprofit and for-profit organizations to deliver messages that move people to action. On Oct. 3, he’ll join Angela White of Johnson, Grossnickle and Associates for the webinar, “Translating Nonprofit Jargon into Effective Communications. Register here.




Translating Nonprofit Jargon into Effective Communications

Wednesday, October 3 @ Noon EDT 

Sometimes the nonprofit world speaks with so much jargon that it can almost seem like it has its own language. The problem is we often get so wrapped up in our world that we forget to “translate” our language when we’re communicating with the audiences we most need to reach: donors and influencers. 

We'll take a look at some of the common translation challenges and how to overcome them. Specifically, we’ll look at:
• How to create compelling and actionable content 
• How to substitute real words for lazy jargon
• How to avoid clichés and buzzwords
• How to use stories to spur action
• How to boil complex information into concise messages

We’ll share real-world examples and practical tips that will help you speak and write more clearly and effectively.

• John Thomas, Writer/Strategist, with communications firm JTPR, Inc.
• Angela White, Senior Consultant and CEO, Johnson, Grossnickle and Associates