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How Nonprofits Can Profit From Content Strategy

by Tenessa Gemelke on February 9th, 2012

Before coming to Brain Traffic, I was managing a publishing department at a nonprofit called Search Institute, an organization that conducts research about children and teenagers. In fact, that’s where I was working when someone in our office building named Kristina Halvorson asked if she could use our Wi-Fi temporarily. In exchange, she’d offer us a workshop about something called “content strategy.”

You can probably see where this is headed.

As we listened to the introductory speech about tying user-centered content to the business model, I saw several of my colleagues nodding in agreement. I returned to my desk thinking, “Eureka! We’ve found it!”

Content strategy money bag

And then? Reality set in:

  • “We don’t have the resources for that.”
  • “Everyone is too busy to take on anything new.”
  • “It sounds like a great idea, but we need to focus on our funded projects.”

Most of these comments are pretty typical when people initially feel overwhelmed by content strategy. But I continued having conversations until I came to some unique conclusions: In our nonprofit setting, the business model was a moving target. Funding came and went. Sometimes there were multiyear, multimillion-dollar grants, and other times we survived from small project to small project. With all of this uncertainty, it was difficult to land on a single strategy—much less to deploy the people and hours needed to implement it.

You’ve gotta start somewhere

I’d love to tell you that an anonymous donor gave us a big bag of unrestricted content strategy money, but that didn’t happen. Our dreams of best practices gave way to best efforts. Although we couldn’t afford to restructure and rewrite all of our content, we soon discovered that a little bit of alignment and analysis can go a long way.

If you’re in the content trenches at a nonprofit organization, here are a few places to focus your limited resources:

  • Document what you have and what’s working. If at all possible, conduct a content inventory or a more in-depth qualitative audit, exploring whether you’re getting results. How popular are your PDFs? Are people following social media posts back to your blog? And where is all of this content coming from? It’s important to know who’s creating what and if all of that hard work is paying off. You might be surprised to discover that a funny e-card got more traction than a free white paper.
  • Spend time on workflow. Nonprofit organizations attract people who (a) believe passionately in what they do and (b) want to help. Unfortunately, this puts your content creators at risk of getting spread too thin or duplicating each other’s efforts. At Search Institute, a brief study of our newsletters revealed that four individuals were creating four different newsletters for only two audiences. Consolidating resources and introducing a unified editorial calendar resulted in less work and higher quality.
  • Know your audiences. You might have a mentoring program that serves underprivileged kids in rural communities, but those kids probably aren’t checking out your website. So, who is? Are corporate funders investigating your credibility? Are volunteers looking for logistical information? You need to understand who is using your content, and for what purpose. Even if you can’t afford a full-scale user research study, a few phone calls, an in-house brainstorming session, or an online survey can help you start to collect this information.
  • Pay attention to your business model. Some nonprofits get so caught up in providing free information and services that they neglect the audiences who are footing the bill for their good work. Are you dependent on individual donations? If so, make it easy to donate (and receive receipts!) online. Do corporate sponsors distribute internal copies of your annual report? Offer a printer-friendly version. Do other organizations purchase your materials or services with grant money? Give them links and tools that make it easier to obtain that funding.

    You don’t have to beat people over the head with donation requests. Simply remember that meeting users’ needs for information is ideal, but meeting users’ needs when they are TRYING TO GIVE YOU MONEY is essential.

  • Use your money wisely. At Search Institute, we had big dreams of overhauling our website, but we simply never had enough general operating expenses to get it done. Funders had their own agendas, and promoting the nonprofit itself was not a high priority for them. But we did obtain money to create a new website for parents. That provided an opportunity to invest in branding and user testing—two big-ticket items that really mattered to funding partners who cared about having their logo on a reputable site. This work provided a lot of the messaging and nomenclature that informed the larger strategy for the parenting site.

Keep hope alive

It’s discouraging to list all of the things you can’t accomplish, so … don’t! Get started in whatever small way you can. Celebrate every victory. Document the value content strategy has provided—both internally and to your supporters. And, who knows? Maybe that magical anonymous donor will show up with the cartoonish money bag someday.

Have you used content strategy in a nonprofit setting? What tips can you share with the rest of us?

  • http://twitter.com/mountaingirl87 Shannon M Campbell

    Really, just a little can go a long way. I’m currently a content strategist at an independent firm, but worked in development at a nonprofit previous to that. My particular location was inundated with phone calls and emails with questions, misinformation, etc. on a daily basis. We had a one-page landing page on the organization’s larger site, with very little information (and much of what was there was inaccurate). What was fine 5 years before, as a fledgling branch of a large, well-developed organization with a beautiful website, was now wholly inadequate for the people interested in our not-so-little-anymore niche.

    So, I revamped our part of the website. I’m no programmer, and I wasn’t even familiar with the term ‘content strategy’ at the time, but I could at least figure out what people wanted to know, based on what they were directly TELLING me they wanted to know, and provide that. So, one page became six or seven, with very clearly-labeled titles, and brief, but informative, answers to all the top questions and descriptions of how we worked, where your donations went, how to donate, etc.

    I wish I could say we never received a confused call again, but, since many of our callers had no Internet access, it still happened. However, the volume of calls did decrease, and the emails did nearly disappear (except for those saying “yes, we get how you work, and we want to donate!”). So, moral of the story—taking the time to fix things, one step at a time, can actually save you time, and possibly even earn you better returns as well. Happy would-be donors are more likely to turn into real donors than frustrated would-be donors; on the flip side, those in need of services are more likely to request and successfully receive them if they know what’s available and what the criteria are—your goals are funded and your people are taken care of.

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  • Tenessa Gemelke

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Shannon. I’m guessing you’re not the first nonprofit content champion to utter the statement, “I’m no programmer.” It’s hard to work with limited resources (and sometimes limited knowledge), but your example shows how much you can achieve with clear calls to action.

  • Gordon Hardy

    I work at a university. Storytelling is key. I think about our main themes (business ed, professional success, good ROI on tuition), then find students and faculty who exemplify those through engagement with the real world. Service learning and public service, field work, alumni start-ups, etc. The point is to tell stories that show results. Potential students, parents and donors can see themselves in those stories.

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