#WritingTips: The first question to ask before you write

Here’s a quick scenario: a nonprofit communications department realizes that its organization’s website lacks engaging stories, a key element to any effective communications strategy. “We need more stories!” declares the communications manager.

Following this declaration, the senior communications officer quickly tasks Bob the intern with writing an engaging piece. Bob, new to the nonprofit writing game, is somewhat perplexed: “Where do I start?”, he asks himself.

Bob should start by asking one important question: “What do I want this story to achieve?”

Before writing any nonprofit story, or any story for that matter, it’s essential to clarify the objective of the story. Is it to mobilize funds? To raise awareness about your organization’s mission or strategy? To get people engaged on social media? To get people to volunteer, vote or attend your event?

Whatever the reason, the story will be made all the more effective if the purpose is clarified from the start, including how it ties in to your overall communications and content strategies.

If the purpose of the story isn’t clear, and if it does not fit into the grander scheme of things (i.e. your strategies), you shouldn’t be writing it. Writing aimlessly prevents you from writing well and undermines what the story can achieve.

Writing for his Empower Nonprofits blog, Jeremy Koch explains how this can negatively impact on your audience:

“Put simply, if you don’t know what you want your audience to do after listening to your story then they’re not going to know what to do either.”

Read Koch’s article to explore three ways in which the intention of your story impacts how you tell your story, and why this matters.

#WritingTips: The first question to ask before you write

Here’s a quick scenario: a nonprofit communications department realizes that its organization’s website lacks engaging stories, a key element to any effective communications strategy. “We need more stories!” declares the communications manager.

Following this declaration, the senior communications officer quickly tasks Bob the intern with writing an engaging piece. Bob, new to the nonprofit writing game, is somewhat perplexed: “Where do I start?”, he asks himself.

Bob should start by asking one important question: “What do I want this story to achieve?”

Before writing any nonprofit story, or any story for that matter, it’s essential to clarify the objective of the story. Is it to mobilize funds? To raise awareness about your organization’s mission or strategy? To get people engaged on social media? To get people to volunteer, vote or attend your event?

Whatever the reason, the story will be made all the more effective if the purpose is clarified from the start, including how it ties in to your overall communications and content strategies.

If the purpose of the story isn’t clear, and if it does not fit into the grander scheme of things (i.e. your strategies), you shouldn’t be writing it. Writing aimlessly prevents you from writing well and undermines what the story can achieve.

Writing for his Empower Nonprofits blog, Jeremy Koch explains how this can negatively impact on your audience:

“Put simply, if you don’t know what you want your audience to do after listening to your story then they’re not going to know what to do either.”

Read Koch’s article to explore three ways in which the intention of your story impacts how you tell your story, and why this matters.

#ImagineaSchool: Documenting Syrian children’s struggle for education

Some students want better grades. Others want to make the basketball team. Over 187,000 Syrian refugee children in Lebanon just imagine attending school.

When it comes to powerful international development campaigns, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) continues to lead by example. #ImagineaSchool is a multimedia campaign launched by UNICEF Lebanon, giving a rare insight into the lives of Syrian refugee children and their struggle for education. Through the campaign, we are invited to hear  and share their stories, as well as support their cause.

According to UNICEF, around half of Syrian school-aged children – over 187,000 – are out of school in Lebanon, which hosts the largest number of refugees per capita in the world. Instead of getting an education, thousands of Syrian children, some as young as six years old, are working in agriculture, factories, construction and on the streets. #ImagineaSchool provides an intimate look into the lives of these and other children.

What makes this campaign so powerful is its interactive documentary, which immerses viewers into the children’s daily struggles for education. The documentary invites viewers to choose from a selection of challenges that they themselves faced in school. Once these challenges are selected, text and video testimonials tell the story of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon who have faced similar challenges, albeit in a much worse context. Some of them are no longer in school and others continue to struggle to stay in school.

Through powerful before and after photos, we see that that all five of the classes presented in the documentary have lost a significant amount of students. We hear about why some children don’t go to school – “I want to work to help my family. I wish I could study in the afternoon,” says one child – and what children that are in school struggle through everyday. “Here, we have a problem with the bus. It’s small so sometimes we fall out of the window,” says one student. “They always hit us at school, so what do I get out of going here?” says another.

But despite these struggles, hope remains.

“I want to learn and read more. I want to become a great journalist and report the news,” says a young boy. And in another profile, a young girl underscores the power of her education: “If something happened tomorrow in Syria, my knowledge would be a weapon.”

Why nonprofits need video (+ 5 tips and examples)

While video is not the only solution for engaging content in our digital age, it is nonetheless a great tool for nonprofits. And the great news is video production isn’t as complicated and expensive as it used to be.

As highlighted by Ronald Pruitt, the founder of 4aGoodCause, well-produced videos are great because they can:

  1. Provide authentic and compelling visuals to tell your story
  2. Provide a sense of ‘being there’ to the viewer
  3. Engage your audiences both intellectually and emotionally
  4. Effectively move people to act through the combination of storytelling, imagery, music and personal appeals
  5. Expand and encourage audience growth and reach through online distribution and social media shares

So, how can nonprofits truly leverage the power of video? Pruitt offers five ideas for and examples of great nonprofit video marketing, summarized below.

1. Tell your story

Why was your organization established? What has been your journey so far? Use your video to share your organization’s story. As covered in previous posts, effective storytelling can go a long way in engaging audiences. Once engaged, invite your viewers to support your organization by directing them to a relevant section of your website.

Example: Falling Whistles, a nonprofit organization campaigning for peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

2. Spread awareness of a problem that must be addressed

Use your video as an opportunity to position your organization as a solution to the problem. Invite viewers to learn more about how to address the problem on your website.

Example: Girl Effect, a nonprofit organization working to reach 250 million girls living in poverty across the world by 2030, giving them the tools and access to the critical assets they need to achieve their full potential.

3. Motivate action

Use your video to show each viewer how they can make a difference, and mobilize them to take the action illustrated in your video.

Example: Love146’s video to take action against child trafficking and exploitation.

4. Create catalysts

Inspire supporters to become catalysts for global change.

Example: Dressember, a collaborative movement using fashion to support the abolition of modern day slavery.

5. Share the impact your nonprofit has made

Share testimonials to show how your organization has improved people’s lives. This will help viewers better understand the real impact or your organization and therefore inspire them to support or continue to support your work.

Example: LoveYourBrain, a nonprofit that works to improve the quality of life for people affected by brain injury.

Communications strategies: What’s right for your organization?

Photo: Gisela Giardino, Flickr

It goes without saying that strategic communications is essential to organizational and professional effectiveness and impact.

Without strategy, your communications will lack focus and direction and may be perceived as inconsistent and unreliable. Non-strategic communications may even end up undermining or contradicting an organization’s overall mission and vision.

Communications strategies are fundamental for every organization, entity and brand – large or small, for- or non-profit.

However, I contend that not all types of communications strategies are essential for every organization and brand. For example, larger organizations working across the globe will have more communications needs than smaller organizations, and may therefore require not only an overall communications strategy, but strategies for internal communications, social media, content, etc. The communications strategies your organization needs will depend on its size, budget and overall mission, vision and objectives.

The must-have strategy for all organizations

An overall communications strategy is an absolute requirement for all organizations, entities and brands aiming for success and impact. Your overall communications strategy lays out exactly how your communications will be used to accomplish organizational and professional goals. It sets out your communications mission and vision and clarifies your audiences and niche, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, the communications resources you need, governance mechanisms, the communications channels you will use, and other important aspects. This strategy should also address all of the important communications functions and needs in your organizations, such as promotion, stakeholder engagement and fundraising, public and press relations, internal and crisis communications, digital and social media, and content strategy. Non-profits: Click here for an excellent resource for developing a communications strategy and workplan.

Additional strategies: Must-haves for medium-sized and large organizations

In my view, organizations that are defined as ‘medium-sized’ or above should be those with dozens or more employees, substantial budgets and investments that are five figures or more, and large stakeholder bases spanning sectors, nations and/or continents.

In this context, the stakes are higher than for smaller organizations. Working at this scale means that media and public scrutiny is likely higher. And if your organization is working at this level, ensuring your stakeholders and partners deliver your message in a unified and consistent way is a bigger challenge. As such, medium-sized and large organizations need to go beyond the overall communications strategy and develop more detailed strategies on specific communications focus areas. The overall communications strategy should be the foundation and reference point, and any new strategy should always link back to the overall communications strategy. With that said, I recommend developing additional strategies for:

It’s worth noting that smaller organizations can also reap substantial benefits from public relations and social media strategies.

Supplemental strategies to boost effectiveness

Lastly, all organizations can benefit from more focused and specialized strategies covering:

  • Press/media relations
  • Content
  • Digital communications
  • Marketing communications
  • Stakeholder communications
  • Fundraising communications 
  • Departmental communications

I don’t consider these strategies essential, but if you want to take your communications game up a notch and really deliver impact, I’d recommend developing them. But do keep this in mind that most of these strategies are interlinked. Some objectives will overlap, so be careful not to duplicate efforts.

Bringing it all together

Developing most or all of these strategies might seem daunting, and getting caught up in developing ill-informed strategies for months on end is just procrastination and not at all effective. Your strategy development process should be systematic and efficient, and the final product should not be a long-winded dissertation. Simple one-pagers or short PowerPoint presentations can suffice for specialized strategies, as long as the work to develop a clear strategy has been done, and the strategy document itself is clear, tangible and actionable.

I would recommend having one master document linking all the strategies, with the overall communications strategy as the foundation and main reference point. In fact, specialized/specific communications strategies can be sections within a 10-page communications strategy document.

Look out for future blog posts where I’ll be exploring each of the additional communications strategies mentioned above.