One of the biggest challenges facing nonprofits today is efficiently getting the support they need to achieve new levels of impact. For nonprofits where scaling is not a priority, the challenge is to avoid losing ground despite competing demands for share of mind and wallet, and related donor fatigue.

Addressing these challenges and getting results requires a precision approach to communications.

I’ve found that the “communications plans” of most organizations—both for-profits and nonprofits—are little more than process-focused lists of activities: Distribute x number of press releases. Tweet y times. Write z blog posts. But support, including revenue, doesn’t come from simply pushing things out or increasing brand visibility. Rather, they result from understanding the organization’s true value—by first defining what “success” means—and then developing and delivering the value narrative that compels the target to act.

Defining Business Success

“You've got to be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there.”—Yogi Berra

Nonprofit management teams and directors often have difficulty consistently stating what success looks like. This can occur when effective leaders don’t apply the same rigor to setting business strategy and aligning communications in their philanthropic endeavors as they do in their private sector work.

The first step, then, is to agree on one clear definition of business success, which is the specific impact that the organization wants to achieve, not a broad mission statement or fundraising goal. And that definition should evolve with the organization.

Founded in 2000, the job-training program Year Up originally used a direct-service model that reached hundreds of young adults per year by 2005. That still left millions without access to professional training, so the organization redefined success to mean serving 2,500 people per year by 2016, and then scale to serve hundreds of thousands of youth via multiple channels while also pursuing broader systems change.

Developing a Compelling Value Narrative

Once a nonprofit can state its intended impact, the next step entails developing a value narrative that is tightly aligned with this goal. The narrative should concisely describe whom the organization particularly serves and offer compelling evidence of the distinct value it provides.

Developing a value narrative has two important benefits:

  1. Internally, it forces the leadership team to agree on the organization’s strategic position and serves as a guide for everyone to execute their roles appropriately.
  2. Externally, it makes a powerful case to those the organization is targeting for support.

Organizations should tailor the narrative for each priority audience and present the information that is most likely to provoke the desired transactional outcome—a donation, a partnership, or public sector backing.

Year Up, for example, secures corporate partnerships to cover at least half of its operating expenses (companies sponsor interns at $24,000 per student). It targets CEOs and CIOs of Fortune 500 firms, who, with just one phone call, can arrange for the company to become a major corporate partner. Here, Year Up’s value narrative focuses on the demand for skilled talent and the pipeline that the program provides, emphasizing its 90 percent corporate partner satisfaction rate.

Delivering the Value Narrative

A great value narrative won’t accomplish much unless it’s delivered successfully. That requires enlisting the right messengers and selecting the right communications vehicles to connect with the target audience.

Right Messengers

To return to Year Up, a recent 60 Minutes profile featured JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault discussing their partnership with Year Up as a smart business decision, not philanthropy. Within minutes, a Fortune 500 CEO contacted Year Up to become a major partner, citing Dimon’s endorsement. His company plans to sponsor 40 interns in the first year alone.

Prior to the 60 Minutes piece, Year Up had 250 corporate partnerships. Within weeks of the segment airing, more than 160 additional companies called up. Political and business leaders from 25 major cities began courting Year Up to start a program in their community.

When choosing messengers, focus on the target you want to influence and determine the individuals they would most identify with or otherwise find persuasive.

Right Vehicles

The “right” communications vehicles efficiently reach the target audience and get them to act.

For example, many nonprofits know that they can’t realize their missions without systems change. If informing public policy is a top priority, then the editorial pages of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal bring unmatched reach and weight. A May 2009 op-ed by David Brooks helped bring attention to the Harlem Children’s Zone unprecedented results. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education launched the Promise Neighborhoods program to try and replicate this success in other urban areas through similar birth-to-college or -career services.

While many yearn for national media coverage, some of the most effective communications vehicles are designed for a narrow target. For a growth campaign, Year Up wanted to appeal to ultra-high-net-worth individuals, including financiers and entrepreneurs, and developed an investment prospectus similar to an initial public offering prospectus. Based on a model conceived by James and Ron Jensen of Ashoka North America, the prospectus helped Year Up raise $20 million in just nine months—a significant sum relative to its operating budget at the time. This communications vehicle connected with the intended target, because it provided information that resonated with them in a format to which they were accustomed.

The Drop-Down Value Test

Whether we’re working with leaders of for-profits or nonprofits, the priority is usually the same: Improve sales productivity by developing and delivering a compelling value narrative.

Here’s a quick test. Check out the homepages of a few organizations—specifically the main drop-down menu headings.

“About Us” is often first menu item. Compare that to the main headings on the homepage of Robin Hood, New York City’s largest poverty-fighting organization: “The Problem,” “Our Approach,” and “Our Impact”—the main components of a value narrative. This flow draws you in and makes a compelling case before culminating in the call to action: “Donate.”

The good news is that it doesn’t require deep pockets to move to a value-narrative approach. In fact, smaller organizations can’t afford not to make the shift. For nonprofits that want to become grantees of sophisticated venture philanthropies like Robin Hood, this is especially true.


Earning more persistent, predictable support is critical for scaling the growth and impact of mission-driven nonprofits. This requires applying a precision approach to communications—beginning with a clear definition of business success and leading to a compelling value narrative that’s well understood internally and well communicated externally via the most effective messengers and vehicles.