The relatively young grassroots conservation organization we work for, Lion Guardians, promotes the co-existence of people and wildlife—particularly lions. Two years ago, the organization embarked on a strategic planning process to figure out how to expand its award-winning field model from southern Kenya to other sites and countries. One of the important outcomes of that process was a decision to make greater investments in communications capacity to raise the organization’s profile, attract additional funding, and identify potential partners and build relationships with them. Since then, Lion Guardians has made communications a strategic and integral asset that has helped it more than quadruple its donor base, double its donor retention rate, increase revenue by more than 30 percent, and broaden its network. In addition, the communications function has supported Lion Guardians’ expansion to new project sites in Tanzania, as well a new training program rollout.
Typically, small grassroots organizations—particularly in the demanding setting of rural Africa—place communications far down on their list of organizational priorities. These organizations often scramble just to keep up with day-to-day operational demands. Communications—especially the interactive websites, sophisticated graphics, and animated videos that are increasingly the norm for top-playing nonprofits—can feel out-of-reach to organizations with limited human and financial resources. It can also feel excessively “corporate” or inauthentic to some organizations that want to focus on their constituents and not their donors.
But communications are critically connected to advancing an organization’s goals. And strengthening an organization’s communications (and paying closer attention to potential supporters in the process) doesn’t have to break the bank; nor does it have to take away from programmatic focus or compromise an organization’s values. Instead, new technology—such as free social media platforms, myriad affordable online digital editing software, and do-it-yourself websites—are helping level the playing field in a way that didn’t seem possible a decade ago.
So how can a small nonprofit turn a basic communications program into a strategic asset? Here we share four lessons from our experience that we think might be useful to other grassroots organizations.
1. Leadership commitment provides a foundation for success.
Leadership gives an organization direction and agency, ensuring that its values and beliefs channel into action. The same leadership mindset must apply to communications—an organization’s top managers need to inspire, focus, and drive the process. Lion Guardians’ leaders, recognizing that they were missing opportunities to attract new supporters and partners, made the critical decision to employ a full-time communications manager. The move represented a major investment of time and money—one that they weren’t sure would pay off—but it was the first step in taking their communications to the next level, as a force to drive the organization’s sustainability and growth.
2. Values should guide communications.
Values help shape an organization, and these same values should guide its communications. Because “communications” itself felt commercial and inauthentic to Lion Guardians’ leaders, they were unsure whether a greater investment in it would be compatible with the core values of a grassroots, community-based initiative. Such misgivings are commonplace in the nonprofit sector; Nathalie Laidler-Kylander’s and Julia Shepard Stenzel describe the issue in their Nonprofit Brand Idea framework, which seeks to establish a “new brand paradigm.” Drawing on that framework, Lion Guardians’ leaders were able to articulate their core values, which later shaped the way the organization developed its communications strategy and brand.
As part of the process, Lion Guardians developed a “brand book” that includes conventional visual branding elements, such as the organization’s logo and color palette. It also includes language about Lion Guardians’ values and mission, which are central to the brand and overall communications. As Lion Guardian seeks to expand across borders and work with new partners, this “book” will help ensure that its branding efforts are clear and consistent, and truly reflect and build on the organization’s values.
3. Have a system and measure results.
What works for one organization might not work for another. But it’s important to have a system in place—and not rely on ad-hoc communications efforts. It’s equally important to measure results so that the organization can understand what’s working and what’s not.
For example, if Lion Guardians receives a media request, it uses a simple evaluation method to determine whether or not answering that request is a productive use of its time. When drafting newsletters, staff members write for specific audiences, with clear objectives. When running a fundraising campaign, there is a purpose and a goal. And just as the organization surveys lion population densities to measure the effectiveness of its conservation model and makes changes to improve its work based on what it learns, it analyzes its communications efforts and results, and adapts accordingly.
4. Select investments wisely.
Resources are always going to be limited, but some investments are worth making. For example, one Lion Guardians volunteer offered to create a new website, pro-bono. However, because the organization’s website is such a critical communications tool for all of its audiences, Lion Guardians opted to pay for a Nairobi-based firm to do the work instead, to ensure timeliness and a product it could control.
Additionally, organizations should be wary of “easy” ways to broadcast messaging. Technology has opened the door for small, grassroots nonprofits to gain a voice and presence on an international scale. But technology alone isn’t enough. Organizations need to ensure that it aligns all communications with their values, operations, and organizational capacity. Done right, small organizations can hit above their weight and use communications as a foundation for growth, sustainability, and scaling.