2 min Read
February 9, 2012

Getting Downton with Nonprofit Communications

Big Duck

As a Brit in America, people frequently ask me if I watch Downton Abbey, to which I answer, “Of course I do. The Queen would behead me if I didn’t.”

Seriously though, I do watch Downton Abbey–not because the Queen makes me, but because it’s fun escapist nonsense in a world full of too much seriousness and bad news.

The best part about Downton Abbey isn’t just that it’s trashy fun with a British accent and funny hats, it’s that it’s educational trashy fun with a British accent and funny hats.

Clearly I don’t mean it’s educational in terms of social history–the rosy picture it paints of a time when kind-hearted landed gentry got along happily with a cheerfully downtrodden army of servants is completely fictional.

No, I mean it’s educational in terms of nonprofit communications (yes, I’m really going there). Here’s how:

Upstairs at Downton, everything appears to run smoothly. The footmen are impeccably silent, tea is ready whenever people need it (which is all the time, apparently), and there’s always someone on hand to get you dressed for dinner. Below the stairs, on the other hand, an awful lot of hard work and shouting goes into creating that external appearance of calm and control.

Good nonprofit communications are a lot like the house in Downton Abbey: smooth and consistent on the outside, with a huge amount of work going on behind the scenes.

If you don’t have a multitude of staff at your beck and call to do all the hard work, it can feel impossible to stay calm, consistent, and clear in your external communications. Thankfully, though, there are some lessons you can borrow from Downton that’ll help make the job of presenting a collected and professional public face for your organization much easier.

1. Make sure everyone knows the rules 
Part of the reason everything runs so smoothly at Downton is because (almost) all of the staff knows the rules about what to say and do in front of the Crawley family. Similarly, a big part of communicating consistently and clearly is giving everyone in your nonprofit guidelines on what to say and how to communicate about the organization.

A style guide (or as we here at Big Duck call it, a brandraising guide) that lays out all the details of your organization’s visual identity and messaging platform–that is, how your organization’s communications should look and sound—-is a great way to help everyone understand, appreciate, and follow the guidelines for your communications. Which in turn leads to wonderfully coherent and together communications. 

2. Have a butler 
Carson, the Crawley’s butler, keeps the Downton staff in line and makes sure everything works like a well-oiled machine–even during a crisis.

Another big part of keeping your nonprofit’s communications running smoothly is having someone in charge of overseeing and coordinating it all. Even today, when everyone at a nonprofit is a de facto communicator, having one person who manages a communications calendar and “polices” the brand (even if only as part of their job) makes a big difference to how consistent, professional, and compelling your communications are.

And, of course, if you can find the time for it, a refreshing cup of tea with cucumber sandwiches and petits fours at 3 o’clock every afternoon can’t hurt either.