June 1, 2020

The Nonprofit Communications Engine online workshop session 3: voice

To watch or listen to this webinar, please complete the form at the bottom of this page.

Part three of this four-part series focused on the elements necessary to define and express your organization’s voice so you can communicate clearly and consistently across all programs and departments. We talked about how to distinguish your voice now and strengthen it so you come out of the recession in a stronger place.

To learn more about how to leverage communications, join us for the rest of our four-part online workshop series based on The Nonprofit Communications Engine: A Leader’s Guide to Managing Mission-driven Marketing and Communications by Sarah Durham. In these workshops, Sarah will break down the key elements of her book, and how your nonprofit can apply them.

This series is sponsored by Mailchimp and all times are Eastern Daylight Time.


Sarah Durham: Hey everybody. Happy Wednesday and welcome to the nonprofit communications engine session about voice. I am Sarah Durham. I’ll tell you a little bit more about me as we get rolling, but I also want to just flag a couple of other people who are with us today that, if you’ve been on our other webinars, you’ve probably already informally met. We have Olivia who is paying attention to your technical questions and challenges from the [email protected] email. If you send us an email there, Olivia, will get that. Or as you chat in, if you have technical concerns, Olivia will help address them. Also, Farra Trompeter is with us today. Farra will be chatting out resources that I mention on the webinar. She’s also going to be Manning the Twittersphere. She’ll be tweeting at, #npcommsengine hashtag and at the end we’ll do some Q & A and see if our webcams communicate well with us today, and we’ll turn on our webcams and Farra will facilitate the Q & A.

Sarah Durham: So feel free to chat in along the way any questions you have and Farra will review them and help make sure we get to them at the end. Our format today, similarly to the ones we’ve done in the past few days, is that I’m going to present to you a bunch of theory and ideas first and then we’ll save some time at the end for Q & A. We are always eager to hear who is joining from where and today we’re really excited to have several hundred people joining us. We actually have people here today from South Africa, people from Wichita, people from Brooklyn, people from Washington, DC. If you have not had a chance to chat in, let us know where you are. We always love to hear that in the name of your organization.

Sarah Durham: Okay, so this is me. I’m Sarah Durham. I am the CEO of Big Duck. Big Duck is a communications firm that works exclusively with nonprofits to help them advance their mission by using smart communications. And we help nonprofits develop strong brands, strong campaigns and strong communications teams and I also work in our sister agency Advomatic, which builds sturdy websites for nonprofits. There’s a number of Advomatic clients on this call today, but for those of you who don’t know us, we also work with nonprofits and we build websites and support websites in WordPress and Drupal. We are delighted to have this webinar series sponsored by MailChimp. You can check them out at MailChimp has been a great supporter of this work and is doing a lot of really terrific work supporting nonprofits, so we like MailChimp.

Sarah Durham: Okay. If you have been playing along over the past few weeks, you might know that this is session number three in a four part series. There is one more session next week about momentum and if you haven’t registered for it, you do need to register for each session separately, so we will send you a follow up afterwards. I also want to flag that we are recording today’s session and we will send you a link to that recording too. If you want to share it with any of your friends or colleagues. And all of the content that we are covering in these webinars is based on my new book, the Nonprofit Communications Engine. You can find the book on and if you already have a copy of the book and you are game, please write a review on Amazon. I’m told that Amazon reviews are a really important thing.

Sarah Durham: I’m always eager to hear what people think of the book. So feel free to write a review if you are game to do that. I would appreciate it. So we have been talking about what nonprofit communications is—that it is the practice of creating and sustaining mindshare and engagement that advances the mission. And throughout this series we’ve been unpacking what that really means. And I began by saying that a nonprofit communications practice can and should generate three outcomes. It should generate engagement, it should help your organization speak with a clear voice and it should also help your organization develop sustainable momentum around communications. And today we’re focusing on the clear voice piece. Next week is the sustainable momentum piece. And if you’ve never done this, I want to start by giving you an exercise that I encourage you to do just to get a kind of a sense of how clear your organization’s voice is.

Sarah Durham: What I’d like you to do, and you can do this in a digital sphere like Pinterest or you can do this with paper and printouts or you can just do this in your mind, but gather together all of the materials, or a handful of materials, that your organization has produced in the last year or two. You might print out or think about or screenshot things from your website, from Facebook, from LinkedIn, from Instagram. You might grab some of your brochures or flyers. Think about the print pieces, the digital pieces, the social materials you’ve been producing and lay them all out in a surface. Get a look at them as a body of work. In some organizations, those pieces look very cohesive. But in a lot of organizations what we see is kind of what you see on screen here, which is to say that things look kind of different depending on what it is, event invitations, brochures, specific materials within programs might be kind of all over the place.

Sarah Durham: Well last week I talked a lot about this concept, the concept of mindshare. Mindshare is the level of awareness and understanding that a product, program, service or organization has in people’s minds. And you can kind of see how if your materials look like this, it’s going to be hard to do this. It’s going to be hard to get people to realize that all of these different materials, all of these different things that they see coming out of your organization are actually coming from one organization. So instead of building mindshare for your whole organization, you might actually build mindshare for a particular program or service that they can remember and pay attention to, but they might not connect the dots. And that’s a lost opportunity. And that’s part of what we’re going to dig into here today. I do a lot of workshops on this topic and related topics.

Sarah Durham: And one of the things I always really like to do in my workshops is show a slide like this with some very well known corporate brands on it and ask the people in the audience, um, if they’ve heard of these businesses. And of course pretty much without fail, everybody’s heard of all of them. And then if I point to something on screen and I ask you: what is the logo in the middle? People will tell me it’s Target. And then if I say, well, what do they do at Target? Or why would you go to Target? People know the answer even if they’ve never actually been inside a Target. And I’m in a for-profit business that has a lot to do with variables that may not be relevant for nonprofits. Like these are all businesses that spend a lot of money on marketing.

Sarah Durham: These are also all businesses that have a lot of visible in-person opportunity for us to see them. We see them on TV, we see them when we walk down the street, we see them in stores. So there’s a constant ability that these brands have to build mindshare because of the exposure we have to them through their paid media and through our opportunities to actually see them in certain contexts. We also potentially are all their target market. All of these for-profit businesses and most for-profit businesses that try to reach a very wide audience want us to buy their products and services. They want us to interact with them. And so we have the ability to get to know them and for them to build mind share with us because we have transactional relationships with them. But for nonprofits, it’s a really, really different story.

Sarah Durham: This is a slide of a number of nonprofits that are all really incredible substantial organizations, many of them very, very large. Some of these organizations are national and have very broad reach. Some of them are international or very local. They run the gamut as most nonprofits do. And odds are good that most of these are organizations you’ve heard of, but odds are also good that you haven’t heard of all of them. They have not all been able to build mindshare with you. And that’s for a lot of reasons that I think are probably obvious to all of us. First, most nonprofits do not spend the kind of money on paid media that for-profits do. Secondly, many of these organizations are trying to reach and engage a select audience, not necessarily everybody. For instance, the New York Women’s Foundation may not be spending a lot of effort to raise visibility or mindshare for itself outside of New York.

Sarah Durham: There are some organizations here that build mindshare beyond their core market or their target audience. But for many organizations, building mindshare beyond that core base just doesn’t really make sense. It’s not aligned with the mission. It’s not essential to do it, to advance the mission. When I talked about mindshare last week, I talked about the idea that when you don’t have mindshare, you tend to be a best kept secret or a hidden gem. But as you get mindshare, you’re trying to emerge from that. And speaking with a clear voice is one of the most cost effective strategic ways that you can build mindshare by making sure that everything you produce feels and looks consistent and is deliberately communicating with a voice that represents your organization well. You can come out of hiding and stop being a hidden gem and start getting really known for the work you do.

Sarah Durham: And that mindshare is important to what we really want to achieve, which is engagement. At the end of the day, the point of speaking with a clear voice as a nonprofit is to get people to take actions that advance your mission. So you might not use some of the products I showed on the for-profit page, but because you’ve heard of them, when you’re thinking about taking an action, you might be more likely to consider supporting them with a gift. In a nonprofit context or buying their products and services in a for-profit context. So if you have read the book or you’ve participated in some of the other webinars in the series, you might know that the book is structured in a way where I start by talking about the three outcomes that I moved through earlier, the clear voice being one of them.

Sarah Durham: And then the book has a chapter devoted to six separate elements. And in the series, what we have been doing is taking these outcomes and kind of working through them to say which of these six elements is most critical to achieving that desired outcome. And the six elements that power successful communications, outcomes are strategy, team culture, tools, processes, and reflection. And I think of the team and culture side of this hexagon as the people power of your communications engine and the tools and processes is sort of the non-people power part of it. But it all begins with strategy and it should all, not necessarily end, but it should all sort of coalesce I suppose with reflection because the reflection that we do as we reflect on projects that worked well and we learn lessons then informs our strategy and our tools and the tactics that we use next time.

Sarah Durham: So, um, so let’s get into it and let’s talk a little bit about the process that you use and how you use these elements to establish that your organization has a clear organizational voice. As I said earlier, it always begins with strategy. We always want your organization to be clear who its target audiences are, have a strategy to reach and engage them and have solid plans to implement that strategy. So what does strategy mean when you’re thinking about your organization’s voice? Well, first you should always begin with a brand strategy anchored in your strategic plan. One of the pieces that Big Duck has seen over and over again (we’ve been helping organizations establish clear voices for over 25 years) is that the organizations who go through a process of trying to do messaging or trying to change their visual identity or do other things that are sort of brand related, the ones that start with a clear brand strategy that is anchored in their strategic plan are much, much more quickly and effectively able to get there because the brand strategy is an expression of the strategic plan and then the messaging, the visuals, the other things they do grow out of that.

Sarah Durham: So the first step in the ideal order of operations is first be clear where your organization is heading and its strategic plan. Secondly, translate that into a clear brand strategy. And part of that brand strategy is understanding what makes you different. So if you want your organization to speak with a clear voice, you want that voice to be differentiated from other organizations that are in your space. A long time ago, I think maybe now it’s 10 years ago, my first book came out. That book was called Brandraising and we’ll link to that and show you a slide of it at the end. But in Brandraising, I mapped out a model that we use at Big Duck that illustrates this. It begins with the idea that your organization’s strategic plan is grounded in your vision, your mission, your values, and your objectives.

Sarah Durham: Those are things that inform everything you do, your programs, how you fundraise, everything, and they should inform your communications too. Specifically, they should dictate who your audiences are. Who are those people you need to build mindshare with? Is it everybody? Probably not. I’ve been talking in the past couple of webinars about the need to focus your audiences on the people who are most likely to be impacted by your mission or be able to help you advance your mission. Positioning and personality, which is the slice of this organizational level, is the brand strategy piece. Positioning is the single idea we strive to establish in the minds of our target audiences. And personality is our organization’s tone and style. And oftentimes when we do this work at Big Duck, we think of personality as a group of words that describe that tone and style—a bunch of adjectives. And they’re different from your organization’s values.

Sarah Durham: They’re words that should be useful for communicating. I’ll show you some examples of this in a minute. But this is a really fun part of establishing your organization’s voice that I think a lot of organizations miss when they start to think about their brand strategy. They don’t stop to think about the tone and style. Positioning is a brief statement that you hope to own in the minds of your target audiences. So if I went back to that corporate slide, for instance, and I put that Apple logo on the wall, not only would you recognize it, do they have mind share with you, but it means something to you. You have an association of what they do and, and maybe how they’re different from their competitors. Or Nike—you recognize the logo, it has mindshare and you associate it with something.

Sarah Durham: Maybe you associate it with fitness or with athletic clothing. The same thing works in the nonprofit sector too. So one of the logos I showed you earlier was the logo for Make-A-Wish. And if I ask a room full of a few hundred people what they do at Make-A-Wish, people will say, well, they grant wishes for terminally ill kids. Or if I ask a large group of people about Doctors Without Borders, which is also an organization that has widespread mindshare, people will say something like, well, they do international medical aid or volunteering in the medical space internationally. So that’s an example of how mindshare and positioning come together. And that is sort of the essence of having a clear brand strategy—making sure that you as an organization are proactively thinking about what’s the positioning you want to be associated with and what’s the personality or the tone and style that is right for you.

Sarah Durham: So I’m going to share an example, kind of a before and after example here to help bring this a little bit more to life. This is for the Center for Constitutional rRights, which is a terrific organization that works nationally but is based in New York, which is where Big Duck is too. Before we worked with them, they had a website that looked like this and they were doing some amazing work and they went through a strategic planning process and they decided to update their brand strategy. The brand strategy that they settled on through our brandraising process was the positioning: We dare to fight oppression regardless of the risks, standing with social justice movements and communities under threat. So that’s the big idea that they want people to think of when they think of the Center for Constitutional Rights. The personality that emerged was that they are unapologetic, agile, tough and impassioned.

Sarah Durham: And if you went back and you read their strategic plan, you would see that the positioning is kind of a distillation of a lot of the ideas in their strategic plan. It’s almost like a bridge from their strategic plan into day to day work. The personality isn’t necessarily stated in the strategic plan, but it’s really the taste in your mouth when you read the strategic plan. And I think one of the most interesting things about this personality is that it leans into words that aren’t always words organizations would embrace. Not a lot of organizations would say they want to be unapologetic or tough. We definitely encourage organizations to use personality words that are differentiated and try to avoid words like professional, credible, or friendly because those are generic. Every organization is often, or should be, those things already.

Sarah Durham: Now with a clear brand strategy, part of establishing your organization’s clear voice is aligning the tools or the assets that you use to match. So you see the Center for Constitutional Rights logo on the right. After they went through this process, they realized that their logo was too soft. It didn’t have that tough, unapologetic, impassioned quality. So they went through a process of changing many things, their logo, their tagline, a number of things. This is where they landed, which was much more in line with the positioning and personality, the brand strategy. So as you can see from that example with the brand strategy, the next step to getting your organization’s voice more clearly articulated is to shore up the visuals and the messaging in a way that reinforce that brand strategy. So you’re actually walking the walk.

Sarah Durham: The way I think of those elements, those visual elements and those messaging elements is that they are effectively tools. Your logo, your messaging, your brand guide. All these things are elements that you can use to communicate more effectively. So tools are not just one thing. When you try to establish your organization’s voice, you might also want to think about who are the people that are the ambassadors for your brand? Are they trained to write and speak and talk and reflect your organization in a way that is, that is aligned with your brand strategy? What kind of paid media, earned media, and owned media are you using and how does that reinforce your brand strategy? Do your campaigns reinforce your brand strategy? All of these things can be expressions and the goal of a successful rebranding process or any, whether it be a lot of organizations don’t even like the term branding.

Sarah Durham: A lot of organizations prefer to talk about it as, as a voice alignment or a voice expression exercise. The point of that is to give your team the tools that they need to write, speak and design with a clear and consistent voice. And we’ve seen organizations do this in a way that can be really, really exciting. We’ve seen organizations train the person who is sitting at the front desk when somebody walks in to the organization to stand up and come out from behind the desk and shake a hand and greet people in a very personal way because that’s more reflective of the personality of the organization. We’ve seen organizations that redesigned physical spaces to feel more aligned with the brand strategy. So you can go pretty far with this. But for many organizations, the obvious things to do to bring that brand strategy to life and to start to establish your clear voice is this next layer in the brandraising pyramid, which is the visual identity and the messaging.

Sarah Durham: So visual identities as I’m sure you’re probably already familiar, is your logo, but it’s not just your logo, it’s the colors, the typography, the way you use images, any kind of graphics you use. All of those things communicate a lot about you and they work in harmony with your messaging. I always think that an organization’s name is its number one ambassador, one of the most important elements, and how you abbreviate it is critical. Because if you have a long name and you shorthand it to some acronym that most people can’t remember, or even people can remember but they don’t know what it is, that can actually make it harder to build mindshare because it’s just not easy to remember that thing. It doesn’t tell me anything about you.

Sarah Durham: Taglines are great. They are beautifully locked up with a logo and a name to say a lot between your name, your logo and your tagline. I should really start to get a sense of who you are and what you do and that will help me build that mindshare and hopefully move towards building a clear sense of your positioning. The way your vision, mission, and value statements are written and crafted. That should be done with your personality. If you want your organization’s personality to be tough and unapologetic that might inform how you write. Having a kind of dull, old fashioned sounding mission statement might feel a little bit, a little bit stale. Farra just chatted out a really awesome tool that we like to play with at Big Duck called If you use an acronym a lot, you might try typing yours into at some point and see if other people use yours too.

Sarah Durham: Key messages and other kinds of messaging are really, really important ways to get your organization’s voice clear. At Big Duck we do three or four different types of messaging, um, based on the target audience and the goal. And I would say that it is quite common for organizations to understand and get better at communicating with alignment visually—to have all the colors be the same, have the logos all be the same. But getting your organization to be able to write and speak on message is also really essential to speaking with a clear voice. And it requires doing proactive messaging work and then really training your team and really working with your team to make sure they have the tools that they need to keep all that messaging humming along and to use it in ways that are useful.

Sarah Durham: Okay. So what does all that mean? To speak with a clear voice? As an organization? You’ve got to codify all of those elements. You’ve got to capture them in some place. At Big Duck, we’re partial to brandraising guides, which are usually digital guides that include all of the elements. But you don’t have to do it this way. You can have a messaging guide, you can have a visual style guide. But the point is that it all needs to be written down in some way that is clear and easy for people on your staff and your board to use. In our typical guides, we include everything, the brand strategy, the messaging, the visuals, examples of the brand and use even examples of brand architecture. So how do different programs or initiatives in the organization look and feel and sound in a way that also helps the organization communicate with a clear voice.

Sarah Durham: Because if, when I see your program, its got its own name, its own logo, its own colors, that’s also going to be challenging too to help me build mindshare. One of our favorite parts of a good brand guide is being really explicit about what can and can’t be done with the logo and also how to write and speak about the organization. So the Center for Constitutional Rights we like to use as an example because they actually share their messaging pretty transparently and have given us permission to do so. This is their elevator pitch. If I walked up to a staff person at the Center for Constitutional Rights at a conference and I said, Hey, tell me about the Center. Hopefully I will hear this pretty much verbatim or some close variation of this.

Sarah Durham: They might say we’re a litigation and advocacy organization that partners with social movements and communities under threat. Together we work to dismantle oppression and fight for justice. Some of our clients will produce little pocket size or wallet size cards with their elevator pitch or their key messages. We always work very, very deeply with organizations to train them because if your staff does not know the elevator pitch doesn’t have the right tools to remember, or isn’t trained to write and speak on message, it’s probably going to be hard for them to embrace it. And certainly the same can be said for your board too. We often hear that board members complained that they would love to fundraise on behalf of your organization, they just don’t know how to talk about it effectively. So giving them these kinds of tools is one of the ways you you can do that.

Sarah Durham: You will not only help your organization speak with a clear voice, but you’ll be empowering your staff and your board to become effective ambassadors and representatives of that voice. All of those efforts then inform the experiential level of the brand raising model. That’s really where things come to life online, in print, on air, all of those points of contact. It should look the same, should sound the same, should use the same messaging as much as possible. There are some contexts where of course you adapt it, but basically, I will be more effectively brought in to your ladder of engagement. It will be easier for you to build mindshare with me and therefore it will be easier to engage me if when I visit your website, it looks like your Facebook page where it’s got some of the similar messages as your Facebook page.

Sarah Durham: If, when I get your email that looks and feels consistent, if when I go to your event and I pick up some swag, like these great buttons that the Center for Constitutional Rights produced at their brand launch or bags or things like that, all of this reinforces the personality of the organization and starts to form a picture of the positioning. So we’re building mindshare, we’re building positioning and that’s what tees us up to engage. Key to establishing your organization’s voice is keeping it alive and relevant. And I remember one of the first places that this sort of struck me was, I don’t know, maybe 15 years ago, we were rebranding an organization. It was a large organization and they had spent a lot of time, a lot of money on the process and getting people’s buy in and making sure everybody had all the right tools and all of that.

Sarah Durham: And the brand went live. And it turned out that one of the fonts in the brand guide was just a little small for some people. Some people just felt like it was a little harder to read the type than they wanted, but nobody wanted to change it. Nobody wanted to say anything about it because the process had taken a long time and they were concerned about rocking the boat. But if you don’t acknowledge what is working and what’s not working in your visual elements and your messaging with your tools, with your team, it’s going to be very hard for that to stay alive and relevant. So you need to have somebody who can help shepherd this process. We’ll talk about that in a minute. But key to it is keeping it alive and relevant and that means taking key moments to pause and reflect and revisit, which again, we’ll talk about more in a second.

Sarah Durham: So I hinted at the team with your organization’s voice. You want to have the right people directing, managing and implementing it. And the structure of their role has to work well for the organization. In other words, they have to be somebody who has enough enough power or authority in the organization that when they sit down with somebody to train them to use messaging, for instance, they will be taken seriously or they will be viewed as credible. Or if they sit down with somebody to say, Hey, I don’t, I’m not quite sure this thing you produced is aligned with the brand. They have to have authority. So one way to think about your team is to think about who are the brand creators at the outset? Who’s responsible for setting your organization’s voice in most? For most organizations, the people who actually create the brand are usually not staff.

Sarah Durham: They’re usually external experts. It’s very hard for staff to do it because staff are going to be very close to it. And staff will have an agenda which will make it hard to develop and manage a process that feels unbiased and objective for others. So oftentimes the creation of your brand’s voice is done by agencies like Big Duck. It might be done by your board members, agencies, if they have resources, it might be done by volunteers. There are a lot of ways to do it, but I strongly encourage you to get an external expert to facilitate a process that people buy into and feel they can contribute to in a way that is appropriate and equitable. But then the other part of the team or what I think of as the brand sustainers, these are the people who were probably inside your organization who are responsible for keeping it alive and making sure it’s actually used.

Sarah Durham: If Big Duck develops a brand for your organization and we give you this great brand guide but you don’t have a brand sustainer, somebody inside the organization who’s going to keep it alive, it’s probably not going to really work. So you might want to think about two types of brands. Sustainers first, who are your leaders or your coaches, the people who are going to do training, the people who are going to check in with people and answer the questions and who are your loyalists, the brand sustainers who produce materials and who follow the brand. And who believe that actually they’re writing and speaking and designing elements that look and feel and sound consistent for the organization is a good idea. We’ll talk a little bit more more about that in a second, but if you were trying to get your organization’s voice aligned, just pause to say, who are my brand sustainers?

Sarah Durham: Who are my coaches and who are my brand creator is when I need to make changes. Process is definitely important with organizational voice. It’s not something that I think requires a huge lift, but you do want to have some written practices to achieve outcomes predictably with your organizations. Voice number one among that is having a great brand guide, having your brand written down and codified in someplace that feels useful for staff that people can reference and keep alive. But you might also want to have some processes around when the brand is revisited to get people’s input and how you coach people. Like, for instance, you might want to set up a recurring set of tasks to check in with. If you, if you are the brand coach at your organization, the communications person usually, how often are you going to check in with your team about what’s working and what’s not, or how often are you going to ask them if you can review some of the things they’ve been writing and maybe give them some feedback.

Sarah Durham: You may want to have some processes around that. And all of these pieces, particularly around your team and how people embrace the brand is very much shaped by your organization’s culture. So what are the expectations in your organization for how the staff should behave and collaborate to encourage a healthy brand to make sure that people in your organization feel that writing and speaking on message is an important part of their job and not just something that they can kind of, you know, ignore. We do a lot of work at Big Duck under this umbrella we call brand architecture. And as I said earlier, brand architecture is about the system that you use to explain your programs, services and other initiatives in a way that that is clearly connected to your master brand that helps your organization speak with a clear voice in a smart and proactive way.

Sarah Durham: And years ago we were hired by an organization that’s very large to do some brand architecture work and they actually had over 300 different programs in this organization and some significant number of those programs, over a hundred of them I would say have their own names, have their own logos. Many of them have their own taglines. And that was because in their organization there was a culture that whoever headed up the program got to brand it basically got to give it a name and a logo and a tagline, maybe even its own website. But the net effect for that organization was that people knew some of its programs very well, but not very many people knew the organization behind it very well. Not very many people understood that program A, B, and C were all a part of this larger umbrella or this larger network.

Sarah Durham: And if you came in through the door of a particular program, you might have a lot of mindshare and a lot of engagement with that program. But you might not extend that mindshare and engagement to anything beyond that one program, and that was a real loss for the organization. So as challenging as it can be to create a culture where people align with a particular agenda and to sort of enforce the agenda of No, you cannot make a new logo for every program or rename every program, it is important to building a consistent voice for your organization. The last of the six elements in the Nonprofit Communications Engine is reflection. And reflection is about the idea that you gather data and you use insights from that data to smarter and to communicate more effectively. And this is where I think it’s really important with your organization’s voice to create moments of reflection with your team, to talk with the people on your staff or your board about how’s the messaging working?

Sarah Durham: Do they have the messaging they need to write and speak on message? How are the visuals working? Is it clear? Do people feel clear and empowered to communicate in a way that, they don’t stop and pause when they’re talking to a donor or a client or writing a speech or doing something. By having those moments of reflection together, you can start to, shape and refine your tools, shape and refine your strategy. So how often should you do that or when should you do that? Well, we spent a lot of time studying this at Big Duck because we’ve seen over and over again that there are some organizations that seem to really get it right in terms of timing and some where sometimes it kind of misses the mark. And we’ve actually did a study a few years ago, I think it might be five years old now called the Rebrand Effect.

Sarah Durham: I’m sure Farra will share that resource with you too. When we did the study, what we looked at was why nonprofits rebranded and what else was going on and whether or not they achieved the goals they set out to achieve when they rebranded. And through that study and through our work, we’ve identified that there are a couple of times it’s really critical to take a, take a step back and revisit your strategy and assets. The first is after you’ve done any kind of strategic planning or any new theory of change work, when there is a significant shift in where your organization is heading. You’ve changed your vision, you’ve changed your mission, that’s a really important time to say like, okay, what are the implications of this for, for our communications and for our brand strategy. Similarly when you have new leadership, that’s a really important moment because then with new ideas and new way of doing things, so the strategic planning process, the new leadership, those are agents of change in your organization and your voice will be reshaped by those agents to change.

Sarah Durham: You should certainly revisit your brand strategy and your brand assets if they no longer feel useful or relevant. And we see this a lot in that kind of organizational life cycle way. We see organizations that created materials or built a website or things like that at a particular moment in their growth, maybe in their transition to become a stable adult organization. And now they’ve grown and it’s 25 years later and they do really different things and they are a powerhouse, not just a newbie. And that’s a really good time to take a step back and examine your organization’s voice and make sure you’re communicating about who you are today and where you’re heading tomorrow, not just where you were yesterday.

Sarah Durham: I think in the very first of these webinars, I shared this slide, but I wanted to come back to this just to put this idea of voice in perspective. So as you might recall, the three outcomes of a successful communications engine is that you are generating engagement that advances the mission, that you are helping your organization communicate with a clear voice and you have some sort of sustainable momentum. So how much should your comms team spend or your organization spend on these things in terms of your collective effort? I would definitely encourage you to spend the majority of your time on engagement. This is a rather unscientific pie chart. It’s just a guess that 75%—maybe more—should be spent on engagement in terms of your effort. But I do think that the voice is a significant slice and it’s significant for two reasons.

Sarah Durham: First, you have to spend time taking a step back and thinking about your organization’s voice periodically, just like you do with strategic planning. So in most organizations these days, every three to five years, there’s some sort of strategic planning process right after that is a really good moment to pause, take a step back and think about your organization’s voice or if you have a big change in your leadership. That’s my advice to you. But then in between those big periods of reflection, there is a kind of a maintenance moment. There’s the moment where you have to keep checking in. You have to keep making sure people know you’ve got messaging are using the messaging, maybe update the messaging, know you’ve got defined colors that you want people to use when they’re designing or persuasive messaging that they could use with donors. So don’t, don’t think that just because you’ve gone through a big rebranding process, you’re done.

Sarah Durham: If you don’t keep stoking the fires along the way, even if it’s a sort of small piece of your organization’s time, odds are good that your organization’s voice is going to begin to get a little bit fragmented. And that’s going to perhaps set you back a little bit over time. In terms of building mind share and engagement. So there are a few questions that we get a lot and I’m going to tackle a couple of these questions here and then we’re going to begin to transition over into your questions. So if you, if there are some ideas on your mind or maybe things you’ve done that you think have been really successful or questions you’ve got, this is a great time to start chatting them in. And we’ll pivot over to that in just a few more minutes. So one of the questions that we get a lot, and I think it is particularly relevant right now in this economic climate is: should I iterate or should I overhaul?

Sarah Durham: Iterate or overhaul is this phrase that I love and I believe it was originally coined by Rose Lieberman and Monica Lisa Mills on the Advomatic team. Because it’s a very common dilemma with websites. It’s very common for organizations to either overhaul, by basically throwing out the website, building a new one every few years or to iterate, to develop a more agile methodology approach to constantly improving. Well it turns out with branding that if your brand strategy, if the brand assets you use like your logo, your name, your tagline, if they are really broken, it’s actually better to overhaul than to iterate. We used to give a lot of organizations the advice of sort of bite off what you can chew and make incremental changes. But as we’ve studied this over time and in our research through the rebrand effect, what we actually uncovered is that when you go live with a new website that has changed a number of things. Maybe your name, your logo, your, your tagline, a whole bunch of things have changed. Actually you get a lift in mindshare, it’s more attention grabbing, it’s more visible and people sort of stop and pay more attention.

Sarah Durham: When you make incremental changes, those changes are less noticeable. And therefore the potential big splash effect you might have with mindshare can get lost. With that said, right now is not a time that a lot of organizations have the capacity to do a lot of huge overhauling, especially if you are struggling economically or your team has contracting. So I would encourage you right now to start with brand strategy. If you don’t have a clear brand strategy that is not a heavy lift, it’s not necessarily an expensive project to do, but it will help you tighten up your communications, tighten up your voice and give you some basic tools you can start to use.

Sarah Durham: Even if you don’t change your logo or your tagline or other things, it’ll certainly help you write, speak tweet in a little bit more of an effective way if you do that. What if you have no dedicated people who do this stuff? That’s a question I get a lot and it’s, it’s the case for 99.9% of organizations. In fact, right now Big Duck is, is rebranding an organization where the director of communications is a real pro and has actually worked in a few nonprofits before that have rebranded. And so he’s one of the rare examples of somebody who does know how to do this stuff. You’ve seen this movie before, but even so he’s only seen this movie two or three times. You definitely want to have your brand creators be people who’ve seen this movie hundreds of times.

Sarah Durham: You want them to anticipate for you the pros and cons and pitfalls of different decisions you have to make along the way. And you are going to also need somebody in house who can help work with them. But if you don’t have a dedicated communications person that can easily be a point person who is on your development team or on your operations team in very small organizations, often the person who is responsible for the brand process is the executive director with some administrative support. In midsize organizations that don’t have a communications person or have a more junior communications person, it’s often the director of development or maybe even somebody else on the senior leadership team. So don’t let that get in your way. What if you can’t afford to do this right? Well, again, I think if you bite it off, starting with brand strategy and get a sense of what you need to do, I would encourage you to budget for it downstream.

Sarah Durham: I think we are in a moment right now with the pandemic where there is going to be pretty fierce competition for fundraising dollars, unrestricted dollars and organizations that speak with a clear voice are going to have a better shot in some cases of building mindshare and engagement with donors. So even if you can’t do all the work you need to do now, get the ball rolling, understand what you need to finish the work. And you might actually find that you can get that work, either underwritten by a foundation or a major donor or you may be able with a clear work plan and a clear brand strategy to go to a volunteer and see if you can get support. We’ve worked with some organizations that have had part of their branding work supported by the Taproot Foundation. Taproot does brings together volunteers who do work for organizations sort of like grants.

Sarah Durham: They’re like service grants, and we actually haven’t worked on any projects with Taproot recently, so I’m not sure where they are with this now, but we have seen some really good work done by volunteers who are branding experts who come together and solve a particular problem like brand strategy or messaging or logos, usually in discrete projects. Um, one of the conversations we have all the time with people is that they want to make a special logo for their anniversary or it’s their anniversary year and they want to do a 25th year mark or something like that, and how does that fit in? And, um, generally we discourage it. There are exceptions to the rule, but again, your anniversary is very important for people who’ve worked at the organization. For the founder, for the board, for insiders. It’s great opportunity to pause, reflect and to celebrate your success. But as a tool to build mindshare, or an engagement with new audiences, it’s not necessarily relevant.

Sarah Durham: Well I don’t know your organization are going to be less concerned or interested that you know by how old you are. So my advice to you is don’t distract away from your core logo, your core name, your core work by creating something new. We don’t see Target change the red logo to pink unless there’s a real clear reason, like it’s breast cancer awareness day and they do it for 10 seconds to make a point. So that consistency of not changing things is part of how you build mindshare and I’m always loathe to encourage an organization to spend the resources that it takes to create special logos and things like that if they don’t need to. So we’re going to pivot over to questions in a second. I just want to quickly share some resources.

Sarah Durham: Next week is our last webinar. It’s about momentum. We’ll send you the link to sign up for that. If you haven’t already in the beginning of the book and downloadable on the Big Duck website is a communications self-assessment. It’s a PDF and you can complete it. All of this content emerges from my book, the Nonprofit Communications Engine, which is on Amazon. I also referenced a couple of resources today I want to flag. Also an Amazon you can find Brandraising, which breaks down some of the theory I’ve talked about today in terms of the brandraising pyramid in more detail. And also on the Big Duck website we have an ebook about brand architecture that is free that unpacks that a little bit more plus a case study of the Center for Constitutional Rights and a lot of other brand examples of our work.

Sarah Durham: And you can hear interviews with a lot of the organizations I’ve talked about today and others about how they establish their organizations clear voice on our webs on our podcast, which is called the Smart Communications Podcast. You can find that on iTunes, on Spotify, on our website, wherever you like to listen to these things. So with that I’m going to turn on my web camera and I’m going to invite Farra to turn on hers. Hi everybody. Here we are. We were just lamenting earlier about our wacky shelter in place hair. So pardon my hair. Alright Farra. Got any good questions?

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, we have a few. Sarah, how would you define the difference between mission and positioning?

Sarah Durham: Okay, so vision is the world you want to create, right? The idea you have for the world writ large, the mission is your slice of how you’re going to get there. So if you were a cancer organization, you might want a vision of a world without cancer, but your slice might be to invest in research into bone marrow cancer because that’s the work you do. That’s your mission. Positioning is more of a communications tool. Positioning is the big idea. We want people to think of when they think of you. Now your mission might say, we invest in XYZ research to find a cure. But you might want to be known as the leading organization in that space or the only organization you might want to be known as something that is uniquely differentiating and not necessarily something that is the essence of your mission. Positioning is also generally a simple idea. A lot of mission statements get jam packed with a lot of things the organization does and so they’re great to read about, but they’re not necessarily things that people can keep all of the moving parts of in their brain. Farra, would you add anything to that?

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I would just simplify. I would sort of say everything we were saying in a little bow and simplify and say your mission is your purpose and your positioning as your association. And sometimes those can be the same thing, but they are meant to do different purposes. So as Sarah said, positioning is a communication tool. What do I want people to think of immediately when they see me or connect with me. Mission is how do I explain what I do? And again, sometimes they overlap but they have different purposes and therefore could be, it could be different. The next question we have is from Theresa. Theresa is currently rebranding and she is in charge of that project.

Sarah Durham: Good luck, Theresa.

Farra Trompeter: Good luck to Teresa. Theresa’s executive director has a tough time making decisions and asks so many people for opinions on the new logo, mission, tagline, etc. And so they’re in a standstill because they can’t satisfy everyone. Do you Sarah, have any advice on how to manage a lot of opinionated staff on a brand that never happens?

Sarah Durham: Yeah. I think Theresa’s dilemma flags two challenges that a lot of nonprofits face. One challenge is that sometimes if you’re rebranding from within, in other words, if the staff is trying to lead the process without the help of an external facilitator, you get stuck in the politics, right? It can be very hard to get the right people to make the right decisions and the right times, or get people to not renege on things that were decided earlier. And it’s particularly challenging for an in house person to say, wait a minute, you said X. You know, we can’t go back and change that. The other thing that I think Theresa’s example highlights is something that is unique to nonprofits that often comes up in rebranding, is the need for the right people to be brought into the process in constructive ways at the right time.

Sarah Durham: So one of the things we do at Big Duck, and I would encourage you to do this at this point in your process, Theresa or anybody to do this, if you’re embarking on any big organizational change process is define early on who the working group is and what the roles are of the people in your organization. When we do this, we work very proactively with our clients to say who’s in the core working group? Where are we bringing them in? Who’s not in the core working group? Where do they need to be consulted? We often use frameworks like DARCI or RACI who’s responsible, accountable, consulted and informed. So whoever’s facilitating your process, if you’re using an external facilitator should help with that. They should be able to help you navigate that. And the beauty of working with an external facilitator, and particularly if that person is paid, so there’s an, there’s an actually an expense to going back and changing things is that the facilitator can say, Hey, we already agreed about this three weeks ago. Let’s not renege on that decision. Or they might even say, you could renege on that there’s a cost implication because they go back and read your work. So this is a place where the brand creator being unpacked from the brand sustainer can be useful. Facilitating that as a process is critical.

Farra Trompeter: Great. I’m going to jump to the next one just so we can get some more questions. This question comes from Andrea. Can you address how all of this, how does the concept of voice connect to what’s happening with COVID-19? Andrea knows, easy question, perhaps not an easy answer. And Sarah, you spoke a little bit about differentiation as it relates to the crisis, but maybe you can, I think about, zooming out, obviously you wrote this book, last year. It came out this year in January. So before all the pandemic started. So how does the concept of voice and maybe the engine connected to the crisis?

Sarah Durham: Yeah. You know, Big Duck is 26 years old and because we’ve been around for so long, we’ve seen a lot of challenging moments. We’ve seen what happens to nonprofits, you know, after 9/11 or after the 2008 recession. And it has historically been the case that when there is something that has profound economic implications that donors giving behavior shifts and we see donors prioritizing their top philanthropic causes. And there have been studies along the way. I think one of the most recent ones I can remember is the Canberra Collective study. It’s called the Money for Good study, which I think came out three or four years ago where what they studied was, what are donors top philanthropic priorities and how does that basically relate to mindshare. One of the findings they had was that 60% of donors are likely to support a cause they are familiar with.

Sarah Durham: We’ve seen this in, in our firsthand experience too, that if an organization has heard of you, they are more likely or if an individual’s heard of you, they’re more likely to support you. The tension here is that this is not a great time for you to spend money or time on a branding initiative. The challenge is that if you don’t speak with a clear voice now you run the risk of losing the potential mind share and engagement that would differentiate in this very competitive fundraising landscape. So it’s challenging. It’s a little bit of a chicken and an egg. What would you add, Farra?

Farra Trompeter: I think you’ve said it all. I think you may have to quickly react to the moment and put some things out there. Maybe you do have to take a slightly different voice. Maybe one that’s more caring and compassionate. If you’re organized and a little more feisty, you have to really think more about what you’re articulating. But you do need to think about how you can build on the connections you have. So we’re gonna take one more that just came in from Tara. We struggle a lot with voice and tension between communications and program policy research staff over how we talk about our work. So now as Sarah smiling cause we get this question a lot. How do we balance the opinions and voice of those who have the content knowledge and expertise with the need, desire to speak with a clear voice. We don’t have a current strategic plan. We have a relatively new executive director and not a lot of clear direction strategy for our communications. Tara, another person we feel for.

Sarah Durham: If you’re a communications person, you can’t necessarily kick off a strategic planning process in your organization. In the ideal situation, the organization strategy comes first. Communication strategy emerges from that. That helps you clarify who your audiences are and then you navigate. You sort of do this dance with your program’s team or your development team, any department. In an earlier webinar I talked about how the relationship between communications and programs and the relationship between communications and development really has to be synergistic. You are to a large extent working in service of what they do. But the benefit of what the communications team can bring to the programs team is the ability to take a step back and sort of hold a mirror up to how it sounds and, and reading between the lines what, what I imagine you’re going through.

Sarah Durham: And what we’ve seen is that sometimes the programs people go into too much detail. They get too jargony, they get too granular too soon. So a good messaging process should help you navigate that. If you, if you can lead your program’s team or your development team through a messaging process where, where you don’t start in the weeds, you start with the positioning and the personality and you come up with structure that provides the right amount of detail in the right order as you write or speak about the programs. That will help. And again, that is hard to do as an in house person. It’s much easier for us to say to your programs, people, Hey, this is really jargony. I don’t know what you’re talking about and if I don’t know what you’re talking about, other people aren’t going to know what you’re talking about.

Sarah Durham: Sometimes you need an external voice to put a little bit of pressure on that. But if you’re able to do that, that’s my advice to you. I think I’ve got a podcast, we’ve done a few podcasts where we’ve talked about this, but one of them in particular, I remember we did with Dan Gunderman where we talked about writing messaging, and I think the litmus test that Dan used was like, if you’re using language that doesn’t make sense to a 12 year old or I like to use like an alien, if I’m explaining what you do to an alien who doesn’t understand what you do and I can’t explain it or it’s not clear to an alien in simple terms, it’s probably too complicated.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah. The only thing I would add is if you don’t have a strategic plan, just sitting down with the executive director and saying, just for the next two or three years, what’s your vision for our organization? Where do you think we’re going? And that is not the same as a deep strategic planning process, but your job of communications is, is using tools, creating goals, audiences, making decisions that are furthering where the organization is going. So that executive director in an hour, via zoom or coffee, might be able to answer that for you. Maybe your recent proposal to a funder does that. So there are definitely other places where you can get that.

Sarah Durham: We probably have to wrap up. If you were interested in hearing more about Big Duck or Advomatic feel free to drop us a line if you’d like to learn more about Big Duck.

Sarah Durham: You can email me if you want to talk about Advomatic or Rose that’s [email protected] or [email protected]. But regardless, we hope this has been helpful for you and we are eager to get your questions, your comments and eager to hear how you’re using all this material and we hope you will join us next week for our fourth in the series. And most importantly, we hope that you are well and we hope that your organizations are thriving as best they can during these challenging days. Thank you for joining us.


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