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July 22, 2020

Why is a clear voice important for nonprofits?

Sarah Durham, CEO of Big Duck and Advomatic, goes deep into the topic of organizational voice—what it is, how to create it, maintain it, and more. Building on the insights in her book, The Nonprofit Communications Engine, she connects the work of establishing a clear and consistent voice to building deeper relationships and mindshare with audiences. Tune in to learn how you can start developing your nonprofit’s voice and get answers to common branding questions.


Sarah Durham: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. I am Sarah Durham. I am the CEO of Big Duck and of Advomatic. And I’m here today to talk about your organization’s voice. I recently gave a webinar on this topic based on my new book, the Nonprofit Communications Engine, and I talked about the idea that one of the critical outcomes of a successful communications function in a nonprofit is that your organization’s voice is clear, credible, compelling, and consistent at all points of contact. And in today’s podcast, I want to dig into that topic a little bit more with you. If you would like to go even deeper than that, you can watch a prerecorded webinar at Just go to, click on the insights area, poke around in the videos, or go to and just search the keyword “voice.” And hopefully that will come up. In these webinars series, in my book, and a lot of the writing and thinking and speaking that I do, I have become very, very interested in the idea of mindshare.

Sarah Durham: Mindshare is the level of awareness and understanding that a product, program, service, or organization has in people’s minds. People don’t often think of mindshare as the goal, but mindshare is basically the solution to a problem that many, many organizations have. Many organizations say our organization is a hidden gem or it’s a best kept secret. That’s a mindshare problem. And we want to raise mindshare or build mindshare because mindshare is a critical step on the journey towards engagement. Engagement means getting people to take actions that advance your mission. People don’t take actions to advance your mission, like making a donation or signing up or signing a pledge if they don’t know who you are, if they’ve never heard of you, or if they’ve just heard of you so recently that they haven’t built a sense of comfort and trust with you.

Sarah Durham: So mindshare and engagement are critical and your organization’s voice is one of the ways you build and maintain that mindshare and build and maintain engagement. Because if everything I see and hear from you looks and feels and sounds different, it’s going to be much, much harder for you to build mindshare and engagement with me. In an ideal world, that direct mail piece, that email, that speech that’s given at the gala, the virtual gala video that people watch, all of those things reinforce some central ideas and critical principles so that the people on the receiving end of all those communications are able to form a clear picture in their head of who you are, not just who you are as an individual or as a program, but more so who you are as an organization, as an institution doing that is a multistep process.

Sarah Durham: And it kind of circles right back to something we do a lot of at Big Duck, and we talk about a lot, which is brandraising. Really what a strong brand is about is helping your organization, elevate its voice, to find and elevate its voice. So how do you do that? First you have to start with a clear organizational strategy and a clear brand strategy. In other words, if your organization isn’t clear what it is and where it’s heading, odds are good you’re not going to be able to communicate very clearly about who you are and where you’re heading either. It all begins with a great strategic plan or a great organizational vision. The vision, the mission. If you’ve gone through a formal strategic planning, you might have organizational objectives, definitions of values or audiences, all that is the backbone of a great brand and of the elements that you need to establish your organization’s voice.

Sarah Durham: Along the way you need to translate that organizational strategy into a brand strategy. So the brand strategy is kind of the bridge that helps you go from this more organization-wide lofty stuff into tools that are useful for day to day communications. And there are lots of brand strategy models. In fact, we’re working right now on an ebook that should be out in the summer of 2020 about brand strategy. That’s going to break down a number of different brand strategy models. At Big Duck we frequently use personality and positioning. So personality is a group of words that describes the tone and style or the overarching feelings you want people to associate with your organization and positioning is a brief statement you hope to own in the minds of your target audiences. If I walk up to people on the street and I say, what’s the Red Cross? Something pops into their mind. Red Cross has mindshare with them.

Sarah Durham: And the thing that pops into their mind might be well, “They do disaster relief.” That’s positioning. Or if I say to people, what is Make-A-Wish? (Which is also a very well known organization.) People have heard of Make-A-Wish because they have mindshare and they might think something like, well, “They grant wishes for terminally ill kids.” That’s the positioning part. So personality and positioning can go a long way towards you as a communicator or as an executive director being clear and deliberate, how you want to communicate and starting to align people around the voice of your organization. On the Big Duck website, there are a number of case studies for brandraising work we have done and campaigns and teams work we’ve done. But in the webinar, I highlighted one example in particular, and there’s a case study for this at under the work page. And it’s a brand case study for the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Sarah Durham: When they worked with us on their brand strategy, the positioning that we aligned on was: The Center for Constitutional Rights wants to be known as the people who fight oppression regardless of risks and stand with social justice movements and communities under threat, and that their personality should be: unapologetic, agile, tough, and impassioned. Those two things, the positioning and personality are then used to assess how you’re communicating. Does your name, does your tagline, does your logo, does your website do the visuals you use to all the pieces that are in your toolkit for communicating reinforce your brand strategy? Do they all add up to communicate in a clear and cohesive way that gets that idea across? If so, you probably are doing a great job with your organization’s voice. And if you’re not, there might be an important piece of work to do to shore up some of the visuals or the messaging that you need to use in order to reinforce your brand strategy.

Sarah Durham: I’m a big believer of hanging on to brand assets that work and ripping the bandaid off and changing the ones that don’t. At some point, I’ve seen a lot of organizations who hang on to a name or a logo or something that has long since lost its utility, but they’re just afraid to change it. But actually my experience has been countless times that when you rip that bandaid off and you change that awkward name or move away from that acronym or change that logo that the founder’s kid created 35 years ago, you give yourself a great lift by staff being motivated and having better tools to use. And all of a sudden it just feels great. And those tools are going to help you make sure that you have what you need to write, to speak, and to design with a clear and consistent voice.

Sarah Durham: You definitely want to pull out all that in writing. This is part of creating sustainable momentum at your organization. At an organization that works with an agency or a freelancer or a professional, usually that means you end up with messaging, visuals, and all kinds of rules in a brand guide, but it doesn’t have to be a formal brand guide. It could be written down anywhere, but you’re going to want to make sure you’ve got something that people can refer to when they’re writing or speaking or producing a flyer or producing something else so that they are doing it in a way that is consistent and easy for them. And by removing those obstacles, you make it a lot easier for them to speak and write and produce things on message. Okay, let’s talk a little bit about some of the other pieces that help your organization establish a clear voice before we wrap up first, it’s important that somebody on your team has some sort of accountability or ownership over your organization’s voice.

Sarah Durham: It’s often the director of communications. If you’ve got one, if you don’t have one, it might be your director of development or even your executive director, but somebody somewhere should assume the responsibility of saying, Hey, I’m going to be the person that maybe trains new hires on how to write and speak and design on message who maybe checks in with people to see they have the tools they need, or does periodic update trainings and who celebrates victories when people do a great job. They might be somebody with writing skills who can help actually write content or write a script or something like that, but they don’t have to be. More so they have to be somebody who believes in the importance of communicating with a unified voice at your organization. And they need to be somebody who has the capacity to actually open up the culture around this to foster a shared sense of the importance of speaking with a unified voice as an organization and help people to see the value of that.

Sarah Durham: It’s not necessarily a big lift, but it is something that will add a lot of value to your organization if you’ve got the right people in place who are doing that. Alright, so I’m going to just tackle a couple of the common questions I get with organizations who are trying to decide if they should embark on this kind of work. So one of the questions I regularly get is, what if I’m not sure whether I should just sort of, you know, change a few little things or overhaul everything? You know, some things work, some things don’t work. As my colleagues at Advomatic like to say, should I iterate? Or should I overhaul? Well, it’s interesting. Probably in 2016, maybe 2015 Big Duck did a study where we looked at the impact that rebranding had on organizations nationally. And it was pretty formal study. We did it with a market research firm.

Sarah Durham: And one of the really interesting findings from that study was a surprise to me, was that organizations that overhaul actually see better outcomes. If you rip that bandaid off and you change many things at once, you are more likely to see a lift in fundraising or a lift in program recruitment or a lift in attracting new board members than if you just change things incrementally. And I think that is because there is a big lift that staff get from making a big change. But I also think it’s because it’s clearer for the people on the outside, that something big has happened, that this is a big shift, an exciting moment and good things are coming. So don’t incrementally change things if you can avoid it.

Sarah Durham: It will be easier for you and easier for the audiences you’re trying to reach to speak with a clear voice if you do your best to make more of a flip the switch kind of moment. One of the other questions I get is how do I do this? How do I get my organization’s voice aligned? If I have no dedicated people who do this stuff? Well, it doesn’t have to be a dedicated communicator. It’s only a fraction of somebody’s time, but look around your operations team, look around your development team, your program’s team. Try to find somebody who believes in the importance of clear and consistent communications who’s likable and who’s good at getting people excited and see if they’ll take on the job. What if you can’t afford to do it right? In other words, you can’t afford to hire an agency like Big Duck or something like that? You gotta be lean and mean and scrappy, but you need to go through some rebranding or some realignment with the assets you use to communicate.

Sarah Durham: Well, I have seen some organizations do some terrific work working with volunteers, working with in house people who might be in the marketing department of a board member’s company, and working with organizations that do grant making in the form of service grants. So organizations like the Taproot foundation, for instance, I don’t know if they still do this, but they used to put together volunteers and make a grant to an organization to help with messaging or help with the logo design. The challenge with working with volunteers or in those kinds of ways, is that you typically only get a piece of the work. You don’t get the whole work, but still you can get some terrific work done in a very high-value way. Just be clear with the people you’re working with, what your needs are and what your expectations are. Don’t assume they get it.

Sarah Durham: And don’t assume that because they are volunteers, you have to accept whatever they give you. Ultimately you have to live with it. So make sure your standards are clearly communicated from the outset and you feel you have an open dialogue. So if things go off track a bit, you can be candid with them and get what you need. Last piece of advice, I often get asked, it’s my organization’s 25th anniversary or 50th anniversary. Should I make a special logo for that anniversary? Or should we change our logo to be pink or something like that? And my advice to you is no, you should not. A special anniversary logo, changing the logo, those kinds of things. They are work and expense for your organization, and they really only benefit insiders. If you have a gala or you send out a communications to people who are insiders, to your board members, your staff members, program alum, people like that, sure.

Sarah Durham: Use something special to say, this is a milestone anniversary. But if you’re trying to reach and engage new audiences and reinforce mindshare and engagement with audiences who may not know you as well, don’t distract them with your anniversary year. It’s not interesting or relevant for them. Instead, dig deep into the essence of what makes you, you, your organization’s voice and focus on using the same assets consistently, even though it’s boring for your team to do so, because it is that repetition and consistency, that’s going to help establish mindshare and engagement. It’s going to make your job actually easier because you’re not reinventing the wheel every time you do it. And you’re going to see better outcomes as a result. Thank you for joining me today. And I look forward to hearing from you, drop us a line at [email protected].