March 21, 2014

A culture of communication nurtures a culture of innovation

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I hesitate to even mention the word innovation. It is so quickly applied—to a mission statement, a description of a program, an approach to program delivery, to social entrepreneurship—when used often enough, it becomes meaningless.

give thanks at the end of the dayInnovation is a way of thinking. Innovation is not about doing an old thing in a new way, it is about creating a new way to do something new, or a new way to do something better. Innovation does not accept the status quo; it recognizes there may be a better way, and is open to making it a reality.

That sounds a bit like what your purpose and mission are: to create greater impact for the cause your organization represents.

The problem is we’re uncomfortable with new. We’re uncomfortable with new processes, new approaches. We’re uncomfortable with that with which we are not familiar: social media, with communications planning, with taking the time to communicate clearly. We’re uncomfortable with measuring the results we achieve, for fear they do not measure up to the board’s (and our supporter’s) expectations.

To be meaningful, innovation must be disruptive. Innovation occurs when we change the way we think, in order to transform the way we (and our supporters) interact and perceive the cause the organization represents. For a nonprofit to be innovative and achieve greater impact, it may be necessary to consider a different business model. Innovation requires different processes, performance measurement, models, and metrics. Disruption is one of those uncomfortable processes by which we seek to improve and build upon the positive work that has begun, to refine and push past where we currently are.

A high-performing nonprofit needs to be innovative, and dare be disruptive, in the manner in which it chooses to communicate. It must seek ways to disrupt the expectations of supporters, surprise its funders, and illuminate the outcomes of its work to new audiences. Here’s how that might look:

Think strategically

  • Be focused on your outcomes. With clarity of focus comes a clear path to the impact you need to be communicating about.
  • Put communications first. Create a communication plan achievable within your resources. Stick to it and execute on it.
  • Ask for input. Nurture a culture where ideas for new ways of engagement and communicating about impact are welcomed, explored and discussed.
  • Know your audience. Baby boomers, Generation X and Millennials are different in the way they are influenced, and in the way they consumer media and experience the world. Nonprofits need to understand donor and audience motivation (why they support your cause) and preferences.
  • Know where your audience is listening. Communicators and marketers have to understand the platforms that their audiences interact with. Think beyond Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Nonprofits have to communicate where the audience is listening. For example, explore opportunities for in-app advertising with an app developer that shares values with your organization, and who may be interested in supporting your cause.

Think beyond branding

  • Start from your purpose, and communicate to your outcomes.
  • Recognize your cause is not a brand, and your nonprofit is the voice for the cause. Think about your purpose, character and culture— the beliefs, values and actions that create your organization's identity.
  • Leaders understand their organization's purpose, but struggle at times to fully connect that purpose with their audience. They understand what they are on a mission to do, but are challenged by how to effectively share how their cause is different and how their organization makes a difference.
  • Begin with the premise that all communications are donor communications. Nonprofits are challenged to find the resources to project a professional image and communicate with a clear voice. More impact in fundraising, organizational sustainability, and cause awareness will be achieved when there is a commitment to investing in communications.
  • Challenge the board to allocate 5% of the budget to outreach and communications. Respectfully challenge your funders to consider design and marketing as part of program delivery. Once enlightened, those funders whose thinking transcends the idea that the majority of funding must go to program delivery will see stronger and more sustainable organizations flourish.

Put communications first

  • Use design to close the (communication) gap between your work and the stories of your work. The role of design is to be disruptive, to interrupt, and gain the attention of the audience.
  • Just because everybody else is doing it, doesn’t mean the approach is right for your organization. 
  • Tell fewer stories for the sake of telling stories. Create a narrative, and recognize that stories are the meaningful points of interest that serve to align your work with the values of your audience.
  • Create visual stories of what you’re achieving, and working to achieve. Inform and inspire your supporters through pictures that are worth more than 1,000 words.
  • Speak to your audience’s mind, and appeal to their hearts.

Design with purpose, communicate with clarity

  • Much can be accomplished through continuity: consistently apply design standards to every touch point. Identify someone who will check all of your touch points for consistency in color, typography and tone of voice.
  • Take steps to empower your board to be ambassadors for the organization, and advocates for the cause. Create memorable and succinct talking points, and share them on wallet cards as a resource for your board to be ready to share.
  • What captures your constituent’s attention is not always what is different, but what is familiar. Become a familiar voice to them. Build meaningful relationships, help them to know your voice and understand your messages.

Where can we begin to be disruptive? May I suggest, in a world of email, tweets, and digital saturation, perhaps one of the most innovative and disruptive acts we can do is to recognize that we must market less, and build relationships more. We must be grateful, and express our gratitude to those who support our organization and advance our cause.

How to practice this act of disruption? Not an email, not a phone call. Write a thank you. Type a thank you. Regardless, what you must do is personalize it, and sign it. Not with your computer signature, but with pen and ink. Send it, and know that when it is received, the recipient will recognize that you’ve taken the time to acknowledge that their gift is important to your organization— and that the gift was meaningful to the donor.

Creating a culture of communication and innovation where one does not exist, or is just beginning to form, will take time. Begin with what you can do today, and one day, one person at a time, you’ll be quietly disruptive, and nurture your own culture of innovation.

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