Fundraising, Part 10: Communication, planning key for human services

By Todd Cohen

[This article was written for Blackbaud.]

Human-services organizations, faced with uncertain government funding, are turning  increasing attention to communicating more effectively and planning more strategically, says Michael Nilsen, vice president for public affairs at the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

That includes rebranding themselves, telling their stories more effectively, assessing the impact of their programs, making better use of digital technology, and turning to donors for advice, he says.

While human-services nonprofits typically depend on government funds for much of their budget, smaller organizations generally lack the resources of larger organizations and need to be more nimble in adjusting to changes in government support, Nilsen says.

With cuts and instability in government funding, he says, many human-services groups are looking at ways to communicate more effectively, and to reposition themselves in their communities. And their need to better define their programs and impact is critical.

“They took their donors for granted, and in doing so, failed to really connect with donors and tell them how they’re impacting the community, so now that’s a huge priority,” Nilsen says.

Now, he says, human-services groups are “changing what they’re saying, and focusing on impact, storytelling and direct connection with donors.”

With the number of human-services groups growing and often competing for contributed income, Nilsen says, they need to do a better job differentiating themselves.

Human services organizations in general, he says, tend to lag behind in their branding, storytelling and ability to communicate their impact “because they haven’t had to because of government funds,” he says.

All nonprofits, including those that focus on human services, also are increasing their use of special events to generate revenue, a trend that most likely reflects a rebound in the overall economy, Nilsen says.

And as human-services groups work to rebrand and differentiate themselves, they are looking “to diversify, but stay focused,” experimenting to identify what works, and then setting priorities based on “what brings the best return,” he says.

“They can’t just keep programs going that aren’t working,” he says.

Nonprofits also are looking for ways to make more effective use of social media, particularly videos, he says, and they increasingly are involving donors as a “springboard for ideas,” asking them for feedback and advice “about where to go, not just with programs, but also with fundraising.”

Critical to the health of human-services nonprofits, Nilsen says, is planning that is intentional and strategic.

“We’ve gotten out of the worst” of the economic decline, “and if we are going to really make it and be successful, we’ve got to move, but quickly and nimbly, with real purpose,” he says. “We’re at a crossroads. With the economy expected to improve, if you miss this boat, you’re not going to do well over the next couple of years.”

Next: Peer-to-peer strategy fuels medical research

The series:

Part 1: Growth tied to capacity, cultivation, communication.

Part 2: Healthcare groups invest in capacity.

Part 3: Higher education cultivates major gifts.

Part 4: Data key for independent schools.

Part 5: International affairs groups refine message.

Part 6: Religion focuses on fundamentals.

Part 7: Arts and culture groups focus on donors.

Part 8: United Way diversifies.

Part 9: Conservation groups connect with donors.

Part 10: Communication, planning key for human services.

Part 11: Peer-to-peer strategy fuels medical research.

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