Here is a presentation I gave at the National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance annual meeting in Big Bear, California.  The intent is to share the lessons I’ve learned from my time at the Sitka Conservation Society with other non-profits.

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Topic: Effective communications for non-profits.

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How are we doing, as a whole, in our communications?

I would say “poorly.”  In general, our communications are too wordy and we have not branded ourselves well.  We are not using the tools available effectively.  And we are not presenting the message well enough.

For instance, if a non-profit were in charge of the title for the Lord of the Rings movies, it would probably end up sounding something like this: “A small-statured but good-natured fictional hominid species (a Hobbit) ventures on a quest to recover a ring, which is generally known to posses both social and political powers.  The hobbit’s success would not be made possible without the following partners: Gandalf the White (formerly Gandolf the Grey); Legolas, Prince of the Woodland; Gimli, Son of Gloin; Samwise Gamgee; Aragorn II Elessar, Chieftan of the Dunedain, Heir of Islildur, Envinyatar, King of Gondor, High King of Arnor; and other valuable supporters not listed.”

The upshot is that we have a number of advantages.  We have “rightness” on our side—we’re not corporations trying to convince people that chemicals are good for you, that burning oil is good for the planet, or that all we have to do is shop more to have better lives.

No, we have the advantage of our messages being truthful, with good intentions, and backed by science and ethics.

We are also fast and nimble enough to react quickly with our messaging—we don’t have to filter everything through a giant PR department.

We are creative and resourceful.

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How can we create better media and craft better messages in the first place?

To answer that, we need to step back and look at some presumptions about communication.

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First off, think about the audience you are trying to engage.

A couple of fun facts:

–          The average online attention span is 8 seconds.  The attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds.

–          The average person consumes 6 newspapers-worth of information every day.

People are busy and we need to make communication pieces that take that into consideration.

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(By the way, I borrowed this image from the internet gods and claim no rights to it.)

In order to keep peoples’ attentions in the modern age content must be:

1.)    Concise– get the message across as quickly as possible

2.)    Current– if the issue isn’t germane, it will be overshadowed by an issue that is

3.)    Compelling– there is a LOT of media out there—you need to set yours apart

To start thinking about creating media with the audience in mind, let’s take a look at an example from the experts—tabloids.

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Think about the last time you were in a grocery store checkout line.  If you are like me, you can’t help but be distracted by the photos and headline on the tabloids.  Without even realizing it (and sometimes despite my best efforts), I get a quick overview of the entire pop culture world in just a few seconds.

The reason is that tabloids have made a science out of trying to capture your attention and lead readers “down the rabbit hole” to reading their magazine.

Let’s analyze this article about my good friend the Bieb-meister.

Anyone who looks at this page will inevitably read the headline and look at the main photo.  So the author/designer has frontloaded those with the most compelling and current information.  Even better, the title leaves you asking a question, “Why do girls give the Bieb a headache?”


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To find out the answer to that question, you have to read a bit more.

The next thing you will probably look at is the subtitle and check out the other picture.

It is VERY important to realize that with each “level” of the communication, a larger percentage of people will NOT continue reading.  Therefore you always want to front-load your message.

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An even smaller portion of people will take the time to look at the other easily-digestible information on the spread, like the photo captions or any other graphs, lists, or graphics.

One lesson to take advantage of this is to repeat the key points from the text as photo captions.

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And finally, only the smallest portion of people will read the text.  I would bet that about 95-99% of people never finish more than the first paragraph or too.

So, the lesson is to not waste too much time on the text of your communications.  Spend that time instead on culling and shortening your verbage, designing your content well, and finding ways to front-load the most important points of your message.

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The first step to any communication is to define your audience.  The way I address a close friend, an executive, or a gradeschool students will vary greatly.

Knowing your audience will tell you what tone to use, what outreach tools to utilize, and what methods to affect your communication goals.

But it’s not enough to know who you are addressing with your communication.  You also need to know a little about them and how they will receive your communication.

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Here’s an example of how it pays to know a little about your audience.

Imagine you wanted to put out information about a contest.  It might seem like a good idea to format an entry sheet with lots of cool photos and export it as a PDF so it is easy to mail and print.

But, look at these statistics.  Almost 1 out of 3 people will probably receive the information about your contest on their phone.  Have you ever tried downloading a filling out a PDF on your phone?  It’s not very easy.  You would have basically ensured that 1/3rd of your audience would not respond.

Knowing this, you might consider instead putting that information on a webpage that allow mobile users to fill in blanks and automatically adjust to fit different screen sizes.

Once you know your audience, you can begin to design communications that actually reach people.

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Here’s an example from Sitka Conservation Society:

The first year I worked at SCS, we put tons of time and effort into creating a colorful, glossy, snazzy-looking magazine style annual report.  It was the same kind of report most non-profits send out at the end of the year.  And every year I would get a stack of reports from all of the non-profits I’m involved with. Despite my best intentions, I never those reports.  I would flip through, look at the pictures, check out the pie charts, and stack them in a pile of “things to read later.”  Three months later, when I cleaned my desk, they would all end up in the recycle bin.

I realized that if I didn’t read anyone else’s report, how many of them were reading mine?

So, I stepped back and thought about the audience.  Like me most folks are probably more interested in the photos than the text.  Great, let’s design a report centered on photos!

Like me, most folks probably don’t have time to sit and read a report.  So, let’s figure out a way to break it up into manageable bits that are quick to read.

Like me, most folks probably don’t need any more stacks of paper lying on their desk.  So, let’s figure out a way to make the report useful and worth saving.

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In the end, we decided to make our report into a calendar.

It highlights our photos, it breaks all of the information up into 12 short articles, it is useful to people, and there is incentive for people to keep it for an ENTIRE YEAR!

Most folks probably hang it by their desk.  I suspect that at some point over the course of a month, most folks end up reading at least a paragraph or two of the articles if not the whole thing.

An added benefit is that people hang up their calendar for all to see, publicly showing their support for SCS at the same time.

The calendar was a huge success, but I wanted to see how we could design it so it would still have impact for more than just one year.

I found inspiration when I went for my bi-annual dental check-up.  As she reclined the chair, I realized that I was staring up at a dozen photos I had taken!  She had cut the photo pages from the calendar and pinned them to the ceiling.  Every patient she saw had no choice but to sit and look at the photos, see our logo, and read the captions.

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That gave me the idea to put a calendar in the center of the poster to make sure it would continue to be useful long after the calendar was finished.

So, we went from recycling fodder that we had a hard time giving away, to a report that folks actually read and use.  Some folks even join as members, just to get a calendar!

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So now that we know how to start creating better media, how do we get it out to folks?

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This is SCS’s Communication Strategy.  Let’s take a closer look at it.

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Here’s the overview.

1.)    Define your goals

2.)    Define your targets and audience

3.)    Identify the tools and methods you will use to make and distribute your communication piece

4.)    Leverage, repeat, leverage, repeat, leverage, repeat….

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Here are a list of some goals you might have for you communications piece.  Rarely are these exclusive, but it’s nice to list your primary and secondary goal.

Next you want to define your targets and audience.  Here’s the difference between the two:

  • Audience is the party that will receive the fruits of your communication plan
  • A target is the party that will be on the receiving end of the leverage you create based on your communication to the audience.

For instance, if I wanted to convince a senator to support a Wilderness bill, I might create media to inform the public in his/her district.  In this case, the senator is the target, but the voters are the audience.

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Then, you’ll want to decide upon the tools you’ll want to use.  Will your audience respond to a written editorial or an online video?  An infographic via email or a postcard mailer?

I break up our outreach tools at SCS between those we control (meaning we know for certain we can get them and control the message) and those that are earned (meaning we have to convince someone else to rebroadcast it for us).  Some are easier and some are harder.  You’ll have to figure out which is best for your campaign to reach your goals.

Here are some thoughts and tips on various tools:

  • Facebook/Twitter Social Media- Use it to drive people back to your website content and spark discussion
    • Photos get 39% more interaction (but, they have to be engaging and genuine) self-explanatory photos work best and albums do better than individual pictures (HubSpot)
    • Shorter posts get 23% more interaction.  Less than 250 characters 60% more engagement, less than 80 is 66% more engagement (Track Social)
    • Emoticons increase comments by 33% (Why? Who the hell knows.  Maybe it seems more genuine?) (AMEX OPEN)
    • Best day?—results are inconclusive.
    • Posting outside of business hours yields 20% higher engagement (Buddymedia)
    • 67% of Facebook users access via mobile (young users tend to check their phones as soon as they wake up, adults often check during commutes or lunch)
    • Be sure to check your own statistics and analytics for your organizations FaceBook page
  • Website-
    • As nonprofits we don’t have high organic readership.  Assume that folks will never, ever see your page unless they are directed there.  Treat it less as a newspaper than as a content clearinghouse and archive.
  • Print Media
    • I believe print media is gaining new relevance in the age of digital media.  Think about how you feel when you receive a hand written letter versus an email, even if they say the exact same thing.
    • Costly, so use it wisely.
    • DO NOT CONTRIBUTE TO THE WASTE STREAM.  Assume that no one will ever read anything more than a headline before throwing print media away.  UNLESS, you give them a good reason to keep it and read it.  (SCS Callendar Example)

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Here are some other ways non-profits can compete with big-time marketing agencies.

Here are some software tools that you can use to make all types of media.  On the right side are the Adobe versions of the products that cost hundreds of dollars.  On the left are the Opensource analogs that are FREE!

Here are some links to: Scribus, GIMP2, Inkscape, KDEnlive (Note: KDEnlive can only be run on a Linux operating system, which is also free) (Another note: TechSoup offers big discounts on corporate software like Adobe)

Also think about ways to save money and resources.  Sometimes projects can be turned around very quickly and other need a lot of time to produce high-quality results.  Figure out which is which and don’t waste time over-producing something that doesn’t need it to be effective.  Some projects can be done in house, but many projects will be much cheaper and better quality if you contract it out.  Lots of designers will give huge discounts to non-profits that they like (I know, I’m one of them).

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So, we’ve got all of the pieces now: we can create good media and we have a strategy.  Now how can we get our communication projects to really work for us?

Remember: Communications is less what you make and more who sees it—or lets what you say and more about who hears it.

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Here is one example of how we took a couple of easy communication outputs and reused them over and over again to leverage more and more impact toward our goal.


In 2011, we took a Troop of Boy Scouts out on a five day trip to remove invasive weeds in the Stikine-LeConte Wilderness.  Our goals for communicating the trip were:

1.)    To build public support for Wilderness in the local community of Wrangell

2.)    Influence Forest Service leadership to value stewardship

3.)    Inspire local citizens (like the Scouts) to take on stewardship into the future


We started with a short video and webpost.

We crafted the webpost into a Press Release.  We sent the video and press realease to Boy’s Life the Scouting magazine.  They posted the video on their site and printed an article in their national publication.  From that media, the Scouts were asked to speak at the Alaska Forum on the Environment in Anchorage and show the video.

The Forest Service newletter SoughDough Notes also picked up the story.  Following from all of this, the Scouts got the Forest Service’s Partner of the Year Award in 2013.

At each step along the way, we shared these media outputs with Forest Service staff up and down the chain of command, thereby leveraging the public support to influence their view of Wilderness stewardship.

We also shared all of these media outputs on social media.  That allowed us to keep our membership engaged.  Through reshares, new folks were introduced to our organization and the idea of stewardship, broadening the impact and influence the broader public.

We also used the story in our own newsletter and annual report which helps us inform members and gain new membership.  It also saves us staff time and money that we would have otherwise spent writing new copy for those publications.

And the chain reaction of media still keeps going.  Here is a recent radio story about the Scouts and their work.

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Here’s an example of how this communication strategy was able to accomplish multiple goals and reach multiple audiences and targets with relatively little work.


Now, get out there and apply this to your own communication campaigns!

For more information, or to download SCS’s Communication Strategy, check out the Sitka Conservation Society website.

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