Should public relations for charities and nonprofits be implemented differently compared to for-profit businesses?
For nearly 20 years, I’ve been asked a variation of this question by nonprofit leaders. Since I launched my PR firm about a decade ago, the question comes even more frequently. While most of our clients are for-profit businesses that are national or in several markets, we have also worked with a handful of charities and nonprofits over the years, some that are nationally focused and others local only to a single media market.
When it comes to PR tactics, it doesn’t matter if you’re a for-profit or nonprofit. Sure, a nonprofit might be focused on specifically promoting its fundraising or education efforts, but when you boil it down, it’s really promoting a service, product or idea just like a for-profit business.
I’m constantly impressed by the mission-driven focus of the many nonprofit leaders that I’ve worked with, and I believe business leaders can learn a lot from their passion and commitment to achieving an end goal. The challenge is that some nonprofit leaders fail to understand that their organization is a type of business too and that public relations is a key ingredient to achieving success for their overall mission. Many times, and for various reasons, nonprofit leaders have the wrong mindset and don’t recognize or believe they should adhere to the proven PR recipe that many businesses follow.
Here are five PR tips for nonprofits to think like a for-profit to improve their public awareness and grow community support for their missions.
1. It’s essential to brag
I know that some nonprofit leaders hate this idea. They find it embarrassing or fear it might look bad to other nonprofit leaders. The reality is people like a winner. They want to know their money and time contributed achieved the desired effect. One of the easiest ways to brag about your success is to submit letters to the editor or “My Turn” columns to local papers. After sharing your success, you can then highlight that you’re not done. Explain how the community can help keep the success going or take your effort to the next level.
2. Celebrate the small stuff
Sure, if you reach a major fundraising goal, you’re going to announce that, but don’t leave out the small victories. How many cans of food did you give away last month? How many program participants graduated? Milestones don’t need to be big to demonstrate you’re doing fantastic work. This may be a simple, one-page press release that can be sent regularly to community papers to grow local support and excite your base.
3. Look at your calendar to create PR opportunities
Big holidays like Christmas are obvious for hosting toy drives, but what other events can occur around the calendar? Valentine’s Day is an easy one, where you could organize a media event to show you love your program participants or volunteers. Veterans Day also creates a lot of opportunities to thank Veterans. Media are always looking to do a story around holidays, even smaller ones. If you can attach your organization to something they are going to cover anyway, you have an improved chance of attracting media interest.
Related: The Impact of PR on Small Businesses
4. Follow the flock — or strategically don’t
There’s always a bunch of back-to-school-related backpack drives. If this fits your nonprofit’s mission, then you should absolutely consider following the flock and do this as well. Alternatively, consider creating a campaign where there’s less competition. For example, we rarely hear about efforts around the end of school. Instead of a backpack drive at the start of school, maybe do something for the kids who will lose the safety net of school during the summer. Give away books for summer reading or develop a program to help kids who will lose the free school-lunch program benefits until classes restart. Make your campaign visual so that you can invite cameras to attend and film as you gather or deliver the donated items.
5. Let your business partners do the work for you
A lot of businesses already have PR departments or consultants. If you don’t have a PR team of your own, ask to use theirs. Ask them to invite media when they drop off a donation or to send photos to media letting the community know how they helped you. The business partner gets good publicity from doing this, and it makes them want to donate even more to you for helping them look good. You get great publicity for your program and get to highlight how businesses are assisting you, which only helps attract more business partners in the future. All this is at no cost to you; all you need to do is provide a background for pictures and offer a quote that thanks the business for its commitment to the community.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a traditional business or a nonprofit. Public relations comes down to the story you tell, how well you tell it and how easy you make your story for media to cover. The more visual the story, the better it is, and nonprofits by nature have amazing visual opportunities for media.
In addition to visuals, media love human-interest stories. It doesn’t matter if the story is about a program participant, a donor or a business partner. If there’s a personal story attached to it, then it’s a story that media will consider.
Nonprofits have a huge advantage over businesses when it comes to getting media coverage. They simply need to alter their PR mindset to allow for the creation and implementation of a traditional public-relations strategy.