Planning and Rallying Support for Creative Services

Making the case for your communications needs

Danny Palmerlee, Western Rivers Conservancy

For those of us who manage communications at small non-profits, getting the buy-in and budget we want (or, rather, need) for marketing and design can be a challenge. For one thing, non-profit budgets are limited simply by the fact that they belong to non-profits.

The sense that marketing and creative services like design or branding are overhead, and that anything which isn’t “program related” should be trimmed, continues to persist, limiting the reach and power of even larger, long-standing non-profits. 


Thoughtful branding and design is not just part of an organization’s success, it’s paramount to it.


A professional appearance, a clear sense of audience, cohesive branding and inspirational storytelling give a non-profit credibility and authority. They paint a clear picture of what the organization does, and can make everything from fundraising to community outreach far more successful.

But how do you get your board behind things like branding, a new logo, a video campaign, print design, a better website, or other creative services? Knowing the concrete value of design and being able to articulate it is half the battle. The other half is presenting these needs as part of a solid communications plan.


A Plan is Key

As difficult as it can be to carve out a day or two at the beginning of every year for planning, the process is critical. With a good plan, it’s easier to convince a wary board, the founder, a potential funder, or even an individual donor why they should support things like branding and design. A solid plan will help you clearly identify what can be done in-house and what needs outsourcing. With great ideas coming at you on a near-daily basis, it can help a small, over-extended communications staff stay focused. And that focus increases the likelihood that you’ll be successful at accomplishing what you set out to do each year.

If your organization lacks a multi-year strategic plan or even an annual plan, you still can (and should) hammer out a solid communications plan for the year.


If you do have an annual plan or strategic plan, make sure your communications plan is part of it. It’s the only way to ensure that design (and other communications needs) will be given the attention they deserve.


Know Where to Start

First, separate the real from the ideal. Knowing what you need and knowing what’s realistic are key. Do you just need a new logo or a series of videos? Do you want to launch a social media campaign? Or, do you need to start from square one, and create your first communications platform and fully rebrand (or even just brand) the organization? You know your board or your supervisor (or yourself) better than anyone, and you probably have a good sense of what they’ll be willing to support.

Although it may be obvious to you that it’s high time for serious branding work, and that doing so will benefit everyone, the undertaking may not be digestible by the founder or the board just yet. If that’s the case, it doesn’t have to mean putting everything off—you can still create a new logo, build a new website, launch a social campaign or hire someone to shoot a series of videos for you.

If you can first tackle the big stuff—a multi-year strategic plan, a brand audit, a rebrand, a comms platform—great! Everything you do after that will be easier and better for it. If you can’t, choose one or two things that you want to do, put them in your plan, and then spend the year figuring out how to do them well. Don’t worry about the bazillion other things that you know need doing. Put those in next year’s plan and keep your eyes on what you set out to do this year.

The Nuts and Bolts of Planning

Putting together a communications plan doesn’t have to be a daunting undertaking or involve complicated spreadsheets. It just needs to start with some strategic thinking about what will benefit your organization most in the coming year. It can exist in a Word or Google document, with headings for your goals and bullet points stating how you plan to achieve each of them. Make it simple enough to be useful, something you can refer to throughout the year.

Start by breaking down everything you do or want to do into buckets—print collateral, social media, email marketing, event planning, media outreach, etc.—and then define clear goals for each of those areas for the coming year. Beneath each goal, list the individual tasks that are going to allow you to achieve it. For example, under Media Outreach, give yourself the tasks of sending out four press releases; identifying four local reporters who have the highest likelihood of becoming interested in your mission; submitting two stories to local blogs, and so forth.

As you hammer out action items for each of your goals, figure out where you’re going to need outside help. If your goal is to improve the organization’s visibility on social media, your task might be to identify and hire a low- or pro-bono designer to create a series of assets to use and build upon throughout the year. If your goal is to improve the organization’s print collateral, then one of your action items might be to contract a designer to create new business cards or a series of postcards for local distribution.


In all of these cases, if you make your goals something the board can wrap its collective head around, with clear action items that you can accomplish, you’ll be far more likely to get the support you need.


Always Include Branding in Your Plan

The reality for small non-profits, especially if the founder is still involved, is that you often have to ease branding work (especially rebranding work) into the conversation slowly. But no matter how gradually you have to take it, always be thinking about the brand, voice, look and feel of your organization. Always chip away at it, honing it as you go.

A great way to do this is to devote a section of every plan to branding-related goals—and you don’t have to call it “branding” if you think that will scare people away. You can make your goal, “Improving our organizational voice and visual appearance.” Under this, you can include tasks like, “Clearly define our audience(s) to ensure our materials speak effectively to our constituents,” or, “Work with a volunteer designer to create typography standards for all email and online marketing.”

You don’t have to call it “branding” if you think that will scare people away.

These branding-related tasks, while far from full-fledged overhauls, can go a long way toward professionalizing the look of your organization. They will give even the smallest non-profit a greater sense of authority and organizational cohesiveness that will help everything you do, from fundraising to marketing and media outreach.

Then, ensure your communications plan is a clear, stand-alone part of the larger annual plan. This is the key to getting the organizational buy-in that every non-profit needs in order to be successful. The freshness and enthusiasm it can breathe into the organization will work wonders.


Danny Palmerlee is Communications Director at Western Rivers Conservancy, and serves as a Non-profit advisor on the Visible Advisory Committee.