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Why your nonprofit needs a communications budget

In Nonprofits: We Must Break Out of the Scrappiness Cycle, Vu Le talks about the extremely frugal nature of most nonprofits. “We are always scrimping, trying to find the best deals, trying to get stuff discounted or preferably free. …  It has become a mindset that is ingrained in all of us. It is our donors’ money! We must save! We must be responsible!”

And while this is true, often the mindset of needing to spend as little as possible goes too far. It is important to weigh what you are saving against the potential cost to the organisation in the long term.

Communications is a key part of nonprofit work, but it is also where nonprofits typically fail to allocate sufficient resources. Communications budgets are usually small or non-existent, and the skills that staff need to properly manage something like social media is often taken for granted. With leadership attitudes varying from “social media is a complete waste of time” to “I heard about a campaign that went viral – why can’t we do that?”, staff working in communications face an uphill battle. 

Such naivete can severely impact the public face of your work. 

Online visibility is a big part of fundraising, but it’s not magic. To be clear, you can raise some money, and run substantive campaigns online -- if you have a solid campaign strategy, skilled staff, and an appropriate budget. A donate button or a few tweets are not going to do it!

Some issues I commonly encounter:

"We have no communications budget"

Organisations typically prioritise programme work and fundraising and ignore communications. This makes no sense. Communications are an integral part of fundraising and programme work. Refusing to prioritise it and budget appropriately can hurt fundraising success as well as limit the reach and success of your programmes.

Integrate the cost of communications into all budget planning. For example:

    • allocate sufficient staff time to plan, manage, implement and evaluate communications
    • budget for staff training if needed
    • allocate costs for social media advertising
    • consider the cost of graphic design for campaigns
    • estimate the cost of website updates if managed externally, or staff time if managed internally.

“Our Director wants a new website, but won’t spend any money on it. Do you know someone who can build it for free?”

There is no such thing as a free website. Even if you find someone who will volunteer to put a website together for you, there are still associated costs, including hosting, domain fees, and regular software updates. In addition, who will update the site? Who will write the content? Who will edit the materials and source images?

During the web development process, who will manage the developers? Who will determine the look and feel of the site, and prepare, edit and organise all the content out in a site map? Even if your developer is free (however unlikely this is), you would still need to invest a considerable amount of time in managing this process.

Your time is not free! When you do not budget for the time to manage this process, the end result will likely be a website that does not meet your needs – and this can cost you credibility.

Budget appropriately for your website. In addition to web development costs, consider what is needed in-house. For example:

    • Allocate a staff member to manage the process. This includes developing a plan for the website, establishing the goals of the site, brainstorming the intended look and feel with staff and using this to write a design brief, compiling and writing content
    • Develop an ongoing content development and updating plan for the website
    • Budget time for staff training to update the website in-house

“I’ve heard of all these free website builders. Can I just create a website myself?”

Yes and no. As I explained above, apart from the actual development work, you need someone from your organisation to map out the site, prepare and edit all the content for the web, choose and edit images, and think about how to put together a website with a focus on achieving particular communications goals. So before you even start this process you need to determine what those goals are, and how you are going to achieve them on your website. See Developing a basic communications plan.

Do you have the time to invest in all of this, all while training yourself to develop some expertise in web development (skills which, even with a DIY website, include some graphic design, knowledge of usability, writing for the web, online marketing, and SEO, just for starters)?

Or would the organisation's budget better be spent having an expert do it, and allow you to focus your energy where your talent and skills already lie?

Staff time is not free. You may think you are saving money by managing communications “in house” or “part-time”. But they are still getting paid for their time; only in this case they are likely spending the time doing a job for which they haven’t the training or experience

Social media communications is a speciality. Make no mistake – writing for online media is different from writing proposals and annual reports. Dense academic prose, NGO-speak, and complex terminology does not translate well to the web, never mind on social media. Optimising your writing for online media without “dumbing it down” is a skill that needs to be not only respected but sought after.

In a nutshell:

    • Invest in a solid communications plan to ground your work
    • Invest in staff time and training to implement the plan
    • Invest in a website that meets your communications objectives

    • Budget for social media promotions and associated graphics.

Your online presence is a public face of your organisation. Requiring staff to perform tasks like writing for the web and managing social media platforms without any training or budget is not frugal, it is short-sighted. And when these platforms are not managed well, it reflects poorly on your organisation. 

Read more:

Ruen Govinder | Hashtag Nonprofit

Founder and Executive Director, Hashtag Nonprofit

Ruen Govinder is the founder and director of Hashtag Nonprofit. She has over 20 years of experience in consulting and managing online communications and technology for the development sector. She produced a series of e-books on communications strategies for nonprofits, and has worked with clients across Africa and in the United States.

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