Is Your Nonprofit Risking a Communications Nightmare?

Marketing April 09, 2008

Lori Halley

By Lori Halley

Could your organization get a message to all your members within 48 hours?  One small assocation thought so --  until last week, when an unexpected event revealed a major flaw in how the group was communicating with its members.

This is a real-life example of a real nonprofit organization, but let's just call it Association XYZ  -- a small interest-based nonprofit with a very small budget, run by volunteers working a few hours a month from their own homes.

One volunteer created a static website for the group a few years ago. He updates the information on the website about every three months, mostly to add notices of the association's quarterly general meetings. Another volunteer prepares and prints out the association's monthly newsletter, which then goes to the group's secretary to be mailed out. Between newsletters and meetings, all other communication with the membership is by emails from the secretary. She also makes phone calls to the handful of members who don't have email addresses.

Does this sound like any group you know?

For many thousands of small nonprofit organizations, it's not an uncommon way to operate.  And for most of those groups, for most of the time, this communications system works quite well to meet their modest needs. Until something out of the ordinary happens, that is.


A Breakdown in Communications

This past week, an opportunity arose for members of Association XYZ to take part in a special event. The invitation was on very short notice, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. All the association's executive had to do was to get the word out to their membership -- within the next 48 hours.


The secretary was away on vacation, out of reach, and no one else in the association had access to the membership database that was stored on her home computer. The printed newsletter had already been mailed out, and the group's budget wouldn't stretch to a special mail-out this month -- not that 48 hours would be time enough to get a message to the members by mail. Public service announcements normally offered to nonprofits by  newspapers and local radio stations weren't an option this time, because it wasn't an event that would be open to the public. Because the website was so infrequently updated, members weren't in the habit of checking it for time-sensitive information.


A notice about the event was added to the groups' website, although it was feared (and a look at the site stats later confirmed this) that only a handful of members would see it in time. The executive also contacted a few similar organizations and asked for help in spreading the word. A small advertisement was phoned in to the local newspaper, and a few hastily-printed flyers were posted on community notice boards. These steps were more a matter of covering all the bases than a communications strateegy in which the executive had much faith.

Each board member knew at least a few members socially, so they contacted those people directly by email or telephone.  Each of the contacted members, in turn, were asked to get in touch with anyone else they knew who was an Association XYZ member, and so on. The idea was to try to spread the word in an old-fashioned "telephone tree" -- a hit-and-miss method without access to the secretary's list of members, but the best solution they could find in the time available.


Association XYZ was able to reach only 48% of its members in time for the event.


A Plan for More Effective Membership Communications

At the next executive meeting, three changes are to be proposed to Association XYZ's communications methods:

1. A blog will be added to the group's website. All board members will be assigned user privileges that will allow each of them to post news items to the blog. Members will be  encouraged, with the example of this missed opportunity as incentive, to subscribe to the blog by email.

2. The membership list, and other vital information about the association, will be made accessible to all members of the executive committee. The executive is looking at Google Docs as one option for selectively sharing the membership list online.

3. One member has been tasked with looking into the telephone company's voicemail service, where one phone call can leave a message at many numbers. Meanwhile, a formal "telephone tree" will be set up, with each volunteer to be responsible for contacting 10 other members. This one's not a Web 2.0 solution, but sometimes (as in the case of a internet outage, for example) the old-fashioned "grapevine" can be very effective as a backup communications plan.

What do you think of the Association's new strategy?

Is there anything obvious that's being overlooked? What else might a small nonprofit do, on a very tight budget, to be able to communicate more efficiently and reliably with its members?

Sorry, this blog post is closed for further comments.


  • Neal:

    What about an e-mail announcement to the groups members.  It could go out in a couple of hours at most.

  • Lori Halley

    Lori Halley:

    @Neal, you're right, an email blast is the fast and efficient method - if someone's got the email addresses for the members! I'd say that this Association's first mistake was in having their membership database only accessible to the (absent) Secretary, wouldn't you?

  • Neal:

    Yes.  It really is quite simple to keep an e-mailing list.  For a small list, e-mail addresses could be added manually.  For a larger list, set up an automated sign-up form on the organization's website.


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