How to quickly draft basic messaging guidelines for your nonprofit

Does your nonprofit organization have messaging guidelines in place?

Messaging guidelines work hand in hand with your visual identity guidelines to form your organization’s Brand Standards. They should be based on your nonprofit’s clearly defined brand identity and brand personality and will help to ensure the consistency of all of your written communications – from newsletter articles to speeches and presentations to website copy.

But what if your nonprofit is not quite “there” yet? What if you’re still working on defining your brand – or perhaps getting buy-in for the idea of branding in the first place?

You can still pull together a very basic messaging guide for now – and start benefitting from the efficiency you create right away.

Even a basic #messaging guide can improve the consistency of your #nonprofit's written communications Click To Tweet

Six elements to include in a basic messaging guide for your nonprofit organization

You can start drafting a basic messaging guide by listing and defining the elements you find yourself correcting again and again in copy written by colleagues, volunteers and partners. Then, you can add to this document and enhance it over time.

Here are some suggestions to get you started:

1. Use of your organization’s name

Clearly, you want everyone to get this right, and to be consistent about it:

  • How should your organization’s name be written?
  • Do you need to use the full name each time?
  • Or, can you occasionally use part of the name for brevity’s sake (for example, the Foundation, the Association)?

Do you allow the use of an acronym instead of your name (my vote would be ’no’ for most organizations – check out The 6 Biggest Issues with Nonprofit Acronyms). If yes, leave no room for confusion: specify your correct acronym.

Also, make a decision: is “the” part of your organization’s official name? If yes, does it always need to be included? Should it always appear in upper case? For example, I used to work at the Canadian Diabetes Association and a current client of mine is The Oakville Community Foundation.

Take action: complete the following statements in your draft messaging guide.

When written in full, our name should appear as: _______________
When abbreviated, our name should be written as: _______________
Additional options:____________________________
An acronym _____ (is/is not) permitted as an abbreviation of our name. Always use _______________.
The word “the” ____ (is/is not) part of our name. When it appears before our name, it should be written as ____ (the/The).

2. Voice and tone

What is the ideal voice and tone of your written communications? Your tone should reflect and be consistent with your brand personality. For example, do you want your organization to come across as supportive and approachable? Opinionated and edgy?

Take action: in your draft messaging guide, write down a few words to describe your organization’s voice and tone.

3. Important terminology

What terms are relevant to your cause and come up repeatedly in conversations and communications? If there are different possible variations in the spelling or grammar used with these terms, which variation should be used in your writing?

Beyond spelling and grammar, what guidelines can you build around your commonly used terms to ensure consistency and show sensitivity? For example, Reporting on Indigenous Communities specifies the use of “Aboriginal people” versus of “Aboriginals”. What terms or phrases should be avoided altogether and what are your alternatives?

Take action: create a short, two-columned “Instead of…Use” terminology list in your draft guidelines.

Label the left column, “Instead of” and beneath that heading, list words to avoid. Label the right column “Use” and beneath that heading, list your preferred words and phrases.

4. Key statistics

Are certain numbers cited often in your communications? Make sure everyone is using the same, accurate statistics by listing them in your messaging guidelines.

For example, do you frequently mention key statistics about:

  • People, members, communities or other populations affected?
  • The size and scope of the issue in your region?
  • Revenue or disbursement figures?
  • Impact and outcome related numbers?

Take action: in your guidelines, list your organization’s most frequently cited statistics – but don’t overdo it.

And make sure to keep this list up to date.

5. Relevant style guide

Instead of stipulating every spelling and grammar preference, point content creators to the most relevant style manual or guide for your organization.

When in doubt, do you default to the Chicago Manual of Style? The Canadian Press Style Guide? You don’t need to be a stickler about enforcing every last point; simply have a source to which writers can turn when in doubt.

Take action: in your draft messaging guide, list and link to the style manual your writers should use as a reference.

6. Contact details

Specify: who should users contact for more information about your guidelines, using them and keeping them updated?

Take action: write down the name of the person responsible for updates to and questions about your messaging guidelines.

Hint: that’s probably you.

Publish and share your messaging guide, then build it over time

These are just a few basic points that when missed or misused, are obvious and can damage the credibility and consistency of your communications. As I mentioned above, you can enhance your basic guidelines over time, adding descriptions of your brand personality, your core audiences and your key messages/brand proof points.

When misused, these 6 elements can damage the credibility of your #nonprofit #communications Click To Tweet

Once your guidelines have been drafted and approved, go back and add a short introduction. Post your messaging guide somewhere that is easily accessible and in a format that is easy to update.Then share your messaging guide with employees, volunteers and suppliers who are writing content for you.

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