Keys to Conversation: Integrated Communication for Non-profits

Most of us are decent conversationalists. Some listening, a little talking, a joke or two, an interesting story, and just like that you have a conversation. Unfortunately, when we slap a word like “communications” on it, it’s like we’ve ripped the training wheels off and we have no idea what to do.

Some communications are like eating an ice cream sundae prepared by an alien who had seen food, once. It has some of the ingredients but it is terribly unlike a conversation. We can do better.

Part of the issue is that cash-strapped organizations focus on the least important aspects of the sundae. While shaving cream may look like whipped cream, the experience tastes markedly different.

It’s fairly common for organizations to answer “how” with little consideration for who, what and why?

So “why” are you interesting?

Have you found yourself in a conversation with someone that could not even pretend to have something interesting to say? Ouch, it’s painful. There’s probably something very interesting about them, but for whatever reason, they don’t know it. They certainly can’t communicate it.

Using Simon Sinek’s golden circle (explained in this video), it is clear that a number of communications do not begin by answering a simple question “why?” If all your communication is relegated to “what” your organization does and not “why” you do it, then you can’t expect people to support what you do. If, however, you connect people to your deeper purpose, then you make believers for life that support what, why and how you do it.

Answering “why” is the very heart of our communications. When we are led by purpose, the pieces fall into place. Day in and day out, you live and breathe your organization. Turn back time to a day when you didn’t have any idea what your organization did.

So, here’s an approach that I use at conferences to stir the questions:

What is the problem in the world that only you can solve?

In the work I did with Boys and Girls Clubs of the Tennessee Valley we have the opportunity to inspire people from all walks of life to achieve greatness. In our research, we found that beyond the basic safety that the clubs afforded the kids, many children don’t have role models giving them positive feedback. This lack of influence in their lives leads to low self-confidence to pursue basic accomplishments, let alone major goals.

So then, we asked: Why are we the only one who solves this problem in the way we do?

There are a number of youth-serving organizations, but Boys and Girls Clubs is different because the staff builds enduring relationships with kids because they spend every day with them in a safe but fun environment. These enduring relationships create an opportunity unlike any outside influence in their lives because of the amount of time they spend to build lasting relationships.

Finally, respond to the problem with the solution:

With Boys & Girls Clubs, had we stayed in the outer “what” ring, we would have said things like “provide a safe place for kids” or “help kids with their homework,” but when we dug into the core, we found that there was a common uniting factor that everyone shared throughout the organization. As a result the answer to the “why” or the purpose became:

Every person we encounter has limitless potential - we must discover, ignite and foster that greatness.

Really take time to think about these questions. Don’t take the easy way out by picking what you do. Drill into the passion that is shared within your organization. You may ask the 5 Whys: Why does your organization matter? Okay, why does that matter? And continue asking why until you’ve arrived at the most basic answer.

In a nutshell the biggest problem with communication is that humans walk around with explanations for just about everything. Regardless of how outlandish it may be, ask anyone the “why” question on just about anything and they’ll muster an answer. Our brains seek to connect point A and point B. Your answers here design the bridge from A to B.

Who are you talking to?

Can you imagine chatting at length about the glory days of high school with someone, reminiscing, only to realize that the person you are in conversation with is not your long lost classmate? Oops. Understanding your audience is everything. It is critical to aim your communications directly at your audience.

While it may be tempting to say, “our audience is everyone,” you cannot simply broadcast your message. It must be focused to a smaller universe. For example, with the Boys & Girls Clubs, we determined that our audience overflowed from one audience to another. Starting with our internal audience the communication had to consume the internal audience to a point of overflowing to the members & family and likewise to the general public.

Waterfall of Communication

Just as it is terrible to talk at length to the wrong audience, it is equally as ineffective to talk to the right audience about things in which they have no interest. Here are a few thoughts to help you define and narrow who you are talking to.

  • First, pick one. It’s hard to not be all things to all people, but if you begin with the end in mind, it helps narrow your audience. Am I trying to raise money? Am I trying to grow board members? Defining your desired outcome will help frame your audience.
  • What are our common interests? (hint: should be tied to your purpose)
  • What traits are shared among your audience? If you are talking to donors, can you identify common demographics?
  • Define a fictional person you are talking to. Build personas of your ideal donor, board member, customer. This is a great exercise to understand how you are talking to your audience.

Knowing who you are talking to helps identify what you are saying and how you are saying it!

What are you saying?

It’s amazing to get into a regimen of producing communications without any goals of the communication. Whether inherited from someone else or borrowing from a general concept like “email newsletters,” it is all too common to communicate without a goal. So, before putting pen to paper decide what your desired outcome will be. For example, you may want to raise awareness, ask for volunteers, sponsor an event, raise funds, or distribute information about your service.

So, answer the following questions:

What three things can someone do to help you most today? (in order of priority)

If the whole world knew only three things about you what would you want them to know? (in order of priority)


Put it all together: Elevator Pitch

Finally, you can succinctly craft an elevator pitch. Here’s a worksheet that puts all of the pieces together. After answering the questions above, you can craft your elevator pitch with a format like this: 

At [organization name] we solve [problem] because we believe [purpose]. Our biggest challenge is that we need more [call to action] because [restate the problem]. Would you consider [call to action]?

Really tell your story

Now for the fun stuff. Taking all of the information that you’ve discovered you can tell your story. Narrative is a powerful tool to carry your message to your audience. Bland talk of mission and programs causes acute eye roll syndrome. With an effective story you can take all of the key pieces of your message and convey them to your audience.

We’ve all had a few English classes, right? Stories have a few key elements: Conflict, Characters, Setting, Plot, Resolution. Taking the elements discussed above and telling a story is the single most effective way to capture the hearts and minds of your audience.


Here are a few examples of effective storytelling.

Invisible Children

Water is Life – #firstworldproblems

When I first saw this video, I was awestruck. Great example of “riding a hashtag” with a very different outcome.

For a great case study on putting all of the pieces together and telling a story, please take a look at the Safe Harbor case. I had Jami Mullikin visit my digital marketing class to discuss how he put all of the pieces to create a fundraising campaign for Safe Harbor in Greeneville, South Carolina.

Finally, how/where are you talking?

Find the right playground. Don’t use Facebook because everyone else does. Find the places where your audience likes to “play” and go there.

Obviously, there are a variety of channels to communicate with your audience including those listed below. For a more comprehensive walkthrough on using the channels, check out this blog post.

  • Website and Email are the foundations
  • Blog
  • Video
  • Social Status – Facebook/Twitter
  • SEO

Good luck! If I can ever help out, don’t hesitate to contact me!

Helpful links:

Jeremy Floyd

Jeremy Floyd is the President at FUNYL Commerce. Formerly, he was the CEO and President of Lirio, Bluegill Creative, a marketing and communications firm in Knoxville, Tennessee. In addition to managing the digital strategies, Floyd was an adjunct professor for the University of Tennessee Chattanooga MBA program teaching digital strategies and social media. Floyd blogs at and tweets under the name @jfloyd. Jeremy is licensed to practice law in the State of Tennessee and holds a law degree from the University of Tennessee College of Law and a Bachelor of Arts degree from MTSU in English and Philosophy.