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Lessons All Business Communicators Can Learn from Nonprofit Public Relations

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Big bookings, celebrity endorsements, ornate pageantry, and loads of bells and whistles are relatively easy to come by when you have a big budget. But what happens when your budget is tiny and tight?

If your business is not-for-profit, you have an extra advantage: “The media are more likely to take a phone call and more likely to pay attention to a pitch, an event, activity, or initiative that is for a good cause,” according to UCLA professor Adam Coyne, who is also the Communications Manager for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. But whatever the structure of your company, the PR practices of nonprofits can serve you well.

“The hardest part about doing nonprofit work is budget,” Coyne says, explaining that since communications budgets of nonprofit organizations are generally much smaller than the budgets at their for-profit counterparts, nonprofits work harder and smarter. “I find that a small budget breeds lots of creativity,” Coyne reports. “I am seeing more and more good ideas come out of the nonprofit arena, whether it is a backyard birthday party for Van Gogh, or a traveling blood drive to local drive time radio disk jockeys.”


Pointers on Doing What Needs to Be Done

Bob Johnson, Public Relations Director for St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City, also subscribes to the Working Smarter Theory. Most for-profit organizations think in a linear fashion, he says, instead of utilizing sources across tasks to accomplish a goal. By contrast, according to Johnson, nonprofit professionals wear many , learn about their businesses’ many facets, and are not above doing whatever needs to be done to finish the job.

Here are some guidelines for making the most of every PR penny:


  • For starters, benchmark everything.


    Good professionals begin by performing an intensive communications audit, analyzing past programs done, dollars infused, and growth (or lack thereof) based on the initiatives. The cost is relatively minimal–some time, some tools, some expertise–and the exercise has far-reaching benefits in terms of understanding whether movement from a benchmark is or isn’t a result of your fresh public relations approach.


  • Drawing on the information from the audit, draft a PR plan with clearly defined and measurable goals


    –e.g., to increase sales or membership by a given percentage over a given time period.



  • Use the tools professionals rely on as you execute your plan


    , including–if you can afford them–clipping and research services such as Burrelle’s, Insight Farm, Media Library, MediaLink, NewsDesk, and Lexis-Nexis. These services can help you showcase and analyze your return on investment. Many such services offer preferential pricing for nonprofits, but that is not to say other organizations cannot negotiate terms. Don’t be afraid to ask.


  • Take advantage of “leverageables” you can offer vendors.


    For instance, they might want to donate services they can write off as part of their philanthropic efforts. Or, if you’re not equipped to accept charitable contributions, your vendors might be interested in trading products and services. Barter is not dead. Be creative about swapping merchandising opportunities for products and services.


  • Cut through the clutter.


      Because so many nonprofit–and for-profit–organizations compete for finite dollars and exposure opportunities, you need to orient your PR and maximize relationships with current events. “First and foremost, make issues personal,” says William Schwarz, Public Relations Director for New York’s Union College. “All news is personal. Without a face on the story (Not funding X will mean John Doe does not go to college), there is no story.” Schwarz also points out that all news is local, which means you have to know the impact your issue is having or will have on your community.


  • Try not to rely constantly on the same contact folks for coverage.


      Going to the well one too many times with less than intriguing stories may eventually lead to alienation (“Oh, no; It’s Pete R. Flack on the phone calling me again to do a story about the Annual Fundraiser.”). Instead, try to offer expertise and commentary in new areas, perhaps by focusing on large trends and how you fit into those. Establish your organization (or business) as the go-to group when it comes time for comment in areas beyond your standard activities.


  • Align your business with other private and public organizations


    , perhaps by offering useful case studies from your files to a well-funded PR department or setting up periodic “State of the ___________” presentations for leading community groups and local government agencies.


  • As the successes roll in, be they donations and/or media coverage, take the time to send a simple snail mail “Thank You.”


      This is a grossly underutilized professional courtesy.


Rodger Roeser is the Public Relations Director of Powers Agency, an

integrated advertising, public relations, and eMarketing firm headquartered

in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a member of the Cincinnati PRSA Board of Directors. For more information, visit http://www.eisenmanagement.com/index.htm.

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