How to Create a Guide to Strength-Based Communication for Your Nonprofit

6 min read

If you’ve been following along with our articles for awhile, you already know that we’re big believers in the importance of taking a strength-based approach to nonprofit communications that focuses on the assets of an individual, group or community rather than their needs and deficits. Here is some of our recent content on the topic: 

If you care about this concept as much as we do, you might be wondering how you can turn your good intentions into action. What can you do right now to ensure your nonprofit is moving toward a more strength-based approach to communication?  

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When clients and nonprofit colleagues ask me this question, my answer is always this: start by developing a language and style guide. Historically, style guides have defined basic preferences, like whether your organization’s name can be abbreviated in print, or how to format numbers and symbols. But today, a language and style guide can do so much more. It can define exactly what strength-based communication means for your organization, and give examples of how to practice it when talking about the specific people or communities your nonprofit serves. It can also help your colleagues check their own communications to determine whether there are opportunities to pivot from deficit-based approaches to asset-based ones.

Are you ready to begin building your own language and style guide to strength-based communications? Here’s how.

Step One: Study an Example

I’m particularly fond of Step Up’s guide, titled “WORDS MATTER: Amplifying the Message through an asset-based approach.”

Step Up’s guide begins with their definition of asset-based communication, as follows:

Then, the guide goes on to show examples of the old, deficit-based approach to communication, contrasted with the new, asset-based approach:

The guide wraps up by making the case for making the shift, as well as a refresher about the organization’s main strategic elements, like its mission, vision, purpose, values and goals, all of which have been edited to use strength-based language.

The brevity of this style guide makes it easy for anyone (even non-comms staff) to understand why Step Up is making a shift to asset-based communication and what it means for how people in all sorts of roles talk about the organization. The case for making this shift is clearly tied to the mission, and that fact is reinforced throughout every page of the guide.

This guide should give you hope that it doesn’t have to be a major undertaking to define strength-based practices for your nonprofit. In just a few short pages, you can get your entire organization headed in the right direction.

Step Two: Audit Your Current Communications

You need to know where you’re starting from before you can decide where you want to go. That’s why you should audit your existing communications before defining new preferences. Scan your website, marketing collateral, fundraising collateral, grant proposals, and other communications to see where and how deficit-based communication shows up. Are there specific programs that tend to struggle more than others? Are there specific people or communities who get painted in a negative light frequently? You’ll want to address these problem areas upfront in your style guide. You should also look for examples of deficit-based copy lines that get used frequently so you can show how to transition them to strength-based.

Step Three: Learn from The Experts

There is a great deal of research into what works in the realm of strength-based communication, so you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Instead, spend some time studying resources like:

  • A Progressive’s Style Guide which defines preferred ways to communicate about a wide range of people, issues and causes
  • FrameWorks Institute which has researched the way people respond to different approaches to framing issues from aging, to the environment, to human services

Step Four: Set the Tone

Just as Step Up did, you’ll want to spend some time making the case for the transition to strength-based communication within your guide. Just how much time depends on how educated and on board your team members are. Have strength-based approaches been top of mind at your organization for some time, and you’re simply formalizing something many of your co-workers already believe in? If so, don’t belabor the importance of making this switch in your guide. But if strength-based approaches are a new concept to many on your team, make sure you’re saying what needs to be said to get everyone on board. You might even address some concerns about moving to this approach head-on. For example, we often hear a concern that a switch to a strength-based approach will hurt fundraising by making messaging less emotionally compelling to donors. This simply isn’t true. In fact, one organization who we helped transition to a strength-based approach saw 30%+ growth in their fundraising revenue in the year after they made the switch. You can share examples and stats like these in your guide to help get detractors on board.

Step Five: Define Words and Phrases that Should and Shouldn’t be Used

Don’t leave your co-workers and board guessing. Provide specific, concrete guidelines about words and phrases that should and shouldn’t be used within your guide. For example, you might suggest moving away from a phrase like “poor people” to a phrase like “individuals living on less than $12,000 per year.”

Step Six: Include Examples

Real-world examples are the best way to learn. Show real pieces of marketing collateral, real emails, or real talking points that have been modified from a deficit-based approach to a strength-based approach. You might even consider including some exercises in your guide that will encourage your audience to explore examples from their own work.

Step Seven: Invite More Conversation and Encourage Constant Evolution

Moving to a strength-based communication approach is not something you can do once and check off your list. It will be a constant process of learning and improvement. Foster open-mindedness to the ongoing evolution of your approach by inviting further conversation from your co-workers, board, program participants, and other stakeholders. Then, make sure you edit your guide to strength-based communication frequently based on what you learn.

Do you have a guide to strength-based communication? We’d love to see it. Leave a link in the comments or email us at hello@prosper-strategies.com.

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