Helping Strategy: Building Content Capacities Within Nonprofits

By Guiseppe Getto

Nonprofit organizations (NPOs) provide necessary services to a variety of communities in a variety of locales. They work in such fields as domestic violence prevention, homelessness prevention, and hunger prevention. Internationally, they typically take the form of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and make services available in the developing world that struggling democracies cannot provide. And thanks to the proliferation of Internet-based technologies, NPOs and NGOs alike are now able to interact with core audiences from all over the globe via cheap, readily available platforms such as open source content management systems (e.g., Drupal, WordPress, and Joomla!) and social media.

According to recent research, however, nonprofits are not effectively making use of these technologies to reach core audiences, although they are attempting to do so (see Kenix; Zorn, Flanagin, and Shoham). Readers who have volunteered at local nonprofits have probably encountered a familiar story: the board of the organization finds out that their latest volunteer is something called a “technical communicator.” The board gets from this job description that the new recruit is an expert in all things technological and asks, excitedly, “Can you help us with our website?” Chances are, the website was set up by a volunteer who no longer works at the organization. Sometimes the organization paid an exorbitant fee to a local Web designer who probably made an ineffective design and, once the initial contract ended, locked the organization out of their own site pending a new contract.

Over the past eight years working with nonprofits as a researcher, consultant, and service-learning instructor, I have encountered this kind of story in nearly every organization I've worked with. Such experiences suggest that nonprofits who want to develop and maintain an effective Web presence face serious obstacles, including:

  • lack of sufficient financial resources to hire a qualified consultant,
  • lack of sufficient expertise to build high-quality websites and to effectively manage Web content, and
  • high rates of overturn for volunteers and staff.

Within this context, a pressing need exists in many communities for nonprofits who want to develop a better Web presence, but lack the capacity to do so.

At the same time, well-meaning technical communicators who possess needed technical skills can actually make matters worse by providing nonprofits with solutions that organizations can't maintain on their own. The simplest organizational website must still be updated from time to time. Social media accounts need a steady flow of fresh content to maintain visibility. The question arises: if and when the technical communicator is no longer able to work with the organization, even for a short period of time, who will sustain the organization's Web presence? Or will the technical communicator simply become another character in the organization's story of volunteers and consultants who helped for a time and then left the organization in a worse mess than when they started?

Over the past eight years, I have collected some tactics that technical communicators can utilize to be of real use to nonprofits by helping organizations increase their capacities for building and maintaining effective Web content. These tactics include methods for helping nonprofits to identify appropriate online audiences and channels. Before discussing these tactics in-depth, I explain below how emerging technologies are disrupting the nonprofit marketplace, and why effective Web content is the key resource nonprofits need to develop.

How Emerging Technologies Are Changing the Capacities Nonprofits Need to Sustain Themselves

Like many organizations, nonprofits are struggling to keep up with a changing communication landscape. In the for-profit world, the prestigious digital consulting firm McKinsey & Company has developed a digital quotient (DQ) for measuring how effectively a business is in making use of digital technologies to support key business processes, such as advertising, selling, and communicating with internal and external stakeholders. Over the last five decades of research they have found that the “topple rate,” or the rate at which leaders within a given industry risk displacement by up-and-comers, has increased by 40%. This means that nearly half of major businesses face serious financial setbacks if they fail to take advantage of emerging technologies. Further, McKinsey & Company posit leadership and strategy as two of the key characteristics of companies that successfully adopt emerging technologies to stay on top of their respective markets. Essentially, if managers and executives within a company don't see the value of emerging technologies and build a company culture around them, then the company is unlikely to successfully embrace such technologies and is likely to face negative consequences as a result.

Although we don't have reliable data to tell us what has happened to the digital quotient of the nonprofit sector in the past five decades, smaller-scale research suggests a similar trend. Theodore E. Zorn, Andrew J. Flanagin, and Mirit D. Shoham surveyed more than 1,000 nonprofits in New Zealand and found that many organizations utilize tools such as email and simple databases for stakeholder engagement, but have failed to successfully adopt websites as a key communication venue for reaching audiences. Why? Zorn, Flanagin, and Shoham tracked a variety of variables in their survey data and found that decision-maker knowledge and leadership were two key predictors of the extent to which a given organization adopted new technologies. Like for-profit organizations, it appears that nonprofits whose leaders fail to acknowledge and embrace the possibilities of emerging technologies also risk falling behind in an increasingly digital world.

With limited research on the topic, we don't know why nonprofits often fail to build a successful Web presence, or even how many organizations succeed in doing so. More research is required to assess the state of nonprofit websites for key performance indicators (KPIs) such as: sustainability, effectiveness of written content, sharability of content, visual design, usability, and strategic use of content. We also need research into what nonprofits value when it comes to emerging technologies. Do nonprofits see the need to embrace emerging technologies? If so, why do they struggle to do so? Is it really technical or financial capacity, or, as the above researchers have suggested, are knowledge and leadership within organizations the deciding factors?

One such research project I am currently conducting, tentatively entitled Helping Design: Building Digital Capacities Within Nonprofits, will hopefully help answer some of these questions. The study will consist of a series of focus groups with nonprofit leaders local to Pitt County, North Carolina, an impoverished area that boasts a surprising number of nonprofits (at least 50 at last count). Over the past two years, local organizations have come to me for help with communication problems ranging from ineffective website designs to help building a strategy for social media content. I have mostly served these organizations in an ad-hoc fashion, often by inviting them to partner with me for a one-off research, service-learning, or consulting project to help them build capacity. Helping Design will attempt to devise a larger-scale solution, including the possibility of ongoing learning opportunities for nonprofits provided through East Carolina University, my home institution. Ultimately, I hope to create a sustainable resource network for nonprofits that they can use to improve organizational capacities related to the use of digital technologies. As I suggest below, however, new shifts in thinking regarding what makes a Web presence effective also spell a potential solution for nonprofits who want to increase their digital quotient: content strategy.

Content Is the Key

In my experience, one of the core capacities that nonprofits, and many organizations, struggle with is the ability to develop and maintain a consistent content strategy. A content strategy can be thought of as an organizational plan for developing, curating, and delivering consistent, reliable content. In this context, content can be thought of as useful information for core audiences. One specific venue where content strategy comes into play is in the organizational website. As Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach reflect in their book Content Strategy for the Web:

While organizations have struggled for decades—centuries, even—to make sense of their content, they were always able to keep the chaos (and consequences) to themselves. Then came websites, which created the perfect content strategy storm. Suddenly, organizations had to put all of their content (product info, investor reports, press releases, etc., etc.) in one place. For the first time. For all the world to see. And it hurt. (Halvorson and Rach, xvii )

Content existed in various forms before the advent of digital technologies, in other words, but the way in which that content is communicated to core audiences has changed due to the large-scale adoption of these technologies.

This bears out in my experiences working with nonprofits. There are few organizations over the years that I have encountered whose leaders, staff, and volunteers suffer from a lack of content. On the contrary, organizations are typically awash in a sea of information: mission statements, photos from events, descriptions of programs, logos, calendars, grant applications, etc. Organizations struggle to manage and deliver this content, particularly online. They often don't have a good understanding regarding what effective Web content looks and sounds like. The pages of their website are filled with lengthy paragraphs developed during board meetings. There are few, if any, images on their website. Or sometimes the website is a slough of images that all compete for attention. The organization's social media accounts have barely been used, or sometimes they are jammed full of posts that demonstrate no discernible relationship to one another. Regardless, it is clear the organization suffers from a lack of strategy, not content. The question then arises: how can professionals who are experts at effective communication help an organization that struggles with this very skill set?

How Technical Communicators Can Help Nonprofits Communicate More Effectively with Key Audiences Online

When asked the above question by professionals from various walks of life over the past several years, I respond that the most impactful thing they can do for any nonprofit is to help the organization develop a sustainable content strategy. The question becomes: what does such a strategy look like? In answer to this question, I have developed a freely available template for building a content strategy that I call the “Social Media Strategy Template.” This document is available for download in Google Doc form at http://bit.ly/1M3Yd3U. The document includes my list of the core components of a content strategy:

  • Goals: what is the organization trying to achieve through its content?
  • Formulas: what components go into different types of content?
  • To dos: when should core content-related tasks be performed?
  • Accounts: what digital accounts should be used to deliver content?
  • Professional associations: what other organizations and channels is the organization affiliated with that can be mined for content-related initiatives?

In each section of the document, I have included jargon-free boilerplate language to help introduce users of the document to each of these core elements. My goal is to help users to develop and deploy their own content strategies.

The first thing that readers should notice about this document is that it is not called a content strategy template. This is purposeful. In my experience, nonprofit leaders, staff, and volunteers have never heard the term content strategy, but they have probably heard of social media. Social media is also one of the fastest-moving, and shortest-lived, forms of content an organization needs to develop. In my experience, helping organizations focus on social media often creates a natural workflow for other forms of content. When thinking about what links to post to social media, for instance, technical communicators can encourage nonprofit personnel to consider where content lives in their organization. What happens when an event is being hosted by the organization? Where is the event information currently being advertised? Is it possible to develop a Google Calendar or blog so that when new events arise, they also create the opportunity for sharable content? Such questions can help organizational personnel to think strategically regarding what they can realistically do with available resources.

Readers will probably also notice that “audiences” is not a distinct category within this template. This is also purposeful. Although consideration of audience is key to any form of effective communication, my experience is that emerging technologies make it difficult for nonprofit personnel to discern audiences. Is an audience someone who follows you on Twitter, for instance? Or is it a subscriber who receives an email newsletter? Rather than speaking of audiences as discrete entities, then, I encourage nonprofits to think of them as always connected to a channel. In the Social Media Formula section of the template, for instance, I include the following language:

As a rule, you don't want to make every post about selling something, or asking for donations if you're a nonprofit. In fact, probably only about 10% of your posts should be directly about selling. Remember: you're building relationships, not trying to sell. Relationships are the way to build towards new sales.

Here I am replacing the static notion of an audience as someone you communicate with on a one-to-one or one-to-many basis. Instead of audiences, I discuss relationships and relationship-building. This tends to help nonprofits think about concrete types of relationships they might develop, including:

  • connecting with like-minded people and organizations on social media,
  • linking to someone else's content, and
  • using keywords to help users find content they might be interested in.

Focusing on relationships helps nonprofits to understand that contemporary media are often interaction-based. They are meant to encourage sharing, linking, and searching. The relationships built around online content are what draw in modern audiences. Users want to find what they are looking for when they browse content online, whether via social media, search engines, email newsletters, or directly on organizational websites. If organizations don't know what their audiences are looking for, and what they expect to find, it is impossible for them to deliver appropriate content.

This is why the template is broken down into manageable sections, including goals, a to-do list, and a list of organizational accounts. I often find that nonprofits struggle with discerning the components of an effective content strategy. Nonprofit personnel often ask me questions such as: Where does good content come from? Who makes it? Who sends it? Such questions are best answered in the most pragmatic means possible, typically by directing personnel to various content sources, accounts, and types of interaction. This is why I include a list of suggested accounts in the template that organizations might consider creating:

  • open source content management systems (e.g., WordPress, Drupal, Joomla!),
  • free social media accounts that can be used to represent organizations (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+), and
  • free tools for identifying, sharing, and managing content (e.g., Hootsuite, Keyword Eye, Flickr's Creative Commons).

Many clients over the years have been surprised to learn how many resources for developing and sharing content are currently available online for free. More importantly, however, these components help organizations to focus less on the nitty-gritty details of their content strategy and more on big picture aspects including setting realistic goals, building a weekly workflow for content management (to-do lists), and networking with other organizations.

Finally, listing all this information in one place where staff and volunteers have access can help solve the problem of overturn. If the volunteer currently assigned to run Twitter leaves the organization, there is a risk that the account will go dead, but at least the organization won't be locked out of their own account, because all passwords are included in the documentation. This documentation can grow and change as the organization's content needs grow and change, which is why I make it available in a Google Doc. Rather than delivering a print document to clients, I set up an online forum to encourage them to update and interact with the document as needed.

Take Aways: Strategy Matters More Than Technology

Hopefully I've provided some simple tactics that technical communicators can use to help nonprofits develop robust content strategies. I hope I've also communicated the importance of putting strategy before technology. There are a variety of free or low-cost technologies that nonprofits can use to interact with their core audiences online. The real test, however, is can the organization effectively make use of these technologies to grow their Web presence. As I like to tell my clients: technology is the least important part of their Web presence. Strategy is the most important part.

Such a shift should encourage technical communicators and their nonprofit clients to think carefully about adopting expensive content management systems, paying developers to build complex organizational websites, and adopting other resource-draining solutions. I have encountered scores of organizations who are terrified of digital media because they have sunk thousands of dollars into emerging technologies and have come away with nothing to show for their investment. Many times, the best thing a technical communicator can do for a nonprofit is to have a very frank discussion with personnel regarding what the organization has the capacity to maintain. The best plans in the world will fall short if they outstrip organizational capacity.

This is why if technical communicators wish to build consulting relationships with nonprofits, I highly suggest a maintenance-based or hourly service, rather than a deliverable, unless this deliverable comes with solid documentation. Helping an organization curate content via a freely available WordPress site is probably sustainable for both the consultant and the client. Even better is creating documentation that explains to clients how they can maintain the site on their own, which leaves nonprofit personnel with peace-of-mind, should the relationship decay. This is also important if technical communicators want to volunteer some of their services. Volunteering can easily become unsustainable if there is no clear exit plan for the volunteer. Regardless of the specific form work takes, however, technical communicators who help nonprofits develop sound content strategies will be contributing an essential service to organizations who contribute essential services to others.

GUISEPPE GETTO (http://guiseppegetto.com) is a college professor based in North Carolina and is president and co-founder of Content Garden, Inc., a digital marketing and UX consulting firm (http://contentgarden.org). He consults with a broad range of organizations who want to develop better customer experiences, better writing, better content, better SEO, better designs, and better reach for their target audience. He has taught at the college level for over ten years. During that time, he has also consulted and formed service-learning partnerships with many nonprofits and businesses, from technical writing firms to homeless shelters to startups.


Catlin, Tanguy, Jay Scanlan, and Paul Willmott. Raising Your Digital Quotient, McKinsey Quarterly, accessed 3 November 2015, www.mckinsey.com/insights/strategy/raising_your_digital_quotient.

Halvorson, Kristina, and Melissa Rach. Content Strategy for the Web. 2d ed. Berkeley, CA: New Riders, 2012.

Kenix, Linda J., Nonprofit Organizations' Perceptions and Uses of the Internet, Television & New Media 9 (2008): 407–428.

Zorn, Theodore E., Andrew J. Flanagin, and Mirit D. Shoham. Institutional and Noninstitutional Influences on Information and Communication Technology Adoption and Use Among Nonprofit Organizations, Human Communication Research 37 (2010): 1–33.