At a workshop I facilitated for nonprofit leaders on message development and communications, I was reminded once again of the critical relationship between organizational strategy, culture and communications.  The workshop hosted by Coalition for Nonprofit Housing & Economic Development (CNHED) in conjunction with Capital Area Asset Builders (CAAB) came out of a discussion a few months ago about the potential to create  a campaign to heighten the awareness of policy makers, funders and other audiences about the huge and growing gaps in the financial  security of Washington, DC families.

The workshop was about exploring how organizations that work in the area of affordable housing, reducing homelessness,  workforce development, poverty reduction and advocacy might come together around a common message that would also support their own work.  This is no easy task.

One of the things that struck me was how challenging it was for people to get out of the box they work in to think more broadly about their work and the impact it makes on the continuum of the social change they seek to bring about.    The other thing that struck me was how little time these leaders have to step back and really think about their work in this way.  Because they are doers, they talk about doing and often their messages get lost in the cacophony of press releases and e-blasts that organizations put out highlighting their activities.

To be able to tie their work into action and results requires a culture that celebrates and rewards doing so.  It’s not about coming up with the message;  it’s about living the message and inculcating it in everything you do.   That must come from the top and be reinforced throughout the organization.

I always cite the example of a charter management organization in California that does this beautifully.  Whether you talk to the principals of their schools, the parents, the teachers, the cafeteria workers or the students, they will all tell you the same thing about the organization–they work to ensure that children get to college and are not held back by virtue of the zip code in which they were born.  Every day teachers, principals, parents and the kids ask themselves how have I helped these students or myself get closer to getting to college?    It is part of their DNA and their culture.

How can others emulate this organization and create a strong culture of purpose?

1. Invest the time to examine and think through your goals and the impact that achieving them makes on your target population and society. 

2. Think of communications–PR, marketing–as a means to strengthen relationships with each and everyone one of your target audiences not as a way to create buzz and get ink.  

3. Invest the time to develop messages that reinforce the goals you seek to achieve and compel others to act with and for you.  Good messaging isn’t about beautiful prose but rather about creating meaning and lighting fires within people.

4. Understand who you need to engage, and map your audiences.  Ask: Who can help you achieve your goals?  Who is a supporter?  Who are your detractors?  Who influences the people you need to engage? How engaged are they already with our work?

5. Communicate often and appropriately.  Ask your targets how they want to hear from you.  Ask them how they get information and what sources they trust.  Then deliver your messages to them in the media that they consume.

6. Be clear about what it is you want your target audiences to do when they hear your messages.  There must be a call to action.  It may be different for different audiences.

7. Begin your messaging at home.  Make sure everyone in your organization understands what you are trying to achieve and how you are going about this every day and what their role is in realizing the goals and mission.

8.  Leadership sets the tone and must continually reinforce the goals and messages.   Hold people accountable for their ability to live the messages. Leadership must model behavior for everyone else.

Communications plays a vital role in making sure that people are on the same page and are using language that everyone understands to talk about the work and the kinds of change and actions your organization seeks to engender.  But without a culture of purpose that encourages everyone involved to demonstrate in their actions what they say they are about,  the result will be hollow messages and empty promises.