Is it more important for organizations to communicate when economic times are good or bad? It’s a conversation I’ve had with many businesses, especially over the last few years as clients debate the relative value of their investments. Maybe not surprisingly, my answer is a valid “both.” However, nonprofits face a different set of communication challenges when our economy – and funding – fluctuate.

Coming off several years of downward giving trends, it’s awesome to read the recently released GivingUSA 2011 report detail positive gains in both individual and corporate giving in the last year. Great news, right? Sure, but nonprofits still have a steep hill to climb because most spend money the year after they earn it. So, when the broader economy or even, specifically, charitable giving improves, the nonprofit recovery suffers from a systematic lag.

But nonprofits can meet this challenge with communications. I was honored recently to have a discussion around these issues with a group of graduate students seeking a nonprofit management certification. I shared with them some communications best practices that can help them close the gap between giving levels and nonprofits’ recovery, including these:

  • Social media delivers high ROI for resource-strapped organizations. Facebook and YouTube enable nonprofits to highlight what they’re doing with donations via announcements and video testimonials; monitoring tools like Hootsuite give nonprofits a view into when supporters are Tweeting about them (and what content is compelling enough that it’s being reTweeted); and tools like Razoo leverage the exponential power of a nonprofit’s supporters to put more fundraising feet on the ground.
  • Short-term pain = long-term gain.  In the long-run, investment in technology can be both the most economical and impactful way to communicate.  Web-based services and specialized software allow organizations to slash or eliminate the hard costs involved in printing and distributing newsletters and other marketing materials. Through technology nonprofits can build a low-cost but high-quality website as an information hub; form specialized communities among members; or extend of the organization’s physical space to the virtual world (or all of the above!).
  • Audiences connect with humanized brands. A nonprofit’s value proposition is the impact it has on humans, families and communities. Organizations need to be sure that the public sees that “face” in all the nonprofit communicates. Story-telling – done through pictures, video, text and infographics – helps donors or potential donors identify with cause and see the tangible influence of their giving.
  • Data validates the vision. Nonprofits can leverage research (proprietary or otherwise) to strengthen and clarify their value proposition for the community and organizational competency. There are many effective, free survey tools like Survey Monkey available. Results from surveys of constituents, community members and donors can be visually represented and shared in infographics and videos, or leveraged in annual reports, monthly e-newsletters, social media updates, and direct mail promoted to partners and referral sources.

Can you think of other for-profit communication practices that nonprofits can use to climb the hill to recovery? Share your ideas…crowd-sourcing is another efficient way nonprofits can gather information! 

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— Janet Tyler is a co-CEO at Airfoil Public Relations, a high tech PR agency with offices in Silicon Valley and Detroit. Follow her on Twitter