Improve Your Chances of Getting Grant Funding: Create a Communications Strategy

If your organization doesn't have an online presence, you may be hurting your ability to secure grant funding.

Increasingly, both donors and the general public expect organizations to maintain a website and multiple social media accounts. For donors, an organization's online presence signals that you have a mechanism in place to publicize projects made possible through their funding. For the public, a website is now considered the standard way to learn about an organization. If they can't find you online, some potential supporters may question your organization's legitimacy.

Because of its importance in attracting donor support, developing a communications strategy that includes a website and a social media presence is one of the most valuable things you can do to help your organization succeed. In fact, for newly established organizations, developing a communications strategy may be a better first step than jumping in and applying for grants.

Below are six free and low-cost suggestions of how you can start to build an online presence.

1.  Launch a Website

A website gives your organization a platform to list contact information and share updates. If you are ready to launch a website but lack the resources to hire a web designer, you can create a professional website on your own, no tech skills required, by using a website builder. Website builders are fairly intuitive and rely on the familiar drag-and-drop process to move content around. They also come with a menu of professionally designed themes. "Themes" create the exterior face of a website. A professional theme includes features such as a responsive design (i.e. the website will work on mobile devices) and a variety of options to customize the site's layout, colors, etc. If you choose to go with Wordpress.org, the paid version of Wordpress, you'll be able to customize your website more than with a website builder. However, unless you want to use one of Wordpress's free themes, you'll have to budget an extra $50+ to purchase a professional theme.

If you don't feel ready to invest in a website, or if you want to experiment a bit first, there are several choices to create a free website including  wordpress.com, the Google platform Blogger, and starter plans through Wix and Weebly. The disadvantages of using a free service are that your options for customization will be limited and, perhaps more of a concern, your site will be branded with the logo of the website platform. For example with Wix, you'll see a message at the bottom of your website "Proudly created with Wix.com."

When it comes to an organization's website, using a free service may also send the wrong message. Potential donors may view your choice to use a free website plan as a reflection of your organization's capacity. If you can't afford a professional website through an inexpensive service such as Squarespace (you can get a great looking site through Squarespace for just $96/year), a donor may question whether your organization has the resources to run a project. A free site could also suggest to potential donors that your organization doesn't feel confident enough about its future to invest in a paid site.

If you are going to create a website on your own, consider taking advantage of the free trial periods offered by website builders such as Wix, Weebly, and Squarespace. The trial periods will give you an opportunity to test features and identify the platform you like best. Once the free trial is over, f you lack the money to move to a paid service--or are uncomfortable committing money toward a website--it may be a sign that your organization is not ready to pursue grant funding.

If you have no idea how to begin building a website or are unsure what an effective website for a nonprofit looks like, the resources below can help you get started:

2. Choose Your Social Media Outlets

Social media is another piece of your communications strategy. There are many social media outlets to choose from including Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and LinkedIn. Because of the ease of setting up social media accounts, you may want to go ahead and create your social media accounts while you build your website.  You can use your Facebook page as your online hub while your website is under development.

A social media presence serves a different purpose than a website, so ultimately you'll want to have both. Social media is a great way to share quick updates and to engage with people interested in your cause.  In contrast, a website is your permanent home online and a platform to share longer and more substantive content.

Another difference between social media and a website is that you own and control the content on your website, whereas the social media company controls your content once you post it through their service.

Maintaining a presence on social media can take a significant amount of time, more time than maintaining a website.  However, while a presence on social media is necessary, you don't need to maintain dozens of accounts.  Instead,  choose two or three social media outlets that you 1) can see yourself posting to regularly; and 2) know (or suspect) that your intended audience uses. If you enjoy Facebook, use Facebook. If you dislike Facebook but love Twitter, use Twitter. If you are new to social media and are not sure which options will work for you, set up accounts with different social media services and try each of them for a few weeks to see which ones you like using and which ones get the greatest engagement.

In choosing a social media outlet, you'll want to confirm that there is a good match between the kind of content you intend to post and the social media outlets you've chosen. For example, if you think you'll primarily be posting links to articles, LinkedIn or Facebook might be your best options. If you see yourself mostly posting photos from the Web along with ones you've taken yourself, Instagram and Pinterest would be the better choices.

3. Decide on a Posting Schedule

Another factor you'll want to consider as you create a communications strategy is how often you'll (realistically) be able to post new content.

Social media outlets vary regarding how frequently you need to post to be perceived as "active." Twitter is on the high end of the scale with people posting throughout the day. On the low end of the scale is Instagram, where a single post a day seems to be enough. Whatever social media outlets you choose, weigh the posting expectations carefully. If you cannot regularly post on your chosen outlets, social media won't be serving its purpose of generating interest in your organization.

You'll also need to decide how often you'll post on your website's blog. Although you don't have to maintain a blog, a blog is a way to share more lengthy updates that aren't appropriate for social media. To minimize the burden of a blog, you can recruit people to guest post. Additionally, depending on which website service you choose, you may have the option to give multiple people posting privileges.

In deciding whether to start a blog, you'll want to weigh the potential value of the blog against the time and effort it will take to maintain it. You may decide not to pursue a blog in favor of relying on your social media accounts to post frequent and brief updates. If you go the social media route, you could dedicate your website to listing events, contact information, the organization's mission and purpose, and maybe links to reports and publications. To keep the website low maintenance, you'll want to populate it primarily with static content that does not require frequent updates.

Another way to reduce the burden of maintaining a website and several social media accounts is to use one or more services to schedule and publish your posts.  For social media postings there are several services that can help you automate the work such as Hootsuite and Buffer. For blog posts, you'll find that most website builders include a built-in calendar feature that enables you to schedule the publication date and time for each post.  If you want a tool that will allow you to schedule your posts across multiple social media accounts and your blog, an option to explore is Coschedule.

4. Plan Your Content

After choosing a website platform, picking the social media channels you'll use, and deciding on a posting schedule, the next thing you'll need to consider is what content to share. Some things will be obvious. For example, you'll want to share news about recent accomplishments, upcoming events, and new projects. You may want to use your website to post links to your current annual report and to share community events. For your blog's content, perhaps you'll use it to provide a "behind the scenes" look at your organization's work. Whatever type of content you decide to share, you'll want to sketch out the ideas and themes to develop on your blog and the criteria for news and updates you intend to post. If you plan to share community news on your website, how will you decide which types of news to share? Having criteria spelled out in advance will help you find the right content to post and make it easier to turn down external requests to post items that aren't relevant to your organization.

In addition to planning your website content, you'll want to think about how your social media accounts and website will work together. Will you share all of your blog posts on each of your social media accounts? Will you share events only through Twitter? Or will you share the same content across all your social media accounts? There isn't a right or wrong approach, but you do need a strategy.

If you want ideas on content creating and scheduling, check out the resources below. You can also uncover lots articles on social media posting and content creation by searching on Pinterest.

5. Create a Branding Plan

Your branding strategy and your communications strategy are related. Your branding plan will take into account everything from the colors and fonts you choose for your website to your website's tagline and the "feel" or theme you want your website to have (modern, classic, etc.). The content you create and share, your logo, and your organization's tagline all contribute to your brand and should support, not conflict, with one another.

If you have the resources, consider investing in a logo. A unique logo will make the content you post recognizably yours. A logo will also make it easier to create a unified "look" across your website and your social media outlets. While you will want to create a branding strategy in tandem with creating your website, if your organization is new, you may want to hold off on a logo until you are clear on the direction your organization is heading. In the meantime, you can create a temporary branding strategy by using consistent colors and font styles for your posted content.

When you are ready to create a logo, you have a few options. The first (and most expensive) choice is to hire a designer. If you want to go a less-expensive route, several companies can help you with logo design, some more DIY than others. Two companies to look at are 99 Designs and GraphicSprings. You can learn about other options in the article 5 Easy to Use Online Logo Makers to Design Your Brand posted on the Shopify blog.

6. Schedule Periodic Reviews

Last but not least, once you have everything set up, you'll want to schedule periodic reviews of your social media accounts and website to make sure that hyperlinks are working, contact information is up to date, and older content is still relevant, etc. For your website, you'll also want to evaluate the layout to make sure it still makes sense.

In other words, you are never done. Once you establish your website and social media accounts you'll need to monitor them regularly to add, update, and remove content as necessary.

Mainintaing a Website and Social Media Accounts

Takes Work

It is a lot of work to establish and maintain an online presence. Setting up the accounts is relatively easy. The hard part is maintaining everything, making sure that your website works as it should, and that your social media accounts are continuously sending out content your audience will find interesting.

However, because it is hard work to establish a website and a social media presence, it's important to start early.  You'll have an easier time proving to potential funders that you'll be able to publicize project activities and accomplishments if you already have a functioning website and active social media accounts.  In addition, if you have a website and social media accounts up and running before you receive a grant, you'll have one less thing to worry about when you receive funding and are busy with the project's launch.

Another advantage of going through the six steps above is that you'll be able to budget the project's communication costs with greater accuracy. Based on your experience running the organization's website and social media efforts, you'll know what needs to be done and how much to budget.

So don't wait until you get a grant to start building a website and thinking about social media. Start now! Your next grant may depend on it.

To read more about nonprofits and branding check out this article posted on www.adweek.com on December 22, 2015: "Thrift vs. Spending: Navigating the Paradox of Nonprofit Branding - How to advance a cause without looking commercially driven" by Andrea Katz. Also, see the article "Six Communications Trends NGOs Should Follow in 2016" by Caroline Cassidy published in The Guardian on December 31, 2015.

For tips on creating landing pages, see "Why Well Designed Landing Pages Are A Must" by Jay Wilkinson, posted on the site Nonprofit Hub.

For information about using Facebook as a nonprofit, see Facebook's Facebook for Nonprofits