Why Nonprofits Need Public Relations – Leveraging Helpful PR Tools and Strategies

By Alyson Iuchs, Library Science specialist and freelance writer

How do you cut through the noise and attract donors as a nonprofit in our digital world?

Staying relevant and in the public eye is crucial to your overall success. It’s also one of the biggest challenges your organization will face, especially if you’re part of a small nonprofit. Large nonprofits rake in the majority of charitable donations—in fact, just 2.39% of nonprofits account for 90% of nonprofit revenue. So how do you get noticed among the hundreds of thousands of other small charitable organizations? With creative and consistent PR and marketing strategies. Thanks to digital trends in PR techniques, building an effective strategy is more accessible than ever. Here’s what you need to know about why (and how) you can bring your PR techniques into the 21st century.

PR vs. Marketing and Fundraising

In the past, PR and marketing were clearly defined: PR handled the press and communications; marketing’s job was advertising. Now, with content marketing and social media dominating public awareness, the line between the two disciplines is far less defined.

The basic difference today is that PR is more about managing the brand image, press, communication, and outreach efforts than soliciting sales or donations. Marketing tends to focus more on selling a specific product, service, or initiative. If you’re running a fundraising campaign, you might market it with ads—but your PR strategy would involve communications with people in different channels, reaching out to publications, and other reputation management activities. Though both strategies can involve similar techniques, they are still considered different disciplines.

It’s also important to note that PR and fundraising are separate activities. Fundraising is supported by PR efforts, but they are not in the same category. New fundraising campaigns can involve the use of crowdfunding platforms and mobile fundraising, but they should not be considered part of the PR strategy. PR creates the impetus and awareness for donations, but is not directly tied to fundraising.

Why Nonprofits Benefit from Effective PR

Because there are so many nonprofits in the United States, a nonprofit needs to not only get attention, but show potential donors why the organization’s cause is worthy of their attention and dollars. Positive publicity is the lifeblood of a nonprofit, and PR is an important tool for raising awareness, engaging others, and connecting with new supporters. Nonprofits have a leg up in connecting with their audience due to implicit community trust and support, but as anyone involved with a nonprofit knows, you can’t just sit back and watch the donations roll in. PR is important for reputation management, ongoing relevance, and community involvement.

Nonprofit PR: Tools and Best Practices

Here are a few great PR strategies nonprofits can use that don’t have to be expensive.

Social Media for Reputation Management and Communication

Social media as part of a PR strategy is nothing new. 98% of small to midsize U.S. nonprofits use Facebook, and 70% use Twitter to grow membership, provide information, and build personal relationships. One great use of social media in PR is to create/ride trends that everyone can be involved in. A well-known example is the 2014 ALS Association’s Ice Bucket Challenge which raised $115 million during an 8-week period. Spreading across social media platforms, ordinary people and celebrities alike poured ice water on themselves and discussed the facts about ALS. The success is in the results, and there have been more trend-setting PR initiatives since then.

Canned responses, templates, and outlines don’t work in social media PR. To run a successful PR campaign, it takes a personal connection. Nonprofits need to employ spokespeople that address individuals as valued members and pay attention to detail.

Leveraging Publications for Positive Press

Newspapers are still relevant, even as publications continue moving online. It’s easier than ever to pitch editors, get your nonprofit into reputable papers, and find new resources for positive press. One way to easily connect with journalists who are looking for your organization’s expertise is to use free tools like HARO (Help a Reporter Out) to target pitches and access warm leads.

In-Person Networking

Conferences, summits, and community events are great opportunities for positive PR. They give you in-person networking opportunities that can lead to organic positive press. People who meet you and get a good impression of your organization will provide word-of-mouth publicity. Local media outlets will have a reason to give your nonprofit space in their publications.

Case Study: Girl Scouts in the 21st Century

The Girl Scouts of the USA is one of the most well-known nonprofits in the country. Their troops have been selling cookies as a fundraiser for over 100 years. They’ve added new cookie flavors since the early 1900s, but that’s not the organization’s biggest evolution. While keeping true to their core values of empowering girls and young women, they’ve evolved their PR strategies to stay relevant in our tech-driven world.

In 2016, the organization won the Social Responsibility Campaign Award because they committed to helping girls develop modern entrepreneurial skills with their Digital Cookie program, launched in 2014. The program helps girls learn to run an online ecommerce business by selling cookies and marketing online, processing payments, and shipping orders. 57% of Girl Scout alumnae credit the cookie program for helping them to develop relevant skills, and the organization’s willingness to evolve is keeping those skills relevant in the modern world.

Because their fundraising and PR tactics were tied into their goal of helping young women gain key skills, the publicity from the program was unprecedented, surpassing the organization’s expectations by around 800% and gaining them spots on national news and talk shows, trending at #1 on Facebook and generating incredible support. This is a great example of positive publicity and reputation management by leveraging digital tools.


About the author:

Alyson Iuchs is a former journalist and graduate from the University of Central Missouri. Currently, she is a library science specialist and freelance writer. Outside of that, Alyson loves reading YA novels and writing short stories.


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