PR Specialization Thought Leadership

#PRin2016: What to Watch for in 2016 and Beyond (Nonprofit Trends)

St Jude Screenshot

Editor’s note: Annually, we begin the year by featuring posts by industry thought leaders predicting key trends that will impact the public relations profession. Follow the series and join the discussion by using the hashtag #PRin2016.

Nonprofit organizations have unique differences that set them apart from for-profit or government entities, but there are also many similarities among the sectors regarding what works in terms of public relations and integrated communication. Many of the trends we’re reading about in other industries also apply to the nonprofit sector in 2016; however, there are a few trends that will remain particularly important for nonprofits in 2016 and beyond.

Integration: Of Utmost Importance for Nonprofits
We have talked about the importance of integration for a few years now, and some of the PR disasters we saw in 2015 resulted from brands not blending their public relations, advertising and marketing efforts to create one consistent voice. This lack of coordination can lead to brand confusion, audience distrust and other ill effects for nonprofits, just like it can for corporate or government organizations. Integrated communication is of utmost importance for nonprofits, which often don’t have the budgets to hire multiple agencies or have their own in-house communication teams with multiple people working on separate initiatives. Instead, nonprofits have to maximize resources, coordinating campaign efforts on a budget and strategically planning and aligning multiple facets of a program before it launches to maximize impact.

One example of a campaign that has sustained and continues to succeed because of long-term strategic planning and alignment of internal and external resources is St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital’s Thanks and Giving® Campaign. Now in its 12th year, this campaign is a coordinated effort involving more than 70 corporate brands, countless donors, celebrity PSAs, a dedicated campaign website, and more. Although St. Jude is a large nonprofit organization with more resources than many, nonprofits could learn from their integrated communication efforts, which require planning, relationship building, continued coordination and dedication to produce long-lasting, sustainable success.

Visual Storytelling is Key
One of the unique things about the nonprofit industry has always been its focus on the mission. The mission and the work of nonprofits allow these organizations to tell incredible stories and trigger emotions that many for-profit and government entities are just learning how to do. Visual storytelling is becoming increasingly important, for nonprofits in particular, as organizations strive to humanize their cause, tell stories through videos, share results through infographics, and create shareable content that nonprofit stakeholders and brand advocates can share across social media.

Many organizations are doing this well; two examples that come to mind are Charity: water and the “I want to be recycled” campaign from Keep America Beautiful. Launched in 2013, with a second phase launching in 2015, this campaign is another example of coordinated, sustained integrated communication with public service announcements aimed at increasing recycling efforts across America. The PSAs tell the stories of a plastic bottle that became a park bench or aluminum cans that were eventually used to help build a stadium, thus humanizing an issue that many think of as environmental (only) or an afterthought (if at all). The campaign is funded by a team of partners, including Unilever, highlighting the importance of partnerships; this leads us to the next trend mentioned below.

Corporations are Seeking Causes, Now More than Ever
Partnerships have always been important for nonprofit organizations, and now more than ever, we are seeing nonprofits partner with not only corporations but also with government entities like the National Institutes of Health or the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. The success of The Heart Truth® campaign is one example of such a partnership. Corporations are becoming more generous, it seems, and seeking causes to support and even spearhead. For example, we have watched brands like Dove, Always and more recently, Barbie, take on a cause and promote it through campaign materials, across social media and other platforms. Many of these causes are connected to nonprofit organizations and their missions. Clearly brands are looking to be connected to more than just products in the hearts and minds of consumers, and nonprofit partnerships are ripe for helping to make those connections. The key for nonprofits is to pay attention to these trends, to do research on the values and issues local and national companies care about, and to pitch partnerships that go beyond a one-time donation or sponsorship to create sustainable relationships, corresponding communication campaigns, opportunities for employee engagement, and so on.

Digital and Mobile Giving Continue to Thrive
Finally, we all know digital and mobile media continue to proliferate across all sectors, and we are seeing that trend in the nonprofit sector as well. Giving Tuesday 2015 saw a 52% increase in online giving compared to 2014, and coordinated campaigns like #GivingTuesday or the #MLKDay of Service, which involve multiple nonprofits and nonprofit advocates, help drive that momentum. Moving forward, nonprofits need to ensure that they not only have a presence online and across social media, but also that those sites are digitally savvy, incorporating some of the integrated and visual storytelling elements mentioned above, and that they allow for quick and easy mobile browsing, connecting and giving by individual stakeholders as well as potential corporate and government partners.

About the author

Brooke W. McKeever, Ph.D.

Brooke W. McKeever, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina. She has experience working in public relations and for nonprofit organizations including St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. She serves on the executive board for the Association/Nonprofit Section of PRSA (@PRSANonprofit) and teaches courses in public relations, integrated communication, and health communication. Her research focuses on nonprofit public relations and health communication and has been published in journals such as the Public Relations Journal, Journal of Public Relations Research, Public Relations Review and the International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing. 

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