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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

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The 4 Cornerstones of an Engaging Message Platform
Nancy Schwartz

November, 2010

Messaging is one of the most overlooked and underappreciated nonprofit marketing strategies there is.  
That was confirmed in spring 2009 via our messaging survey of more than 900 nonprofit communicators. Just 16% of respondents said their organization's messages connect well with their network!

This is a huge loss, as effective messaging has significant marketing ROI (return on investment). Creating engaging messages requires a minor (if any) financial investment and a moderate investment of time, and offers tremendous returns. But without messaging that connects, you’ll get nowhere with your marketing.
I hear from many nonprofit communicators who do believe in the power of messaging, but just don’t know where to start. This article will guide you through crafting the four cornerstones of your organization’s messaging—your message platform.
NOTE: This article kicks off a series on creating messages that do connect. Please share your most daunting messaging challenges with me, so I know where to focus first.  

Three Must-Dos Before You Shape Your Message Platform

Take these three steps to ensure relevancy, the essence of messages that connect. Without connection, your message platform is useless.
  1. Clarify your top one or two communications goals—what you want to achieve; the action you want folks to take to get you there.
  2. Identify whom you need to engage to do so (your network).
  3. Get to know your network—their wants, values and concerns (so you can articulate what’s in it for them and ensure no barriers stand in their way) and how best to reach them.

Four Cornerstones for a Message Platform that Connects

When you’ve completed the three must-dos outlined above, you’re ready to draft or refine your organization’s messaging. These four components are the cornerstones of a strong message platform.
Be aware that although these elements are presented in a linear manner here, the message development process is cyclical rather than linear. For example, what you learn in building out your key messages and related support points may highlight an element that needs to be incorporated into your positioning statement. Design your timeline, and roles and responsibilities, for this process with that in mind.

1. Positioning Statement

Connects your organization with those you want to engage by 1) linking it with what’s important to them; and 2) differentiating it from others competing for their attention, time and dollars.
A one to three sentence statement that positions your organization most effectively in the environment in which you work. It conveys the intersection of what your organization does well, what it does better and differently than any other organization (uniqueness), and what your network cares about.
Key components of your positioning statement are:
  • What you do.
  • For whom (whom do you serve).
  • What’s different about the way you do your work.
  • What impact you make (something tangible, like a stat, is compelling here; see example below).
  • What unique benefit is derived from your programs, services and/or products?
Most, importantly, this is not your mission statement. Your mission statement is internally oriented and serves as your organizational road map. Your positioning statement connects your mission with what’s vital to your network, so must be externally oriented.
How to Use  
Exactly as written in all print and online communications (with the exception of the occasional narrowly-focused flyer or mini-site).
  • The Legal Aid Society has worked for 128 years to stabilize and improve the lives of poor individuals and families in New York City. Over 900 Legal Aid attorneys provide free civil, criminal defense and juvenile rights advice and representation to 300,000 clients annually, tackling issues as diverse as eviction defense, Medicare rights and wrongful conviction. Through approaching complex problems with an innovative and holistic blend of legal and social services, The Legal Aid Society makes a real and lasting difference in the lives of its clients and their families.
  • The Rural Women’s Health Project (RWHP) designs and delivers health education training and materials to help rural women and their families strengthen their understanding of critical health and family issues. By blending innovative techniques with a collaborative approach, RWHP has built a record of success in improving the health and well-being of the communities they serve.

2. Tagline

Extends your organization’s name to convey its unique impact or value with personality, passion and commitment, while delivering a memorable and repeatable message to your network.
Running no more than eight words, the tagline is your organization’s single most used messaging component. An effective tagline provides enough insight to generate interest and motivate your reader/listener to ask a question, without providing too much information so that she thinks she knows everything she needs to and doesn’t want to read more or continue the conversation.
How to Use  
Exactly as written in print, online and verbal communications, including business cards and email signatures.
  • Organization: Homeboy Industries (workforce development and gang prevention)
  • Tagline: Nothing Stops a Bullet Like a Job
  • Organization: Houston Food Bank 
  • Tagline: Filling pantries. Filling lives.

3. Key Messages or Talking Points

Succinctly elaborate on your positioning statement and provide the necessary proof required for validation, while enabling you to tailor your messaging to specific groups within your network.
A set of five to seven key messages that build on the information conveyed in your positioning statement and respond to most common questions asked by your current and prospective network.
Most talking points should run no more than two sentences. They can be customized to a specific goal or focus, topic or group.
Be prepared with supporting points (a.k.a. proof points) for each talking point.
How to Use
  • Use in both written and verbal conversation.
  • However, talking points do not represent the exact words that must be used (especially in conversation), but rather convey the essential ideas to be conveyed. They can be customized for greater impact–to the specific interchange, the interests of the person you’re speaking with or emailing, and/or the topic of conversation.
Note the supporting points associated with the talking points in each example.

4. Elevator Pitch

Enables you to transform any social contact (not just those that take place in an elevator) into a conversion opportunity (asking for more information, scheduling a call, etc.) in 60 seconds or less.
A conversational technique featuring a variation of your positioning statement, customized to the interests of the person you’re talking with, the context of your conversation, the “ask” you’ll be making and/or other factors. Takes no more than 60 seconds to deliver; 30 seconds is ideal.
These are the four steps to get there. Start with step one and end with step four, but the order of steps two and three can vary:
  1. The lead-in. This is where you introduce yourself and your role in your organization to set up the conversation. It’s intended to spark the interest of the person you’re speaking with.
  2. The differentiator. This identifies your organization as providing a unique resource valued by the person you’re speaking with, one that deserves immediate attention.
  3. The hook. This is an open-ended conversation starter that allows you to assess the prospect’s interest level.
  4. The call to action. This is the request to schedule a follow-up call to discuss the matter further, make an online contribution or participate in a meeting on the issue, thereby making the conversion. Make it specific, clear and doable (e.g. don’t ask too much, especially in an initial conversation).
NOTE: It's vital that the "pitcher" is adept at following the lead of his conversational partner to make the most of the short period he has. Role playing is an effective way to build this skill.

Hi, I'm Mora Lopez. I’m a senior at Santa Fe High School and a volunteer with Open Door. We host workshops at our school so that adults can learn English. We’re the only free adult ESL class in town.
Do you know that out of the 30 million adults who are below basic reading and writing levels, almost 40% are Hispanic? Our participants report back that learning English has made a remarkable difference in their lives, both professionally and personally, and we want to grow the number of students we can handle.
Can you join us next Tuesday night for a one-hour community brainstorming session on recruiting volunteers to grow the program?
19 Elevator Pitches for Good Causes
These video clips of elevator pitches for organizations like yours are useful models. You’ll know at a gut level what works and what doesn’t.
Now It’s Your Turn—Next Steps

Your next step is to inventory your organization’s current message platform against this checklist:
  • What elements are in place as defined above (or near enough)?
  • For those that are in place, were they created based on the three “must-dos” outlined at the beginning of this article?
    • If yes, you have some of the four cornerstones already in place.
    • If no, you’ll need to start at the very beginning, with your positioning statement.
  • For those cornerstones you need to revise or create for the first time:
    • Clarify one to two top communications goals.
    • Identify your network (those you need to engage to meet them) and get to know them.
    • Start shaping your cornerstones based on this framework.
I’ll be sharing guidance on criteria for compelling messages and related topics during the months to come. Please do let me know what messaging challenges are standing in your way, and I’ll do my best to cover them.
Contact Nancy at


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