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Create a Style Guide for High-Impact Nonprofit Communications
Nancy Schwartz

February, 2011

Here’s the problem:


Due to the ubiquitous nature of advertising and promotion, we’re all bombarded by communications.


In the face of this morass, inconsistencies in editorial and graphic content make it difficult for your audiences to recognize, at a glance, that your communications are all coming from your organization. Remember, we’re all scanners these days, so looking and sounding the same way, over time, throughout your various channels, is crucial.


In addition, it’s likely that those who do recognize that mismatched communications are from your nonprofit won’t think much of your organization or your sloppy communications effort.


Consistency is the key to your audiences absorbing your messages, and for them to be able to “whisper down the lane” — repeating those messages to others. No other form of communication is as powerful as this natural network.


Here’s how to put a style guide to work to ensure powerfully consistent communications:


A Style Guide Is a Long-Term Solution

An easy way to ensure clear and consistent communications is to create an editorial and visual identity style guide, made available organization wide as an ever-accessible PDF.


Everyone needs to be on the same page when it comes to getting the word out. The standards featured in your style guide will make it easy for them to do so, reducing
time spent, errors made and endless frustration.


A style guide will also make it unnecessary for you and your colleagues to re-invent the wheel each time, saving you a great deal of effort.


Remember that once you’ve launched your organizational style guide, it may make sense to develop guides for major campaigns or programs (see link below to the style guide for the University of Maryland’s $1 billion Great Event fundraising campaign).






Action Plan

Here is a step-by-step approach to putting together, or updating, your style guide.

  • Spread out communications samples in front of you, including pages printed out from your web site, e-news blog, fundraising campaigns, and other key channels.
  • Jot down standards that work best in the following areas. You’ll want input from colleagues and external audiences if possible.

Traditionally, style guides covered punctuation, spelling and other editorial guidelines. I suggest you expand this concept to include visual guidelines as well so you and your colleagues have a single point of reference to shape communications.



EDITORIAL Guidelines

The primary purpose of editorial guidelines is to address topics specific to your organization that are not adequately covered in the standard published style guides, such as The Chicago Manual of Style or The Associated Press Style book (see below).


In addition, the guide summarizes some of the most- frequently-raised questions of style, topics that are dealt with in greater detail in these manuals, in order to offer a quick, but more comprehensive, reference tool.


Questions of style, unlike many questions of grammar, usually do not have a right or wrong answer.


Instead, establishing a preferred style is helpful so that a consistent presentation can be maintained throughout an array of materials that may be produced by many different individuals.


Having a set of predetermined guidelines will also save those individuals the time and energy required to develop their own guidelines.


Guidelines should include:

  • Word style preferences (preferred spelling and capitalization, e.g. web site vs. website, grant making vs. grantmaking).
  • Words not to use.
  • Naming and acronyms.
  • Person, tone and voice.
  • Positioning statement: The two or three sentences that establish your position in the philanthropic world and how it should be included, as a whole, in most communications.
  • Talking points for staff and board: Key messages that briefly cover the who, what, when, where, and how of your group, and how they should be incorporated in most communications.
  • Tagline (in eight words or less)


  • The title of the published grammar style guide that your group uses:  Communicate the title of the guide that your writers need to follow when deciding whether to insert that final comma or not, or selecting the right preposition to follow the word parallel (to or with).

Review these titles, talk to colleagues, and select one if you haven’t already. Top picks are:

  • The Associated Press Stylebook
  • The Chicago Manual of Style
  • Words into Type.



Since the power of a strong visual identity can only be realized through consistent application, these standards are crucial for colleagues throughout your nonprofit to follow.

Elements should include:

  • Logo: Sizing; colors; position on the page; what elements should be included when logo is used.
  • Color Palette: Official colors and details on how those colors are to be used.
  • Typeface (e.g. all newsletter headlines are in Times Roman Bold, 14 pt.).
  • Layouts, templates.
  • Web templates.
  • Photo and image library.


Putting Your Style Guide to Work

Your next step is to distribute the guide and ensure that staff and consultants are clear on its content.


An in-person “training” session is often an effective way to introduce the guide and ensure that your colleagues view it as an aid (fewer open issues, decisions, delays) to them, rather than a dictum imposed upon them.


Remember to refresh your guide on an ongoing basis as questions come up and preferences are determined.



Stellar Nonprofit Style Guide Examples

You’ll see that these examples range from a one-pager, which might be enough for your organization, to Rutgers’ multi-page guide. The more numerous and complex your organization, programs and audiences are, the more depth you’ll need in your style guide.





Don’t be afraid to contact your communications colleagues at these organizations to learn more about the development or implementation of these guides.

Does your organization have an editorial and/or visual standards guide you’d like to share with colleagues? Please post the URL as a comment here.



About the Author


Nancy E. Schwartz helps nonprofits succeed through effective marketing.  Nancy and her team provide marketing planning and implementation services to nonprofit organizations and foundations nationwide.  She is also the publisher of the Getting Attention e-update and blog.



For more nonprofit marketing guidance like this, subscribe to the Getting Attention e-update here:



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