How to build your nonprofit’s reputation in 3 steps

Seeking a strong reputation

Americans are beginning to place more trust in for-profit companies than in nonprofits. 


Let’s say that again.


In a survey of 500 Americans, the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer shares, “Only 52 percent of Americans have faith that nonprofits will ‘do what is right.’” What’s even more surprising is that 54 percent placed more trust in for-profit companies. This raises a few questions. 


As a nonprofit, do you feel that people trust in your mission? What are others saying about your organization? When was the last time you had a check-up on your organization’s reputation? Could it be stronger? 


Reputation is a critical asset that can make or break the growth needed to achieve organizational goals. In order to strengthen that trust and reputation, strategic communication is a must. In this post, we’ll provide 3 steps to building a strong reputation through communication:

  1. Deliver on your promise
  2. Be transparent through the good AND the bad
  3. Show your funders and audiences what their support impacts


Deliver on your promise

Saying you’ll do something is one thing; actually doing that thing, and communicating the process of how it is being done, is a whole other ballpark. This applies even when outside forces make keeping this promise hard.


For Cranbrook Institute of Science, their promise is that once you pay for a membership, which includes admission to all permanent exhibits in the museum, you have that membership for 12 months. With COVID-19, that made this promise difficult to uphold, while the museum was closed for several months during the stay-at-home mandate in Michigan.


Still, they knew that delivering on their promise was priority number one, and it was our duty to communicate with members. Their solution: Automatically extend memberships expiration dates by the number of months their doors were closed, and offer virtual content for members to enjoy in the meantime. We were able to clearly communicate that information through social media, email, media campaigns, and their own website to ensure this was shared with target audiences.

It’s simple, but going that extra mile is what keeps trust and influences reputation. It can make the difference between someone ending a membership or renewing it for years to come. 


Be Transparent through the good AND the bad

Label Insight reported that 94 percent of consumers who were surveyed indicated they were more likely to be loyal to a brand that is transparent. 


With transparency comes communicating early and often, and communicating in the order of people who matter most, first. By determining who is most affected by your news or changes, and communicating to them before anyone else, especially in a crisis, the potential for stakeholders or staff to feel blindsided is greatly reduced.


Being real, authentic, and transparent about all the information that is available as soon as possible is important. It’s just as important to break the news using the closest mode of communication available, whether that’s talking in person, or giving them a phone call. The simple gesture of skipping the email and getting face-to-face or at speaking on the phone will make the interaction more authentic and will show that leadership values those critical relationships. 


This step is crucial in a crisis when it comes to the reputation of a brand, because with those closest to you informed, you’ll gain allies that can spread accurate information related to the situation.  On the flip side, if news were to get out to the public through a social media post or a press release before those closest to you know about the situation, it can create high tension and foster the quick spread of misinformation. Take control of the narrative of your story. Get clear information to the ones in your inner circle, before it’s too late.


Below is a simple chart to show what communicating effectively could look like when sharing good and bad news about your organization:


Employees are probably going to be the single biggest determinant in how fast and how well an organization recovers from a crisis, and they’ll be the first contact with customers as recovery occurs.”  -Paul Barton, principal consultant at Paul Barton Communications in Phoenix


Show your funders and audiences what their support impacts

What you don’t need to do: Share your profit and loss financial statement with everyone you know.


What you do need to do: Show the impact of donations, and present what funds are being used where, and how, in a meaningful way.


To achieve this effectively, we deploy the PESO (Paid, Earned, Shared, and Owned) model. Too often, it’s easy to get caught up in the need for advertising (Paid) and media coverage (Earned) to share the amazing organization you’ve built, leaving your social media (Shared) and your website and other content (Owned) behind. 


If you think of the PESO model as a pyramid, it’s important that what makes up the base of the pyramid, owned and shared channels, are strong so that it can hold up the earned and paid elements. 

Investing time and strategy into your website and social media is important in order to show the public, with confidence, where their support is going, and how it is impacting the community. Having pages on your website dedicated to showing people the impact of your nonprofit over the past year, and having social media campaigns that share impact stats, accompanied by imagery of real people being affected by that impact, are huge steps in the right direction.


To trust you, people first need to know you. Next time you’re strategizing on social content, or looking to amplify your owned assets, think closely about ways to communicate how donations are positively affecting those around you. Listen to your donors and audiences to know what type of information they’re looking for. And above all, make it clear from the start how donated funds will be used.


Every leader wants a strong brand

Clear and powerful communication strategy transforms your reputation and donor trust. Whether you’re a nonprofit growing quickly, or in a time of innovation and change, having a strategy to implement clear communication will grow your nonprofit to new heights.


How are you working to strengthen your reputation? We’d love to hear how things are going for you!