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Promoting Issues and Ideas: A Guide to Public Relations for Nonprofit Organizations

by M Booth & Associates, Inc.

The Public Relations Plan

A public relations plan is the road map of public relations activity undertaken by an organization.

Usually, plans are organized for both the short and long term. Most often they are developed to encompass a period of three to five years. Realistically, this means that goals and objectives are developed over the long term, while specific activities are detailed for a shorter period (usually a year). For this reason, a public relations plan should be updated annually so that it reflects the changing needs of an organization. At the same time, it should be applied on a daily or weekly basis to ensure that the public relations program is on track.

Because public relations is so hard to quantify — for example, it's often impossible to measure to what extent newspaper publicity resulted in increased funds — the public relations plan can serve as an important tool for evaluating whether an organization's objectives are being met successfully.

All public relations plans should consist of the following elements:

  1. Objectives — What does the organization want the plan to accomplish? Objectives should be straightforward and clearly stated. For an arts organization this could be "to increase audience", for a civil-rights group, "to rally public support around an issue", for a day-care center, "to obtain more clients."

Most plans have more than one objective, depending on the kind and number of audiences to be reached.

  1. Target audiences — Whom must the organization reach or influence to make the program work? Like objectives, most groups have multiple audiences with whom they must communicate. These audiences usually include both internal and external groups of people.

The term internal audience refers to those groups closest to the organization, including but not necessarily limited to the staff and board. Often, especially if it is a national organization, it will include a broader group, such as chapter presidents.

External audience refers to targeted groups independent of the organization. For a day-care center, for example, these might include working mothers, principals, school supervisors, teachers, funders, government officials in the day-care area, and staff at other day-care centers.

When identifying audiences, it is critical that you determine priorities so that the public relations program reflects the appropriate emphasis. In the case of the day-care center, working mothers and funders are probably more important audiences than teachers, for without their knowledge and support the center could not survive.

  1. Key messages — What are the one or two most important ideas the organization wishes to communicate to its audiences? In the case of the day-care center, the key messages might be as basic as "We care for your child as carefully as you would" or "High-quality day care is crucial to every child's development." The spirit of the key messages should permeate the public relations plan — and written materials — of any organization, as well as reflect a consensus with which the entire organization is comfortable.
  2. Strategies — What grand design or overall approach should the organization adopt to reach its targeted audiences? A common strategy adopted by many organizations is to use media relations to heighten institutional awareness. Other strategies might include expanding outreach efforts to increase the number of volunteers, or creating a special event to launch a fundraising campaign or draw attention to an important issue.
  3. Tactics — What tools should the organization employ to carry out its strategies? It could be a simple publicity campaign, new print or multimedia materials, a special event, an award program, institutional advertising — or all of the above.
  4. Timetable — What is a realistic time period for developing and carrying out the strategies the organization plans to adopt? Timetables are usually organized by the year and month, but attention should also be given to daily and weekly scheduling of projects.
  5. Budget — What should the size and scope of the organization's public relations program be? It depends on the amount of money available. It is better to plan broadly and then weigh choices against budget constraints and the potential effectiveness of a particular strategy.


Planners need a general sense of a budget's parameters before they can put detailed plans on paper. For instance, when planning a targeted public relations campaign, publicists should know beforehand how much the organization can spend on such a campaign.

For nonprofit groups, the total public relations budget will vary with the nature of the organization. Groups dedicated to affecting public opinion most likely will earmark a larger share of their overall budget to communications than will organizations that mainly provide services.

Establishing the parameters of a public relations budget can also spare an organization's staff and supporters a lot of disappointment: with clearly defined parameters in place, no one will expect a designer dress on a thrift-shop budget. An organization needn't spend a lot of money to have a public relations program, but the less money it has, the more effective its strategies must be.

Developing Informational Materials

Do you need to market a new program or service? Find new support for a cause? Raise additional funds? Mobilize more volunteers? Whatever your goals, you will need to create a range of materials that effectively delivers your messages.

The standard public relations tools used by nonprofit groups include brochures and pamphlets, newsletters, annual reports, and videos. Although these tools remain relevant to the work of most organizations today, in many instances they have been supplemented by new technologies ranging from computer disks to facsimile transmissions and electronic mail.

New reproduction and distribution technologies have also increased the production options available to groups that wish to create a brochure or distribute a newsletter. With the advent of desktop publishing software, we have all become graphic designers and newsletter publishers. Recent advances in color photocopying allow us to upgrade flyers, pamphlets, posters, and presentations. Today, a professional-looking presentation is only as far as the nearest photocopy and print shop.

New reproduction technologies are also faster and more flexible than traditional production and printing processes, allowing us to target our messages more carefully to disseminate information more quickly. What may have taken weeks to produce 10 to 15 years ago can now be turned around overnight.

But every revolution has a downside. For many people, the explosion of information technologies has resulted in "communications overload," making it harder and harder for nonprofits to get their messages across. The challenge is to create media that will deliver your messages in ways that cut through the clutter.



Despite the increasing range of new media and new production technologies, many groups still elect to provide a brief organizational brochure first.

A descriptive piece that outlines a group's mission, activities, and programs can be used to build credibility. However much the task of writing and producing such a piece may appear to be straightforward, it's easier said than done. For a new organization, finding the language and images that best tell your story is both a difficult and an important exercise. The finished product — the new brochure — should project the character and credibility of your group. For better or worse, it should shape perceptions of your organization for years to come. As a result, creating an organizational brochure is much like looking at yourself in the mirror. You want to like what you see. Sometimes a lot of rearranging and fussing is needed before you are satisfied.

A brochure can describe the central mission of an organization or simply promote a project. It can be used to raise funds, to celebrate an anniversary, to promote a program or service, or to recruit volunteers. Yet to be effective, it should speak directly to the interests of one or more of your audiences. Before it can inform, motivate, or inspire, it must link their interests to the mission of the organization. An effective brochure should actually talk about the reader. It should be market-driven. And it should be carefully conceived and prepared. The actual task of writing and producing such a piece can be daunting.

Before you attempt to write copy or fashion a design, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the message we want to communicate?
  • With whom do we want to communicate? Who are our key audiences? Who is the ideal reader of our brochure?
  • What kind of response do we want from our readers? (i.e., what do we want people to think or do after reading our brochure? Join the organization? Ask questions? Send a check? Volunteer their services? Come to an event?)
  • How should the brochure be written and designed to elicit the response we want? Does our message lend itself to extensive copy, photographs, graphs, or charts?

Once you've answered these questions, you can begin the creative work that needs to be done to cut through the clutter and capture the attention of your audience.

Moving beyond the first brochure, the key to success in creating printed materials is to make sure that each subsequent piece is as necessary and focused as the first. To that end, thematic and design elements should be linked by the use of similar formats, matching or complementary colors, and compatible typefaces and layouts.

As a group becomes an organization, and as an organization emerges as an institution, the pressure to create more and more printed material grows. As programs grow, organizations tend to produce brochures and printed pieces apace, responding to situations as they arise rather than creating new opportunities. And with each new piece, objectives can get fuzzy, design elements can get out of sync, and styles can become inconsistent. The result can be a hodgepodge of materials that eventually needs to be repackaged and a communications strategy that needs to be reinvented.

To maintain a consistent message and style in printed materials as your organization grows, some planning at the start will help. The more an organization is able to focus on its message and audiences at the outset, the more effective and professional its communications will be over the longer term.

As in every component of a public relations effort, it's a good idea to appoint a central decision-maker with responsibility for informational materials early on.


Newsletters can be used to inform and motivate special audiences.

To be effective, a newsletter should have a clear sense of its readers and their links to the organization. Whether it offers chatty news and features about volunteers or employees, promotes the organization's work in order to garner additional support, or informs existing (and potential) members about organizational issues, a newsletter — and this is vital — should demonstrate an understanding of its readers and their interests.

The most successful newsletters are those that contain news and information readers can use — news, that is timely and informative. A good newsletter teaches. It is written in a style that enhances its readability, with headlines and subheads that captures the reader's attention. It should be written and designed to be read thoroughly. If you harbor the suspicion that no one bothers to read your newsletter, it's probably time to retool it.

The frequency of your newsletter should be determined by the pace at which your organization generates news and by the need of its readership to be kept informed. It should not deliver old news or stale information. Nevertheless, budget constraints often limit an organization's ability to produce and distribute a newsletter on a regular basis. Just remember, the longer the down time between issues, the harder it is to recapture readers. Additionally, infrequent publication often translates into larger production budgets, which are needed to create a lasting impact.

Publications soliciting support or serving as membership premiums tend to be glossier than the average newsletter, with more in-depth editorial coverage and better graphics. These organizational magazines usually go beyond news to cover more broadly the stories, issues, and personalities "behind" the news. As the care and nurturing of donors is often high on the priority list of most nonprofits, the premium approach is one you may want to incorporate into your publications planning, but with one caveat: the development and regular publication of an organizational magazine requires considerable resources.

Annual Report

Many states now require nonprofit institutions and foundations to file an annual report in order to keep their tax-exempt status. Similarly, audited financial reports are usually required by foundations or corporate givers considering funding requests. Although the primary aim of an annual report is to provide information on the financial condition of an organization, more often than not, the report becomes an organizational showcase and a fundraising tool used to recognize and mobilize donors.

The annual reports produced by nonprofits are often similar to those produced in the for-profit world. Each year, publicly held companies report to stakeholders/shareholders, employees, staff, the investment community, and of course, the Securities and Exchange Commission, which requires regular statements — on their operations and financial condition. It has become standard operating procedure among corporate communications departments to create profusely illustrated, handsomely composed reports that can cost $5 a copy or more to produce (with print runs in the hundreds of thousands), not including staff and freelance time.

For nonprofits, an annual report serves an additional function as a promotional document, providing a forum in which an organization's mission and achievement can be outlined and a vision of its future can be mapped out. An effective annual report can rally various stakeholders, building the case for continued support. And, since it is often provided the broadest reach of an internally produced publication, it may be the single most important piece an organization develops during the course of a year. For all these reasons, an annual report is usually worth the extra effort, time, and expense required to produce it.

An annual report generally takes from three to nine months to write, design, and produce. Much depends on how elaborate the report will be (number of photos and/or artwork used) the type and amount of copy required (is a special essay going to be commissioned?), and the internal clearance procedure. Is one person or department responsible for creating it, or will it be developed by committee? How many people have editorial input? How many will need to see the design? What kind of design/production team will tackle the report? Do photos need to be taken or will stock pictures do?

Some preliminary planning is always helpful. A meeting with the organization's senior executive and/or senior staff should be arranged to discuss the report's purpose, its possible themes and design, its utility over the course of the coming year, and when it should appear. A budget for producing the report should also be discussed and agreed on.

Authority for developing and producing the report should be delegated. If at all possible, the report should be made the responsibility of one staff member or department; the writing, editing, and design should be supervised by one person. In most cases, financial and audited information will be supplied by the organization's comptroller or accountant.

Other Ways to Spread the Word

T-shirts replaced buttons and bumper stickers some time ago as the preferred way to spread the word. More recently, tote bags have been transformed into walking advertisements by art museums, public libraries, performing arts groups, and public television stations. The totes have quickly been followed by other merchandise — umbrellas, clocks, paperweights, notepads, tapes, CDs, limited-edition prints, and so on. Many of these items are used to spur membership or are presented as giveaways at benefits. There are novelty companies in most areas that can provide a range of items with an organization's logo, name, and/or a short message.

Bumper stickers and buttons sporting all kinds of clever slogans were popular in the 1970s. In some areas, they appear to be making a comeback. (More recently, pins and ribbons have become popular.) Buttons, in particular, are useful at public events and rallies. They are also cheap (depending on design), quickly produced, and portable. But before you order a few thousand, think seriously about who would wear one, and for how long.


Media exposure is the single most important tool used by public relations practitioners to gain visibility for an organization, its issues, and/or its services.

Publicity is coverage in the media, be it print or electronic. As such, it can range from news stories, feature articles, and editorials in national or local newspapers, magazines, or trade journals to appearances on talk shows and news programs.

Publicists use a variety of informational materials (e.g., news releases and photos), vehicles (e.g., the telephone, faxes, mail), and settings (e.g., news conferences and special events) to get the attention of the media.

Not every contact with the media needs to result in a story, however. Becoming a trusted source of expert information can be invaluable for nonprofits. If you can help an editor develop a story idea — even if your organization isn't featured in that story — you will be on your way to establishing a useful long-term relationship. And that can work to your organization's advantage in any number of ways.

This chapter will examine how best to work with the media to promote your organization and publicize specific events. It includes information on how to:

  • Develop a publicity plan
  • Develop and use a media list
  • Create the materials needed to interest the media in a story
  • Generate coverage in daily newspapers, magazines, and wire services
  • Get on radio and television


If you aren't one already, you should become an avid media watcher. The sooner you do so, the better prepared you'll be when it comes time to launch your publicity campaign. Read as many newspapers as possible to see who is covering what. Take note of stories that relate to your organization's sphere of activities and write down where they appear and whose byline they carry. Watch the editorial pages, op-ed columns, and "Letter to the Editor" as well. All are possible outlets for publicity. Keeping a list or card file of names will give you a leg up when it comes time to develop a media list.

Television and radio news and talk shows are other possible outlets. Become familiar with their formats. Find volunteers who are willing to monitor such programs and write short evaluations of their style and content for your files. Not only will this kind of research tip you off as to which show might be appropriate forums for your message, it will also provide you with clues as to what kinds of stories appeal to their producers and audiences.


An important element of any publicity campaign is a comprehensive media list — that is, the names and addresses of all the journalists and broadcasters you plan to approach during the campaign. Along with names and addresses, media lists should include telephone numbers and, when available, fax numbers and e-mail addresses.

The kind of media and media contacts incorporated into any list should include the following:

  • National daily newspapers
  • Local and regional newspapers
  • Wire services and syndicates
  • Newsweeklies
  • Consumer publications
  • Sunday supplements
  • Trade publications
  • Cable outlets
  • Columnists
  • Television news and news magazine producers

When compiling a media list, keep in mind the following points:

  • There is a difference between a comprehensive media mailing list and a list tailored for a specific campaign.
  • Board, staff, and volunteers should be canvassed for names of media contacts.
  • Media outlets should always be examined with the audiences you want to reach and the messages you hope to communicate in mind.


The give-and-take of direct contact is the basis of most day-to day publicity work. Therefore, some basic dos and don'ts are in order.

  1. Never mislead a reporter knowingly. Good reporters can detect puffery or an outright lie before it's left your mouth. And once you're caught, your credibility is destroyed.
  2. Make sure your story is newsworthy. Editors and reporters are busy people; they don't have time to sort through unimportant or trivial information. What they do appreciate is a solid, factual, clearly outlined story.
  3. If you don't know the answer to a question, say so. You can always find the answer and call back.
  4. If there's a reason you can't answer a question, say so. A good reporter will respect your honesty.
  5. Never use pressure to get publicity or favorable coverage. Your contact may be doing you a favor, but his staff could feel put upon, and they will remember.
  6. Do not overwrite or overthink your news story. Keep news releases as short as possible.
  7. Check and double-check all information distributed to the media. Accuracy is essential.
  8. Use the phone wisely. A telephone call following up a release is important. It can tell you that the release arrived, and it gives you a chance to speak personally with the reporter or editor to whom it was sent.
  9. Stay off editors' backs. If your story has merit, it will run; if it doesn't, it won't.
  10. If you give information to an editor over the phone, follow up the conversation immediately in writing. Always include your name and address, telephone number, and fax number (if you have one).
  11. Keep your promises — all of them — or don't make them. If you promise to call a reporter back with additional information, make sure you do. If you promise to gather additional information, make sure you do it in a timely fashion.
  12. Send your news releases and media advisories by first-class mail or fax to a specific person or title. An advance release should arrive at least two days prior to the event it publicizes.
  13. Don't call top editors, publishers, and broadcasters with anything less than a big story. If you don't know the name of the person to whom you would send a release, a simple call to the station or newspaper will get you that information.
  14. If you contact more than one editor at the same media outlet with the same story, let them know what you've done. List somewhere on your materials the names of all the editors receiving that release.
  15. Keep in touch. Do everything in your power to establish yourself as a valued information source.
  16. Do your homework. Tailor your materials to fit the medium. Familiarize yourself with media deadlines and the ground rules for submitting copy and photographs, then observe them.
  17. Let one person be the media contact for your organization.
  18. Don't organize a news conference unless you have something of regional, national or international import to share.
  19. Keep abreast of the reporters and reporting in your field, and pay special attention to story angles that haven't yet been covered.


In addition to the steady stream of pitch calls, letters, and releases to the print media, a special effort should be made to garner exposure on radio and television. Try to "sell" local TV stations on the idea of taping a story about your organization, and make an effort to get spokespersons from your organization on radio and TV talk shows and news programs.

Once upon a time, the only way you could reach a television audience in a variety of media markets was through a media tour, with your spokesperson traveling from city to city for individual on-air interviews. Today, with advances in technology, a satellite media tour in which your spokesperson sits in a studio and is interviewed via satellite by stations across the country is the way to go.

Working with TV and Radio

Get to know the electronic media. Familiarize yourself with news-oriented and public affairs programming in your market. Credits at the end of the programs, radio and television listings in your local paper, and media directories are among the sources you can use to keep up-to-date on which programs are looking for what types of guests. Some of these sources also provide the names of contacts who can answer your questions about getting on the air. Most television and radio news shows have assignment desks that decide which stories they will cover. In the case of interview programs, the producer or talent coordinator usually books the guests.

To a surprising degree, members of the broadcast media (more so than members of the print media) are willing to accept phone calls without first having received an introductory letter. But before you pick up the phone, be sure you're familiar with the show's audience and format. At the risk of stating the obvious, nationally broadcast shows look for nationally known celebrities and topics with national implications, while local shows are more apt to take local guests and are usually enthusiastic about out-of-town visitors. In most cases, the station is the best source for audience demographic information and actual ratings numbers.

When you call a radio or television station, the first thing you should do is ask the person on the other end of the line whether it's a good time to talk. Generally calling right before or right after a show's scheduled time slot should be avoided. If the person you've reached is willing to talk, be prepared to quickly mention your spokesperson and the topic you feel is worthy of discussion, as well as two or three reasons why the topic is timely and your spokesperson is the best person to talk about it.

Often, a newspaper article that features your organization or spokesperson, or one that touches on a topic your spokesperson is qualified to discuss, can be parlayed into airtime. It's your job to make the contact person aware of such print media coverage. Just as often, however, a call must be followed up with a "pitch" letter and background material. If that's what is required, be sure to follow up immediately, since radio and television people are continually besieged by calls and requests for on-air time.

On rare occasions, members of the broadcast media may contact your organization about an appearance. In such instances, it's your job to decide whether radio or television exposure is in your organization's best interest, as opposed to that of the radio or television show's. Don't allow yourself to be persuaded by the "sex appeal" of such exposure. Consider your short — and long-range communications objectives, and try to determine whether they will be served by the opportunity at hand.

If the producer of a particular radio or television program expresses interest in having a spokesperson from your organization appear, be sure to ask whether the appearance will be an "exclusive" in that city, and if so, during what time period. Though usually not the case with regularly scheduled news programs, sometimes a producer will insist that a spokesperson or personality not appear on another channel in that city for a specific period of time preceding his or her appearance on the program in question.

If you decide to let your spokesperson appear and have agreed on a date, confirm the arrangement in writing, making sure to include date, place, proposed topic, person or persons to attend, and the time your spokesperson will arrive at the studio (for make-up, etc.). In the world of print, things can be rescheduled when there's a mix up and the world doesn't come to an end. Not so in radio and television, where, if you're scheduled to appear and for some reason you don't show, it can be disastrous.

Once your spokesperson is booked, it's time to "press the press." In other words, try to get a listing, photo, highlight, or even a column mention on TV or radio pages of newspapers in your area featuring the fact that your organization's spokesperson will be on such and such a show to discuss such and such a topic.

Advertising, Speaking Before the Public and Special Events

The essential difference between advertising and publicity is control of the message. Advertisers can determine what is said, how it is said, and where it is said. They can precisely position a product or service in the marketplace. Publicists, on the other hand, create and shape stories by working through the media. Because publicists must work with reporters and editors, their control of the message is limited.

For the purposes of most nonprofits, this distinction not only holds true, it is also a good place to start discussion of the values and uses of advertising. Nonprofit managers whose groups lack large budgets too often and too quickly dismiss the idea of advertising, thereby limiting their dealings with the media to publicity. From a public relations perspective, both advertising and publicity are valid and useful communications techniques. Even for groups with severely limited funds, there are occasions when well considered advertising and well-timed publicity are entirely appropriate and called for.

Indeed, advertising is an option most nonprofits should consider when developing an overall communication strategy. Performing arts groups, for example, must rely on a combination of critical reviews, features, performance listings, and paid advertising to build sales at the box office. Where a single technique does not succeed, several in concert can work to attract audiences.

Nonprofits outside the art world have also stepped up their advertising. Colleges and universities routinely tout courses and degrees — even on television-to attracts students. Advocacy groups have long used advertising to draw attention to public issues or rally support for a cause. Many social service organizations have adopted advertising to find new clients. And nonprofits of all types and persuasions have mounted effective public service campaigns.

The conclusion all of these nonprofits have reached is that advertising can enhance existing media and communications efforts. When advertising is supported by an aggressive publicity program, it can leverage funding, sell programs and products, raise public awareness and understanding of issues, and create goodwill. It can add a new dimension to a group's communications program and provide increased flexibility in how an organization reaches its public.

It goes without saying that advertising is expensive. Creative costs, production cost, and media costs can quickly overwhelm what many public interest groups budget for an entire year's program. Most nonprofits should examine the possibility of public-service advertising (in which the media donates the space or time) as an alternative to paid advertising. And every nonprofit considering an ad campaign should keep the following in mind and be prepared to make some choices up front.

  1. Advertising asking for donations often doesn't raise enough to cover the cost of the ad space. Don't count on recouping your expenses with new donations. Although advertising can create a favorable environment for fundraising, bolster a coordinated direct-mail program, reinforce a publicity campaign, or build excitement for a special event, it won't, by itself, raise money.
  2. Effective advertising is built on an understanding of a product, a service, or an idea. The better that understanding, the better the advertising. Knowledge about an organization or service is best gained through careful study. There is simply no substitute for all the reading, interviewing, talking, and thinking that must be done to know a subject well. Board members, staff, volunteers, and clients are good places to start your research.
  3. Celebrities can be helpful in attracting attention and securing media placement. A well-known face, voice, or personality adds credibility to almost any message. The use of celebrities in public advertising can also leverage attention in the media among those who will decide whether or not to run your spots.
  4. Think big. Too many campaigns have failed because the ideas were too small for the expected return, or because the budget was too limited for what needed to be accomplished. Even when advertising is the right technique, its execution can fall short of a goal. How much to spend is a dilemma many nonprofit advertisers face. This is particularly true of smaller groups, which usually have to invest a healthy percentage of their budget if they want to advertise. As the financial commitment rises, so do the expectations for the campaign. The question you have to ask is: Can we afford to buy the results we want? If the answer is no, either bolster complementary activities — publicity, special mailings, posters — to increase the value of the advertising or drop the advertising component of the communications program altogether.


One of the most effective ways for an organization to reach out to its important audiences is to address them face-to-face through speeches, roundtables, panel discussions, symposia, briefings, and lectures. The communication is direct, and the personality of the speaker can be used to promote an organization's mission and purpose, as it can with no other promotional technique. More often than not, the give-and-take between audience and speaker proves invaluable.

For many nonprofits, public-speaking opportunities present themselves on a regular basis. Luncheon meetings, association gatherings, educational conferences, and annual meetings are but a few of the chances for organizational spokespersons to motivate the sympathetic and convince the skeptical. They are opportunities that should be sought and exploited.

Self-Help Tips on Delivering a Speech

  • Keep your audience in mind. Know how many people are out there, who they are, and why they've come. If nothing else, it will help you during the question-and answer period and give you a great sense of why you are up there.
  • As for stage fright, recall Mark Twain's comforting words: "Just remember, they don't expect much." And, according to writer and editor George Plimpton, your anxiety may actually help you do a better job.
  • Practice aloud — and often — in front of a mirror; it will help you make eye contact. A good rule of thumb is to practice a speech at least three times before you present it.
  • Try not to depend on a script.
  • Keep the tone of your voice strong and confident. Remember, you're supposed to be the expert.
  • If there's a question-and-answer period, don't be afraid to say, "I don't know the answer to the question; I'll try to find out for you."
  • If you suddenly forget your lines or lose your place, try restating your last statement, summarizing what you just said, or asking for questions before you continue. Any one of these ploys will serve to jog your memory and give you time to find those missing lines.
  • Relax — it isn't an exam. Be conversational, but make sure you have some notes, if not the entire text of your speech, written out. Try writing out the most important points and then talking around them. If you can do that, great. If not, try to inject some extemporaneity into your notes. Remember, it's a talk, not a lecture.
  • Only use audiovisual materials if you have to. Although technically oriented talks usually require slides or transparencies, graphics can detract from the flow of a speech, making it seem like a term paper.
  • Make eye contact with your audience. Try to gauge their reaction to what you have to say and give them a chance to react.
  • Don't try to say too much. Your 15 minutes at the podium is part of a larger communications picture, not the entire picture. And as with any communications vehicle when in doubt, cut it out.


Although most special events sponsored by nonprofit organizations — theater premiers and benefits, raffles and receptions, black-tie dinners — are for fundraising purposes, they do provide an opportunity for publicity and media coverage, especially if public relations is included in the planning and utilized during the events themselves.

There are other special events — building dedications and ribbon-cutting ceremonies, lectures and roundtables, exhibitions, award ceremonies, parades — that are organized specifically around public relations goals. These kinds of events provide a good opportunity to publicize special aspects of an organization's work or its participation in the community it serves. Both kinds of events lend themselves to a multiplicity of organizational objectives and are classic examples of how public relations and fundraising work and hand-in-hand.

As long as they are appropriate and well-planned, special events are suitable for nearly every kind of nonprofit organization. They can be on a grand scale if the venue and budget allow and there are enough people available to handle the work. But even on a smaller scale, they can benefit your organization.

To illustrate how fundraising and public relations activities can dovetail, consider Share Our Strength's highly successful "Taste of the Nation," the largest nationwide benefit for hunger relief. Over a ten-day period one year, 5,000 chefs in more than 100 cities prepared their specialties at food-and wine-tasting events. More than 60,000 guests attended, and 100 percent of the ticket proceeds benefited the organization. Nationally, corporate sponsor American Express provided funding for the organizational and promotional expenses, while local sponsors covered similar expenses in their own markets.

Each city created its own theme for its event. In Los Angeles the event became a gourmet food-tasting along Universal Studio's "Street of the World." In Fort Lauderdale the event had the theme "Tropical Fever." In Oklahoma City cooking classes and a country western dance spiced up the evening. And in New York City the elegant food-and wine-tasting was staged on two separate yachts.

Public relations goals were at the center of Share Our Strength's planning, and as a result the organization was successful in generating both national and local news. Nationally, the program was billed as the largest nationwide benefit for hunger relief, and as such was featured in newspapers such as USA Today and The Christian Science Monitor. At the local level, publicity was generated by the celebrity chefs who participated in each city. Photo opportunities and articles about local sponsors and beneficiaries of the program popped up in newspapers across the country. And because 70 percent of the funds raised in local markets stayed in those markets, the local news hook was even harder to resist.

"Taste of the Nation" is an example of the special event raised to art form. Such large-scale events are not uncommon, though more often than not these days organizations are being forced to reduce budgets and keep events simple.

If your organization finds itself in the same boat, consider staging something on a smaller scale, say a ribbon-cutting ceremony to dedicate a new facility, with community and foundation representatives on hand — or a lecture series or roundtable discussion. Such events are informational in nature and can be a valuable resource for "beat" reporters. At the same time, they provide your organization with a platform for communicating its message.

Regardless of the type of event you decide to stage, doing it right means knowing what you want to achieve and having the means to achieve it. The following is a list of questions you should consider before undertaking any special event, large or small.

  • What are your objectives? Do you want to generate publicity, bolster your fundraising efforts, address policy issues, improve relations with the community and local government, educate the public, attract new members, or just thank your existing members?
  • Is an event the best way to accomplish any or all of these objectives? Is there a better and/or less expensive way? Would a news release, a paid ad, or a meeting accomplish the same thing?
  • Is there an adequate budget to do the event right? Has every out-of-pocket expense been factored in? Space and equipment rentals? Catering? List development? Stationery, invitations, placecards, and postage? Telephone and facsimile follow-ups? Security? Media materials, including photocopying printing, and production costs? Entertainment? Videotaping and/or photography? PA equipment?
  • Will you end up spending more money on the event than you made? If so, do other benefits outweigh the net loss in revenue?

If you've considered all this and are still committed to going ahead with the event, your next step should be to develop a budget with all out-of-pocket expenses carefully itemized. Be sure to include a contingency line to give yourself some margin for unanticipated expenses, escalating costs, and miscalculations.

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