4 things nonprofits can learn from political campaigns

By Erin Gray, Senior Communications and Media Officer, HIV Scotland —

I love election time. As a nonprofit communicator, there’s no better opportunity to see communication techniques in action on a grand scale. Political parties take risks that nonprofits can rarely afford to – experimenting with key messages in the face of hard-hitting interviews, reinventing candidate and party brands, and carefully choreographing photo calls, speeches and meet-and-greets. Their huge successes – and epic fails – give us a chance to see what really works.

Here in Scotland, we’re slap-bang in the middle of one of the most intense, extended political campaigning periods in living memory. Official campaigning began this week for the UK-wide general election in May, with no single party expected to win a clear lead. Last year the nation was gripped by campaigns around the referendum on Scottish independence, ending with a narrow vote against breaking away from the UK, but leaving lasting upheaval on the political scene. And next spring elections will take place for Holyrood, our Scottish Parliament within the UK. These back-to-back votes and uncertain poll results mean campaigners are working harder than ever to catch voters’ imaginations. Stakes are high and party communicators are going all-out.

The political machine is unique in many ways, but the truth is we nonprofits often have more in common with political causes than for-profit companies. We’re all working in crowded markets still reeling from hard economic times, promoting causes dear to our hearts. We all want to inspire hope in our supporters. Hope that with supporters’ help, we can change things for the better – whether that help is making a donation, turning up to volunteer, signing a petition or marking a ballot paper.

So, with that in mind, here are four top tips for what non-profits – whatever their cause – can learn from political campaigns:

  1. Set out your manifesto: As nonprofits we don’t need votes, but to get the support we need (from funders, donors, or volunteers) we do need to set out our cause in a clear, succinct and engaging way. One look at a political manifesto and it’s clear politicians have this cracked. The key? Focus on communicating the answers to three questions: What’s the problem? What can change it? What will your organization do about it, and how can your supporters help?
  2. Get out there: Politicians aren’t shy about sharing their message, and we shouldn’t be either. Prioritize communicating your mission effectively, and don’t wait for opportunities to come to you – create them.
  3. Let passion through: Politicians often say the right things, but still don’t hit the mark. What are they missing? Sincere passion. Prepare what you say to potential supporters and be effective as you can, but always let your passion shine through. It’s what makes you and your cause believable.
  4. Persuade and engage: Politicians learned a while ago that simply telling us ‘vote for Joe/Marsha/David’ isn’t enough to win our support. They know they have to convince us. The same goes for nonprofits when we’re looking for our supporters to take action: don’t just push for the donation and expect it to happen. The key to effective, lasting support is to persuade people of the need for your work and engage them in what you do.

So, wherever you are in the world, when election time comes around, make sure you take a close look. There’s certainly plenty politicians could learn from nonprofits too, but while we’re waiting, let’s use what works for politicians to help spread the word about our own important work.