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What is a messaging framework and why your nonprofit needs one.

July 14, 2010

All nonprofit organizations answer to many masters. Among them are the board of directors, staff leadership, individual and institutional donors, the press, the general public and of course there’s your constituency. If you have earned revenue, you also market a product or service and answer to your customers. When managing your communications, a key challenge is sorting out what message to communicate to each of these audiences in a way that compels them to respond and interact in a meaningful way.

While many organizations may not have considered who their various audience segments are, far fewer have taken the time to decide how best to craft messaging that speaks to each audience segment individually. Doing so enables you to more efficiently capture the attention of each segment in a way that resonates with them, resulting in them taking the action you want.

When working with our clients on their communications, we use a tool called a messaging framework.

Completing the messaging framework is an exercise that consists of answering a series of progressively more specific questions about your organization (or your mission, product or service offering), how your organization is different from what the competition is offering and your core messaging theme. so far this is all fairly standard stuff when it comes to messaging. The really powerful part of the messaging framework and the most thought-provoking phase of the exercise is the analysis of your audience segments, what their unique needs are relative to your organization, and what action you want them to take and why. These pieces culminate in a list of benefit statements that you can (read: should) use to customize any communication to the specific needs and desires.

The basic structure of the messaging framework can vary, but the format we’ve had the best results with includes the following sections:

  • Product Description—This can represent the organization or individual programs.
  • Audience Segments & Trends—Includes the huge task of identifying your audience segments and the relevant trends affecting them. It may include donors and the general economy, your constituency and a change in services from a government agency, or the general public and its evolving perception of your cause.
  • Segment Needs—Identify the unique needs of each audience segment. Typically, these are needs relative to your organization, but not always.
  • Key Messaging Theme—This can be as simple as your organization’s tag line. In some cases, we’ve seen this exercise inspire new tag lines.
  • Net Takeaway—The essence of what your audience should retain from your communication.
  • Core Message Roll-up—The common element(s) of your message that remains consistent for all audience segments.
  • Positioning/Differentiating Statement—How your organization, mission, product or service differs from what other organizations, government agencies or for-profit businesses offer.
  • What & Why—By audience segment, what action do you want them to take and why should they want to?

Once you’ve completed this exercise, you’ll not only have a clearer picture of who your audience is, but you’ll also have a valuable resource to refer to each time you’re preparing a communication.

Even though I’ve performed this exercise many times for different types of businesses, including my own, I still refer to the messaging framework before executing new communications. Invariably, I find that by taking a few minutes to choose a segment and consider all the related factors just covered; the clarity, relevance and performance of the eventual piece is improved dramatically.

Hopefully you’ll have similar results. For more information on my company and the work we do for nonprofit organizations, visit us at

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