Every Nonprofit's Guide to Publishing
Creating Newsletters, Magazines & Websites People Will Read
Cheryl Woodard, and Lucia Hwang,
May 2007, 1st Edition
Everything you need to raise awareness, membership and money!
Nonprofits have certain advantages – passion, motivation, a sense of purpose. But to raise the money and support required to achieve your goals, you need to communicate your mission effectively.
You can do it -- let Every Nonprofit's Guide to Publishing show you how!
Practical and hands on, this book shows you how to overcome inexperience and budget constraints -- and produce publications that effectively promote your cause. From developing an idea to distributing the final publication, you'll get the information you need. Find out how to:
- design and print engaging magazines or newsletters
- create an appealing website
- locate the best freelancers and vendors
- develop successful ad sales and fundraising strategies
- meet IRS and postal requirements for nonprofits
- use time-tested publishing ideas and resources
The book includes practical suggestions from veteran insiders, whose experiences range from tiny nonprofit startups to large, established organizations. Plus, you'll get essential forms, checklists, schedules, worksheets, spreadsheets and more to help you reach your publishing goals.
- Editorial Calendar
- Issue Schedule
- IRS Form 990
- IRS Form 990-EZ
- Budget Worksheet
- Editorial Advisory Board Guidelines
- Job Interview Questions
- Art Memo
- Artwork Permission Agreement
- Photo Permission Agreement
- Art Direction Memo: Photographer
- Art Direction Memo: Illustrator
- Printing Checklist
- Publication Specification Sheet
- ISSN Application Form
- PS Form 3526
- PS Form 3624
- PS Form 3541
- PS Form 3500
- Email Services Checklist
- IRS Form 990-T
- Advertising Rate Card
- Insertion Order
Cheryl Woodard learned the publishing business like most people do -- by jumping bravely into it without any preparation whatsoever. She cofounded PC, Macworld, PC World and Publish magazines, concentrating her attention on ad sales, circulation marketing and business management. In 1993, Cheryl began consulting with book, software, newsletter and magazine publishers. She specializes in helping business owners or chief executives sort out marketing and overall business strategies. Woodard teaches business planning at the Stanford Professional Publishing Course and other professional development programs. She also serves on the board of directors of the Independent Press Association in San Francisco. She lives with her family in Berkeley, California. She can be reached via her website at: http://www.publishingbiz.com
Lucia Hwang is an award-winning investigative reporter and feature writer. Since 2004, she has worked as the editor for the magazine of a nonprofit association. Hwang has been a staff and freelance writer for a wide variety of publications -- ranging from daily newspapers to alternative weeklies to magazines -- and has also taught investigative reporting and news writing. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
1. Getting Started
- Balancing Priorities
- The Publication's Purpose
- The Publication's Editorial Mission
- Crafting Your Mission Statement
- Troubleshooting Editorial Mission Problems
2. Managing the Publishing Process
- An Overview of the Publishing Process
- Managing the Process
- Creating Calendars and Schedules
- Enforcing Deadlines
3. Making a Budget
- Consulting With Accounting Advisers
- Using Accounting Software
- Establishing a Chart of Accounts
- Budgeting Tips for Publications
- Using Budgets to Prove Performance
- IRS Reporting Requirements
- Postal Service Requirements
- Creating a Publishing Budget
- Variable Expenses
4. Finding and Hiring Help
- Common Tasks and Staffing
- Establishing an Editorial Advisory Board
- Determining Staffing Needs
- What to Do When Short-Handed
- Hiring New Staff
- Hiring Freelancers
- What to Include in a Freelance Contract
- Managing Freelance Arrangements
5. Creating Compelling Content
- Developing Story Ideas
- Choosing the Right Treatment
- Turning Ideas Into Words
- Writing for the Web
6. Designing Print Publications and Websites
- The Function of Design
- Your Publication's Design
- Creating a Design Grid
- Creating a Map
- Obtaining Artwork
- Tips for Saving Money on Design
- Conducting Quality Control
7. Printing Newsletters and Magazines
- Finding a Printer
- Avoiding Mistakes
- A Look at the Mechanics of Printing
- Getting Distribution Help From Printers
- Choosing Paper
- Using Color
- Additional Printing Charges
- Negotiating a Printing Contract
- Troubleshooting the Printer Relationship
8. Producing a Website
- Strengths of the Web
- Web Programming Tools
- Making the Most of Search Engines
- Website Planning Tips
- Options for Building Your Website
- Testing Your Website
9. Distributing and Promoting Your Publication
- Acquiring Readers
- Pricing Your Publication
- Testing Your Market
- Choosing the Best Promotion Strategies
- Tracking Readers Through a Database Program
- Mailing Through the US Postal Service
- Distributing Emails
10. Selling Advertising
- Deciding Whether to Sell Ads
- Tax Concerns
- Postal Regulations
- Ethical Standards for Advertising
- Managing the Ad Sales Process
- Other Revenue Opportunities
- Completing Your Advertising Plan
11. Connecting to Readers
- Profiling Your Readers
- Gauging Reader Interest
- Is Your Publication Fulfilling Its Purpose?
- Creating Surveys and Other Feedback Tools
- Using Performance Benchmarks
- Using Feedback to Win Support
- Government Agencies
- Hiring Artists, Writers, and Designers
- Nonprofits, Generally
- Publishing Courses and Seminars
- Publishing, Generally
- Surveys and Other Feedback
- Website Construction
- Writing and Editing
Appendix: How to Use the CD-ROM
Every publication serves two masters: the organization that pays the publishing bills and the people who read it. This chapter will help you create a publication that meets both of their needs.
First, it reviews the most common reasons nonprofit organizations launch newsletters, magazines, and online publications. Next, it discusses your publication’s purpose, focusing entirely on how it will meet your organization’s needs. It then explains how to meet your readers’ needs through establishing the publication’s editorial mission. It offers practical advice about how to balance the interests of your nonprofit and the publication’s readers—and ends with some tips for troubleshooting common problems.
While it may seem easy to define a publication’s purpose and mission, expect some disagreement—especially if the publishing venture is new or represents a change from the way things have been done in the past. Publications often generate new and unexpected confusion within a nonprofit or churn up longstanding controversies within it.
Often, no one on staff has any editing or publishing experience, but everybody has ideas about what should be published in the new newsletter, magazine, or website. Some ideas will be wonderful. And some will be completely inappropriate—such as the one from the board member who wants to put his grandson’s video project on your alumni association website. Or the major donor who wants to advertise her Hummer dealership in your ecology club newsletter.
Money can be another source of confusion and dissension. Program managers may resent the money earmarked for a flashy website rather than for their programs, and board members may have unreasonable hopes about generating donations or ad revenues with a new magazine. And, not knowing any better, everyone may expect to create a first-class product on a third-class budget, with no extra staff and no extra time allowed for planning sensibly.
You will never completely avoid conflict, but you can reduce much of it by taking the time to thoroughly discuss and define both a purpose and an editorial mission for every new magazine, newsletter, or online publication. (See “Crafting Your Mission Statement,” below, for details about communicating ideas within the organization.) This step will help manage everyone’s expectations, and also help fend off inappropriate suggestions down the road, by developing and communicating your plans before the publishing begins. And if you are reevaluating an established publication—looking for a new direction or greater impact—then writing the purpose and mission statements anew can lead to fresh ideas and help resolve dissension. (See “Troubleshooting Editorial Mission Problems,” below, for more about revamping a conflicted publishing project.)
The Publication’s Purpose
The first essential task is to decide what purpose a publication will serve for its organizational master, your nonprofit, and how it will contribute to those goals. Think in terms of outcomes that you hope will result after making the effort to publish: more donations, happier volunteers, greater success in your efforts to educate or empower people. The road to successful publishing starts with a clear sense of where you want to go and why.
Often, the purpose of a nonprofit’s publication is obvious and unequivocal: The board of directors wants to attract younger members by sending out an email newsletter, for example, or the organization’s new director who has venture capital roots hopes to attract big donors through a slick magazine. But sometimes the purpose is less clear—and in those situations, it is wise to gather input from a group of those involved to get a consensus before going forward. (See “Crafting Your Mission Statement,” below, for details.)
There are a number of reasons nonprofit organizations typically decide to publish a magazine, newsletter, or website—ranging from getting new members to targeting underserved ones. Often, a publication serves a number of purposes.
Recruiting and Retaining Members
Publications can be extremely effective in recruiting and retaining members for consumer associations, arts organizations, and hobby or professional groups. Skimming through nonprofit member publications, you will usually find membership issues highlighted through photographs of organization activities, articles promoting the benefits of belonging, and information about how to participate. In addition, by providing useful information about the nonprofit’s cherished causes, such publications can become prized benefits on their own. In fact, organizations commonly list their print publications, electronic newsletters, and members-only Web features as primary membership benefits.
While the technique is not generally available for newsletters or not relevant for online publications, some nonprofits use their magazines to recruit members by distributing them widely on newsstands and in bookstores.
Example: The National Audubon Society produces a lavish, award-winning magazine, Audubon, to inspire new readers to join one of the 500 local chapters of the Society and help protect wildlife. Published bimonthly, the magazine is a public expression of the group’s mission and activities. Every issue is filled with inspiring nature photographs, articles about how to participate in the Society’s work around the world, and thoughtful information about environmental issues.
Not every member publication needs to be lavishly produced to attract the attention of potential members. It is most important for the publication to reflect the mission and voice of your organization.
Example: The magazine Coop America Quarterly has a humble, down-to-business appearance befitting the organization’s mission, which is harnessing economic power to create a socially just and environmentally sustainable society. The publication’s editors convey the value of belonging to the organization by packing each 40-page issue with practical advice on sustainable living and responsible investing. People looking for an alternative to the high-consumption values they find in other magazines are attracted to the low-impact values expressed in the Quarterly, and the magazine draws in lots of new members at “green living” conventions and other venues where it is displayed.
Creating a Sense of Community
Some people are compelled to join a particular nonprofit organization because they crave a connection to people with whom they work or live. This is true for some unions and rural cooperatives that exist because of a shared type of work or location.
In addition to making new people feel welcome, these organizations can use their publications to remind existing members how they benefit from belonging to the organization and encourage them to remain involved.
Example: Kentucky Living is a monthly magazine that reaches 500,000 members of the state’s rural electric cooperatives. It is distributed exclusively to people who already belong to a cooperative, and there is no attempt to use the magazine to recruit outside readers or new members. Instead, the magazine’s sole purpose is to “create a community of people who take pride in thinking of themselves as Kentuckians and as knowledgeable electric coop members to improve their quality of life.” The design is humble to deliberately send members a message that their money is not being used for lavish publication expenses—and the content is helpful rather than confrontational. The editors steer clear of divisive politics, for example, and focus instead on profiles of local people and articles about energy efficiency. Ads are welcomed, particularly from local companies and coop members.
Educating About Issues
Many nonprofit publications are designed to “change the world” by arming individuals with information that empowers them to make thoughtful choices. The newsstands are filled with examples in the fields of environmental protection, health care, public affairs, culture, and social justice.
The goal of these publications is to reach as many like-minded people as possible and provide readers with unique and compelling information about the nonprofit’s cause. To reach the widest possible audience, organizations with a cause to promote often decide to publish in several formats at once: websites, blogs, podcasts, electronic newsletters, and print publications. And every publishing effort is designed to reflect the mission and the expectations of the audience—using environmentally friendly soy inks for an ecology magazine, for example, or online audio clips and blogs for one about political issues.
Example: Mother Jones magazine publishes revelatory journalism that seeks to “inform and inspire a more just and democratic world.” Designed to reach the widest possible audience, the magazine is distributed in bookstores and to about 200,000 paid subscribers. Each bimonthly issue averages 90 pages in print with additional material simultaneously published online. The magazine is also available on microfilm, on CD-ROM, and electronically, and the organization also recently launched a radio program, podcasts, and blogs. When the editors take up an issue such as global warming or campaign finance reform, they are also able to engage readers in a two-way conversation through online forums.
But a big-scale approach to news may not be reasonable for every cause-related publication. Many smaller nonprofits choose to focus on communicating in depth with a smaller number of people—a strategy that does not require many resources. Nonprofits can have tremendous impact by concentrating on a small, tightly defined audience and then providing wonderful journalism packaged in much humbler clothing.
Example: The Ecology Center of Berkeley, California, publishes Terrain magazine four times per year. Its mission is to educate and inform a dedicated community of environmental activists living in the San Francisco area—people who have been working on environmental issues for many years. To save costs, each issue is limited to 40 pages produced on the least expensive paper, with minimal use of color and other expensive design elements. Instead of spending money on fancy packaging or technology, the Terrain editors focus the nonprofit’s small budget on acquiring great reporting from a large stable of talented local writers.
Having assembled an audience of like-minded people, many organizations use a publication to call them into action on specific issues. Through a newsletter, a magazine, a website, or emails, readers can be recruited to write letters, sign petitions, donate money, vote, volunteer, or attend conferences. The editorial style of these communications is focused and specific—telling targeted individuals what they’re being asked to do and why and providing an easy way to respond.
Example: By covering political and education issues in its main newsletter, California Teacher, the California Federation of Teachers tries to motivate its readership to advocate for the teaching profession, whether it’s for more respect, better funding, or defeating political measures seen as damaging to students and teachers. The newsletter is one of the union’s main methods for communicating with and activating its 120,000 members. For example, its articles explain why the organization endorses candidates and ballot measures. It has asked readers to donate money to causes to help teacher colleagues in other parts of the country. And it encourages readers to attend upcoming conferences and meetings of the organization’s leadership by listing a calendar of events in every issue.
Lobbying restrictions. Some 501(c) nonprofits either cannot take any stances on political initiatives or offices or must severely limit their spending on political activities. Unions and some other organizations are given special leeway, but many nonprofits are legally restricted in lobbying. Be sure you know the rules for your organization before you start publishing. (See Chapter 5, “Lobbying Restrictions May Limit Your Content,” for more details.)
Often, the best future contributors to an organization are the people who have made a donation in the past. Recognizing this, many nonprofits publish newsletters or magazines just for their donors and volunteers, or have sections or entire websites that only people fitting these categories can access.
These publications focus on communicating the work the organization is doing for an important cause and highlight why that work is important. Sometimes citing academic experts, independent journalists, or government officials, these publications often take pains to educate readers about the overall state of the problem and the remedies their nonprofit is developing. Such publications are often filled with appeals for additional support and photographs of the people who benefit from it. It’s also a common practice to profile and praise volunteers so that other people are inspired to do the same.
Example: World Ark magazine is a donor publication published by the Heifer Project, a group that strives to end world hunger through sustainable agriculture programs. Anyone who gives $25 to Heifer automatically receives a year’s subscription to World Ark. Each issue profiles successful Heifer projects and explains the organization’s different programs around the world. Photographs show the faces of people Heifer is helping and the Heifer volunteers who are helping them. The magazine puts Heifer’s work in context by running excerpts from popular books, for example, or statistical information about poverty—so that readers also learn something. The magazine has been so successful at raising new donations from past contributors that Heifer recently was able to increase its frequency from four to six issues per year and the number of pages in every issue from 36 to 48.
Targeting Underserved Readers
Many nonprofits serve communities of people who have been overlooked by other information providers, even though their need for information may be very great. Parents of disabled children, for example, may find that consumer-focused publishers essentially ignore them. In these cases, publishing could become the main activity of a nonprofit organization that is looking to fill those information gaps.
These nonprofit publications typically draw on community experts who can provide practical information—for example, a magazine for recent immigrants could feature advice from immigration lawyers. Often these publications also combine expert advice with first-hand stories contributed by people within the community. Funding is generally covered by grants and donations rather than advertising or paid subscriptions. And such nonprofits sometimes have to find creative ways to distribute their publications to the right people, because the commercial distribution channels, such as newsstands, won’t work.
Example: The nonprofit La Leche League encourages breastfeeding and was formed 60 years ago by a group of mothers to combat a rash of new advertising and magazine articles sponsored by the baby food industry pushing bottle feeding and commercial baby formulas. The women started publishing newsletters, books, and magazines to provide accurate, non-commercial advice and information to new mothers. They distribute New Beginnings magazine through nursing coaches and pediatrician’s offices. And parent-to-parent articles are a major focus of New Beginnings: On average, readers contribute about half of the content of the magazine. Editors pose several new questions in each issue asking how parents would handle a specific situation and then post the responses in subsequent issues. Experts provide another 25% of the content either in original feature stories or through book excerpts. The League devotes the remaining pages, about 25% of the total non-ad pages, to recognizing donors and promoting the League and its activities.
When Not to Publish
Not every organization needs to produce a periodical print or online publication.
If your nonprofit is still tiny, staffed mainly with volunteers who are busy providing direct services to the community and fulfilling the basic mission of the organization, perhaps it’s not yet worth the drain on time, resources, and staff to publish. Or perhaps your nonprofit does not have a built-in or wide readership that might justify a regular publication, such as an organization devoted to providing summer camp to grade school girls that’s primarily funded by one foundation. In that case, it might make more sense to produce an annual report for financial supporters and parents of camp participants.
In other instances, the information needs of your sector may already be met by an existing publication or website. Rather than publishing your own publication, perhaps you would better advance your cause by referring your members to these sources.
The Publication’s Editorial Mission
The editorial mission is a succinct description of what your publication will do for its readers. Often, publishers share the mission statement with others as a quick means of explaining what the articles are designed to accomplish. For example, you can include the editorial mission statement in your advertising sales literature, in your budgeting documents, and in the guidelines you give to prospective writers.
The mission statement also helps people within the organization remain clear about why the publication is being produced, from the perspective of its readers. Some sample statements are provided later in this chapter.
Your mission statement should be in writing and should also answer these questions: Who will read this publication? What does it need to say to them? And what information would be most valued by those readers? As explained in this section, answering these questions requires defining the target audience and giving thought to what the content will provide. The process for crafting your editorial mission and who should be involved in it are discussed later in the chapter.
A well-defined editorial mission helps people support a publication, while an ill-defined one inevitably leads to confusion and dissent. For example, writers can submit appropriate articles if they fully understand who’s going to read them and why. And communicating those essential details ahead of time practically guarantees that you’ll have to do less rewriting and editing down the line. Likewise, staffers and board members are less inclined to suggest off-target story ideas if they understand the publication’s promise to its readers.
A solid editorial mission can also help your publication set clear priorities for its work and resources. For example, if you are developing a new website for your publication and overwhelmed by which features to include on your limited budget, the editorial mission will remind you of your focus.
People sometimes spend weeks or months wrestling over the problem of crystallizing a new publication’s editorial mission or reinventing the mission for an existing publication—and many would prefer to just publish the thing and figure out the mission later. But the exercise is necessary to keep the publication focused.
Defining Your Target Audience
Nonprofit organizations commonly communicate with many different people: members, foundations, private donors, legislators, media, and the general public. But no single publication can meet the different information needs of every group.
You can help avoid overlap, and also make sure that every key reader is being served, by addressing every individual newsletter, magazine, or website to a specific audience. Many nonprofits develop a different publication for each audience: perhaps a magazine for donors; separate newsletters for volunteers, media contacts, and staff; and a website for the public. Each of these publications would need a mission statement of its own.
Even though a mission statement normally does not include any information about reader behavior, organizations generally do try to define specific behavior they hope their publications will inspire in readers. After all, everything nonprofits publish has some mission beyond simply publishing—such as getting people to join, donate, volunteer, or vote.
Considering those intended results while writing the mission statement can help focus the many editorial choices that arise later on. For example, if your fundraising department hopes to persuade current donors to include the organization in an estate plan, then your donor magazine could rightly provide financial planning information, including how to reduce estate taxes through charitable giving, and profiles of people who have willed you money.
At this early planning stage, it’s also a good idea to begin collecting any information you can find about the audiences you plan to reach. Many organizations spend time and money conducting research with key audiences before designing a new publication. (See Chapter 11 for more detail on conducting surveys.) Generally, surveyors ask for standard demographic information, such as age, income, and education. They also commonly ask about activities related to the organization’s programs and gather any available feedback showing what the audience already knows about the organization.
Those at the nonprofit who are planning the publication then try to address any information gaps they find among the members of key audiences. For example, if the local nature conservancy plans to promote bird-watching tours through a new magazine, the editors could survey prospective readers about their traveling habits and experiences. Learning that most future readers do travel frequently, but not to watch birds, the editors would know to feature first-timers in the new magazine and to tailor articles to the information needs of newcomers: how people spend their time on bird-watching tours, how much they spend, what people wear, where they sleep, and so forth.
Developing Content Ideas
For many new publications, the editorial mission does not really come into focus until there is a specific plan for what content will be included. So it’s often a good idea to draw up some content ideas that will help everyone understand that general plan. At this mission-writing stage, you are not actually recruiting writers or assigning articles, but just generally making some notes about the following:
• potential contributors—naming writers or commentators readers would likely find interesting or authoritative
• topics—the subjects that you want to cover, including any crucial issues in the field that should be addressed most urgently
• taboos—whether any topics would be inappropriate for the publication, based on the organization’s overall mission, and
• potential sources—including whether there are any other print publications or websites that might help supplement the information you plan to publish.
Sharing your thoughts about content can help ward off loads of conflict down the road. For example, when a board member or staff person has helped you come up with ideas for suitable content, that same person will find it difficult later on to bump readers aside in favor of their own self-promotion interests. In the best of circumstances, these content discussions can serve to educate everyone about how a publication must balance the needs of its two masters. (See “Crafting Your Mission Statement,” below, for more tips about communicating your plans.)
The finished editorial mission statement becomes a foundation for specific editorial planning that will define what topics you plan to cover, which writers would be the best ones to use, and how you will fill up a year’s worth of pages with content that matches your mission. At the end of your considerations about content, you should be able to define a kind of “job description” for the new project—an editorial mission statement.
Sample Editorial Mission Statements
The final statement you write should be a sentence or two in length, as illustrated by the examples of strong editorial mission statements below.
• American Educator describes itself as “the professional journal of the American Federation of Teachers, published for classroom teachers and other education professionals from preschool through university.” Its mission statement explains that: “The magazine concentrates on significant ideas and practices in education, civics, and the condition of children in America and around the world.”
• Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice, published by the nonprofit Economic Affairs Bureau, has the following editorial mission statement: “We explain the workings of the U.S. and international economies, and provide left perspectives on current economic affairs. Our audience is a mix of activists, organizers, academics, unionists, and other socially concerned people.”
Notice the absence of adjectives in these examples. Novice publishers often want to describe the style of a publication: “witty, graphic, hard-hitting, timely, handsome.” But such terms don’t actually help people understand what a publication is about. Instead, stick to nouns, such as “ideas,” “perspectives,” “practices,” “information,” and “advice.”
Also notice that these statements tell readers what will not appear in these publications. For example, American Educator does not try to help teachers with personal finances, health issues, or travel plans; it is strictly about their work as educators. If a mortgage company someday suggested it would advertise in American Educator if the magazine included some personal finance articles, the editors could point to their concept statement and say, “Sorry, but financial advice is not the mission for this publication.”
The Glimpse Foundation: One Organization, Many Missions
The overall mission of the nonprofit Glimpse Foundation is “to foster cross-cultural understanding and exchange, particularly between the United States and the rest of the world, by providing forums for sharing the experiences of young adults living and studying abroad.” The foundation has several different publications, each with its own unique purpose and publishing plan.
“Glimpse Abroad,” the website, is the central project of the foundation’s editorial team, because its youthful audience is very Internet-oriented. The site’s mission is described this way: “Glimpse Abroad represents an online community of young adults devoted to cross-cultural learning and exchange. It features first person, cultural-
experience pieces written by study abroad students, volunteers, international students, and others living abroad. Relying on narrative story lines and rich sensory detail, these articles capture readers’ attention and concern by making the world personal.”
Glimpse Quarterly, the print magazine, is designed to increase traffic at the website and build exposure for the organization by distributing copies to people with a likely interest through selected bookstores and college classrooms. Through advertising, the print magazine also generates a small amount of revenue that supports other programs. The magazine’s mission statement reads: “Glimpse Quarterly is an international news, travel, and culture magazine that features compelling narratives written by youth living abroad, on themes ranging from quarry divers in France to taxicabs in Kyrgyzstan to genocide in Central Africa. With depth, breadth, and intimacy, we tackle the international issues that no one talks about and delve into the daily cultural realities that no one sees.”
“Freshly Squeezed,” one of Glimpse’s free monthly email newsletters, is designed to draw readers onto the website in between issues of the print magazine. Its mission statement reads: “Each edition of ‘Freshly Squeezed’ presents our Editor’s Picks, which contain the best of newly added Glimpse content.”
“The Word” is Glimpse’s free monthly email newsletter for international educators and travel program organizers who can promote their programs to Glimpse’s student audience by encouraging their current participants to write for “Glimpse Abroad.” Its mission statement reads: “Educators and program providers can stay informed of contribution opportunities for their participants by spreading ‘The Word,’ our content recruiting newsletter.”
Finding examples of mission statements. You can find sample mission statements by looking at the materials other nonprofit organizations use to recruit writers or sell ads in their publications. Some will also describe a publication’s mission when using it to sell subscriptions or memberships. Check their websites.
Crafting Your Mission Statement
You can begin developing a publishing purpose and an editorial mission statement by drafting one and then gathering feedback. Or start off by convening or asking people to first answer these big-picture questions. Either way, you should bring everyone together to hash out the final mission. Everyone in your organization who is likely to be involved with the publishing project should be invited to discuss the publication’s purpose and help formulate its mission statement. As mentioned, the more people are encouraged to participate in this early stage, the more likely they will support the publication later on.
For example, if the finance director has the power to approve or reject your publishing budget, give her a chance to tell what tangible results she thinks the new website should produce. And if the program managers are expecting the new magazine to cover their programs, or the director is hoping that his views will feature prominently in every issue of the newsletter, you will benefit from learning about those ideas before you start publishing.
This is the best way to keep people from secretly constructing unreasonable hopes or fears that might erode their support later on. You don’t have to agree with everything people say. But encouraging their candor about their expectations for the publication provides important opportunities.
Addressing expectations. You can address and potentially refute unrealistic expectations only if you know about them. For example, if the finance director wants you to produce $1 million in website revenues but spend only 50 cents producing it, you have the chance to explain the true costs and revenues of Internet publishing.
Likewise, if you learn that the program managers are jealous about how much newsletter coverage is given to each other’s programs, you can ask them to work out an equitable plan among themselves, without putting you into the role of arbitrator.
In addition, people will have conflicting expectations, and it’s unwise to move forward without addressing them.
Dealing with money matters. Money is also a common source of conflict and confusion. Some people will want a slick magazine or a website filled with bells and whistles; but other people will have different ideas about how to spend the organization’s resources. It’s much wiser to air these debates ahead of time—and hopefully, arrive at some consensus—rather than live with an ongoing feud about why the website is or is not doing such-and-such or why the magazine is so humble.
Meeting readers’ needs. There is often political scuffling about how to best serve readers. Everyone in your organization has a stake in each of your publications, and this is the time to help people understand that readers have a stake in the publications, too. So when pondering your publication’s future, ask people to focus on how readers will benefit. These conversations will yield huge benefits if everyone understands from the beginning that you must give readers their due in your publications—or nobody will be willing to read them.
Here are some additional tips for the process.
• Allow enough time for deliberations. Concepts gain clarity after this buffeting process, so do not skip over it.
• Add details. If people can’t agree on a theoretical list of ideas, give them something specific to chew on, such as a list of the topics you hope to cover in the first year or the specific organizational benefits you hope to achieve.
• Look for role models. Study what other organizations have done for inspiration and guidance.
• Get help if you can afford it. Nonprofits often hire a consultant to help hash out the mission and develop a specific editorial plan.
• Take the time to get it right. Don’t stop the process until you have general consensus about a specific mission statement for your publication.
Reevaluating your mission. Organizations evolve—and your publication’s editorial mission may need to grow with it. Sometimes the work of the organization changes. Sometimes the demographics of the organization’s members change, becoming a younger or older or more ethnically diverse constituency. Sometimes the composition of the organization’s staff and board leadership changes and the new group is more willing or less willing to experiment or take risks in the publication. And sometimes it becomes clear that the publication’s current editorial mission is just not attracting readers. In these situations, you may need to reevaluate and revise your editorial mission.
Troubleshooting Editorial Mission Problems
Even after developing an editorial mission statement that captures the spirit of the publication and gives you a goal to strive toward, complications can arise. People can forget about the mission they’ve agreed to support and turn into busybodies who ask you to include material clearly outside of the previous agreement. Or a mission can grow stale and seem irrelevant if the audience’s needs change over time.
And ideas that seemed straightforward in the planning stages can sometimes turn out to be more complicated when you try to execute them. For instance, when a publication serves as the public voice of a large, complex organization, it must address challenging, complicated issues—without offending too many board members, donors, members, employees, or readers. And if a nonprofit with clout takes a contentious political stance, its publications will likely become the focal point of that controversy.
Even tiny organizations can drift away from the balanced, mission-driven publishing work they set out to accomplish. For example, when an association’s membership is falling off, a natural instinct is to pump more self-promotional content into its publications. But there is no better way to drive members away than by substituting the here’s-what-you-want-to-know articles with too much here’s-how-great-we-are content.
Generally, the best way to handle problems that develop is to go back through the process described in this chapter—bringing people together to review and, if necessary, to revise the editorial mission statement for each struggling publication. And, as described below, there are some remedies you might try to control specific types of damage.
Undermining the Editorial Mission
There may be a small group of influential board members, some staff members, or even readers who start criticizing the direction of your publication. Watch for this distress signal and address it quickly and openly. Keep in mind that dissent can and should be used constructively, whether it’s to improve the editorial mission or reaffirm the organization’s commitment to it.
One signal of dissent may be email messages complaining or commenting about the publication that somehow bypass publication staff and get sent to higher-ups. Another sign may be that a subsection of the organization, such as the board, holds meetings or makes plans for the publication without consulting the staff members who work on it.
A good step in dealing with the problem of people undermining the publication’s editorial mission is to call on the support of your organization. Touch base with your supervisor or others at your organization who oversee communications, whether it’s a senior staff person or a committee of board members, and discuss the need to address the problem.
In the best of worlds, the members of management within your organization understand and fully back your editorial mission. If not, take this opportunity to remind them about your purpose and how you work to achieve it. If you were able to solicit and secure the buy-in of these stakeholders when the editorial mission was developed, you’re merely asking them to stand by their original convictions. Hopefully, these people, especially if they are peers of or have the same level of influence as the critics, will assume the role of quelling the criticism.
If you need to handle the critics yourself, bring along the highest-level backer of the majority position that you can, and together remind them of the editorial mission of the publication. Emphasize how it was developed and the reasons the contested choices were made—and why those choices are helping the organization.
Critics who never backed the editorial mission, and still don’t, often pose an ongoing challenge. Basically, they never accepted that they got outvoted. You may never persuade them to accept your position, but you can mitigate their influence. The main thing you can do is point out, diplomatically but firmly, that they are a minority viewpoint and that the publication must fulfill the desires of the larger organization by honoring its editorial mission. If pushed, someone from your organization may be willing to go as far as telling the critic that continuing to undermine the editorial mission is disruptive and won’t be tolerated.
You can also take a different tack and buy yourself periods of calm by occasionally meeting with your publication’s harshest critics. Often they just need a chance to vent their frustrations and feel as if they have influence over the organization. Having lunch together and letting them talk may quiet them down somewhat, as they would feel that they have already given direct input to or have regular access to the ears of the publication staff. Shutting some people out will only make them agitate harder.
Example: One former editor of a weekly paper for members of a food cooperative remembers how powerful committee members constantly complained that the paper was not running enough direct news about the organization and was venturing into topics beyond its proper scope. The editor never disagreed with the critics but, instead, pointed out all the recent articles about the coop in the paper and described his need to satisfy readers’ interests, too. The critics would rumble but back off for the time being. “We tried to be really nice, and explain to these people that if we show the wider readership that we’re interested in the issues they’re interested in, we’re more likely in the long run to get them interested in joining the coop,” he said. By never directly disagreeing or contradicting them, he was able to hold these critics at bay and continue the type of news coverage the nonprofit needed.
The tendency of an individual or small group to fixate on self-promotion probably sounds all too familiar to anyone who has been in charge of a nonprofit publication. A board member or staff person emails you and strongly suggests that you write a prominent feature story about one of your organization’s longtime programs—cc’ing a slew of folks in upper management about the idea. Unfortunately, there’s really nothing new to report and the pitch sounds either boring or too obviously like an advertisement.
Consider the difference between copy that you’d read in a brochure, which is usually meant to sell you something, and copy that you’d read in a newspaper or magazine, which is usually meant to inform you. People tend not to read brochures unless they’re in the market for some product or service—and even when they do, it’s usually with an attitude of skepticism and suspicion. If you fill your publication with too much self-promotional “sales” copy, you’ll only foster these negative feelings and ultimately alienate readers.
That’s not to say, however, that the publication of a nonprofit can never mention what it does. A nonprofit’s publication should have some coverage of the organization’s activities. Just remember that not everything the organization does is a news story and that overplaying or overblowing this kind of material comes off to readers as insincere.
Think of creative ways to package this type of self-promotional information. For example, highlight your nonprofit’s activities with an events calendar. Introduce staff members to readers by doing “quick-hit” profiles that give just a basic biographical sketch and then focus on one aspect of the person’s role at the nonprofit, such as the most recent work accomplishment. Or spotlight one of your nonprofit’s programs by publishing just one illuminating photo with a thoughtful caption, instead of writing a story that intimates the program is newsworthy when it’s not.
But to achieve the proper balance with content mix, you’ll have to learn how to handle a real stinker of a situation when someone pushes inappropriate suggestions. Sometimes it works best to carefully listen to and thank the person for the idea but not act on it.
Another alternative, which takes more effort but probably works better in the long run, is to try and educate your colleagues about what makes a good story and the basic journalistic tenets of newsworthiness. Here, again, it’s important to refer back to your editorial mission. Give examples of stories that fit well with your mission. Discuss your concern that a story that does not present any news could turn off readers—or worse, alienate them. Encourage your colleagues to come back with story ideas that offer relevant news or would excite readers. Hopefully, this bit of education will make them think twice about future suggestions.
As the publication’s staff, though, it’s always a good idea to step into the other person’s shoes and take a moment to consider his or her idea. Maybe a general feature story about the program would be extremely boring, but the topic may merit a chat with the program manager to see if an interesting and better story lurks within the larger idea.
One of the biggest challenges for many nonprofit publications is how to handle content that will generate controversy, whether it’s among staff, funders, members, your industry sector, or the general public. Controversial topics tend to fall into one of the following categories: subjects that are about your nonprofit’s internal or external problems or make your organization look bad, subjects that challenge readers’ or your donors’ prevailing viewpoints, and subjects that question your nonprofit’s dominant paradigm or “sacred cows.”
While not all organizations can avoid controversy, and some actually promote a “controlled” type of controversy by soliciting lively letters to the editor or hosting website forums in which members can debate topics, the vast majority of nonprofits shun such content.
There’s no one approach to handling these situations. And there may be no solution to the controversy, either. Some events or topics will always cause conflict among your publication’s or nonprofit’s constituencies.
Once again, you can get some help out of this hot water by referring to your publication’s editorial mission and asking whether the content in question furthers its intended goals. Sometimes your organization may have to make a hard decision about placing certain constituencies above others. For example, perhaps an article you want to publish would enlighten readers but kill your chances of funding with an important foundation. When forced to evaluate which option would be worse, or better, it may help to involve your nonprofit’s management, the board of directors, and your editorial advisory board, if you have one. (See Chapter 4 for details on forming and working wth editorial boards.)
When it comes to reporting about the organization’s own problems, refer to whatever general communications policies your nonprofit may already have in place or any that specifically concern the controversy at hand. While nonprofit publications rarely discuss such issues in their pages, your organization might decide it is helpful to acknowledge the conflict and publish some kind of note encouraging readers to get in touch if they are concerned or want more information. If you have the resources and the controversy seems potentially explosive, your nonprofit may also consult a public relations firm for help.
Content that challenges the viewpoints held by readers, funders, and the organization in a constructive way that helps them develop a stronger and more nuanced understanding of the nonprofit mission should be given as much free rein as possible. Usually, editors find that readers are much more open to content that makes them think twice than the organization is comfortable publishing. The trick is in overcoming staff fears or assumptions about what’s appropriate.
You have a better chance of shepherding through this kind of content if you involve the organization’s gatekeepers early in the process and if you have some advocates, such as board members or representatives from your editorial advisory board, arguing on your behalf. Approach management early about your intentions and discuss your reasons for exploring the topic. Explain how it will help, not hurt, the organization. Keep members of management apprised of the story’s development. Hopefully, if the organization’s leadership is included in the content development process, they will be less likely to quash it. After a controversial story runs, be sure to forward any complimentary feedback from readers, or at least reinforce to the organization that the sky did not fall.
Outgrowing Your Editorial Mission
If your organization has expanded or changed significantly in its work since you drafted your publication’s editorial mission, it may be time to reevaluate and revise it.
You may also have reached a point where you feel your mission is not working and you need a new vision. If you can’t seem to muster much feedback from readers or when readers and even organization staff admit they do not read the publication, it may be time for a major overhaul. If members start calling or writing and asking to be taken off the mailing list, or don’t renew their subscriptions, that’s another red flag.
Example: For decades, one college alumni group has been publishing a magazine as a recruitment tool and benefit for members. In recent years, new graduates of the college have been joining the alumni association at about half the rate that earlier generations had joined. A new communications manager identified the problem: The association’s magazine and website featured baby boomers who looked more like the parents of recent grads than the grads themselves. Nobody planned to exclude the younger generations, but the group’s board members, editors, and staff—mostly baby boomers themselves—had simply lost the younger perspective. Articles focused on the activities of these much older alums, and advertisements hawked estate planning services and retirement communities. A new editor was hired and charged with addressing the problem. He succeeded by recruiting a new generation of writers, redesigning the magazine, launching a series of email newsletters on early career topics rather than retirement, and revitalizing the association’s website. Within a couple of years, the college’s newest graduates started joining the alumni association in greater numbers.