While there’s no hard rule for when communications planning should begin for a groundbreaking ceremony – which generally serves as the public launch of a facility project – it’s a good idea to begin thinking about who the organization wants to reach, what it wants to convey to each audience identified, and how best to reach them at least three months before the event. Doing so will provide the organization with enough time to create and deploy the materials needed to promote the project and the groundbreaking event in advance of the target date. Clients, funders, major donors, capital campaign contributors, volunteers, politicians, organizational partners, and local media are all common examples of audiences nonprofits most want to reach with targeted communications as construction is approaching, though the ultimate list of audiences should be informed solely by the organization’s specific needs and priorities.
Resources nonprofit leaders can use
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Developing nonprofit facilities is challenging work, requiring a mix of finance, real estate, construction, programmatic, and operational expertise. And while getting to a groundbreaking ceremony is often a multi-year process that’s an accomplishment in and of itself, the months leading up to this are generally when an entirely new workstream begins focused on communicating publicly about the project and its anticipated impact.
Given the infrequency of capital projects, this is a unique opportunity for the organization to reach new audiences and reframe its story for existing supporters – helping shape perceptions about who the organization is, why its work matters, and how the new or renovated facility will expand its capacity to strengthen the communities in which it operates. When planned thoughtfully and executed successfully, a communications plan for a development project can not only boost the organization’s reputation but lay the foundation for sustained fundraising success.
For larger nonprofits with robust in-house communications teams or the financial means to engage external communications consultants, developing a plan isn’t likely to stretch the organization’s capacity. But for smaller nonprofits or those with limited communications infrastructure, knowing where to begin planning and what’s needed to effectively publicize a development project can present challenges.
With that in mind, we’ve compiled a step-by-step guide to assembling a communications plan for the public phase of facilities projects, along with an overview of the tactics most likely to draw attention. For each tactic, we’ve included a recommendation about when to leverage it during the arc of the development process and, for several tactics, templates that can be downloaded and adapted for the organization’s use with minimal effort.
Developing a Communications Plan
Communications plans detail what information should be shared; who should receive that information; when, where, and how it should be communicated to target audience; and how success will be defined. In essence, it’s a roadmap to ensure that the organization is reaching the right people with the right message at the right time, and it’s a tool that should be referenced frequently as the plan is executed to ensure that the organization strategically works toward its communications goals. Read on to learn how to develop a communications plan for facilities projects that will maximize the organization’s visibility and help shape perceptions of its impact.
The organization’s goals and objectives will be unique to each organization, but it’s important to keep in mind that goals should be broad outcomes (e.g., increasing awareness and understanding of the organization’s service offering with the new facility) supported by objectives that are strategic, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely (e.g., secure at least two stories about the facility project in the media in the communities where the organization operates within two weeks of the groundbreaking event).
From there, organizations should begin developing key messages that will be deployed across all communications channels in the run-up to the groundbreaking. The goal here is to hone in on the information about the project and the organization that’s most important for each audience to know. For example, a nonprofit that provides services to individuals who are unhoused that’s developing a transitional housing facility may want to emphasize that the project will enable the organization to move from responding to immediate needs with an emergency overnight shelter to a longer-term approach to ending homelessness in the communities it serves. Once the key messages are identified, they can be adjusted for various audiences to ensure that they resonate with those on the receiving end of the communication.
Recommended Communications Channels and Tactics
After developing the core elements of a communications plan, it’s time to focus on the tactics that will be employed to achieve the organization’s objectives and the channels that will be leveraged in the process. Put simply, tactics are the tools used to execute the communications plan and the channels are the avenues through which key messages reach target audiences. Common channels include websites, social media, emails, collateral (e.g., brochure, one-pager), and media coverage. Though not an exhaustive list, these channels are the foundation for communications success. It’s also important to note that tactics can cross channels, helping amplify the organization’s messaging. A story on the organization’s website about the facility project, for example, can be shared with media contacts, sent to the organization’s contact list via email, and posted on social media.
There are a variety of tactics that can be employed to publicize a nonprofit’s facility project, the most important of which we’ve outlined below – grouped by channel.
The organization’s website serves as its virtual “front door,” and best practice is to create a dedicated page on the website about the facility project to serve as a hub of information. Key messages should be prominently featured on the page, as should basic details about why the organization is undertaking the project and the impact that it expects to achieve with the new/renovated facility.
This is also an ideal place to include details about the facility itself (e.g., size/square footage, what will be included in it, etc.), FAQs, and any funders/donor acknowledgements. A simple timeline is another piece of content that can be included to communicate important details about where the project stands and when it’s expected to be completed. And, importantly, this page should include visuals like architect’s renderings of the new/renovated facility and construction photos as the project proceeds, if possible. Finally, a sign-up form for the organization’s email list should be included to capture new contacts interested in learning more about the project and the organization.
This webpage should be set up and published before any communications about the project begin (e.g., invitation to a groundbreaking ceremony). A great example comes from IFF client Swope Health, which recently completed construction on a 32,000-square-foot facility in Kansas City that will serve as a hub for health and wellness services for local seniors.
The organization’s news page is another place where content related to the project should “live.” Periodic updates about the project can be posted here, linked from the project page described in the previous point, and shared with target audiences via emails and social media. Short posts (i.e., less than 500 words) should be published after the groundbreaking event, regularly during construction (i.e., monthly or quarterly, depending on organizational bandwidth), and around the time of the ribbon cutting/grand opening ceremony – all of which should lean heavily on visuals to engage target audiences. One example of what this content can look like is from one of IFF’s development projects in North Chicago, IL.
While establishing a digital presence for the facility project is essential, it’s also important to create physical collateral that can be shared with target audiences. A brochure or “one-pager” are examples of this, and the content can largely mirror what’s included on the project page on the organization’s website. Other essential elements to include are a URL for the organization’s website and any social media handles used by the organization. Canva is a great free resource to design these materials and includes a multitude of templates that make the platform accessible to users without design experience. Any collateral should be created in conjunction with the development of the aforementioned project webpage before the groundbreaking ceremony takes place.
When construction is set to begin and fencing has been put up around the project site, signage can be hung. What’s included on the signage is at the discretion of the organization completing the project, but, at minimum, it should feature the nonprofit’s name, logo, and at least one brief statement describing the project that incorporates elements of the organization’s key messaging. Often times logos of funders and partner organizations are also included to highlight other organizations that have been critical in bringing the project to this point.
Hard copies of save-the-dates and invitations to groundbreaking and ribbon cutting ceremonies can be created to reinforce digital versions of these materials and reach members of target audiences who are less likely to engage with email and social media. These should be mailed to recipients several days before any digital communications are deployed.
Leveraging the organization’s email list to publicize the facility project is a basic step any nonprofit can take to amplify key messaging. It’s most efficient to use a platform like Constant Contact or Mailchimp to send such emails, since these tools include templates that reduce the up-front work to create/design emails and they provide analytics after emails are sent that can be used to refine future communications.
Organizations should plan to send emails announcing the project to kick off the communications campaign, a save the date and/or invitation to the groundbreaking ceremony, periodically during construction to share project updates with target audiences, a save the date and/or invitation to the ribbon-cutting ceremony/grand opening, and a wrap-up email after the event celebrating the completion of the project along with photos of the finished facility and from the ribbon cutting/grand opening.
Similar to email, social media can be leveraged without significant organizational bandwidth to amplify key messaging related to the project. As a rule, anything posted on the organization’s website related to the project should also be shared on social media. Social media should also be used to promote milestone events like the groundbreaking and ribbon cutting ceremonies, with 2-3 posts leading up to each event and a post afterward sharing photos and brief recaps of the events. During construction, aim to post project updates a couple of times per month on social media to create a steady drumbeat of the organization’s messaging during the development process. For added awareness, provide these social media graphics/links/photos to funders and partner organizations so they can also post on their channels and help drum up excitement.
Securing media coverage about the facility project and how it will enhance the organization’s work is a good way to share the organization’s key messages with a broad audience, though it’s important to note that the organization will have limited, if any, input into the final content of the media coverage. The first step in securing media coverage is identifying reporters and editors relevant to the project.
About a month before the first public announcement of the facility project, organizations should begin compiling a list of media contacts likely to be interested in the project. Hyperlocal media outlets are a great place to start, as they’re most likely to cover any events or updates related to a project in their neighborhood. For larger media outlets, focus on identifying reporters and editors who specialize in topics – or “beats” – related to the organization’s work. Beats to focus on include nonprofits, real estate, construction, and individual topics relevant to the organization. For example, a charter school developing a new campus would want to include media contacts who cover education.
Platforms like Muck Rack and Cision offer media databases where contact information for individual reporters and editors can be found and compiled very efficiently, but these tools are generally cost-prohibitive if they’re not used regularly to advance the organization’s communications goals. In most cases, the same contact information can be found on media outlets’ websites. For this approach, organizations should compile a list of the media outlets in their area, then go to each outlet’s website to find contact information for reporters and editors with relevant beats.
A media advisory alerts members of the media to upcoming events, and should be sent to reporters and editors on the organization’s media list about a week before groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies. And possibly resent one to two days prior to the event. After sending the media advisory via email, it’s a good idea to follow up by phone to confirm the contact received the advisory and has the event on their calendar. For TV stations, it’s best to send the media advisory to the outlet’s planning desk and then follow up by phone the morning of the event to confirm whether the station is planning to send anyone. Media advisories should be concise and highlight the most important information about the groundbreaking and ribbon cutting (i.e., what is the event, where and when will it be held, and who’s available for interviews).
A pre-formatted media advisory is available for download here, with instructions about the information to include. Once populated with the organization’s information, the media advisory shouldn’t exceed one page.
Press releases are another tactic to secure media coverage, but it’s important to understand how it differs from a media advisory. A press release should be written with the intent to provide information that a media contact can include in a story to reduce the burden they face in gathering key details. In some cases, the media outlet may simply republish the content of the press release under its byline. In either case, the press release must be newsworthy – meaning relevant and interesting to media outlets’ audiences. During most nonprofit facilities projects, the primary points at which it makes most sense to distribute a press release to the organization’s media list are when construction begins (i.e., immediately after the groundbreaking ceremony) and when the facility is opening (i.e., immediately after the ribbon cutting ceremony).
A pre-formatted press release template is available for download here, with instructions about the information to include. Once populated with the organization’s content, the press release shouldn’t exceed 700 or so words.
Pitches are another tactic with a different purpose than media advisories or press releases. Pitches don’t necessarily need to be tied to a specific event or milestone, though they must be timely (meaning they’re going to be relevant to the media outlet’s audience by connecting to something already in the news, sharing new information that’s not already widely known, or shedding new light on a topic related to the media contact’s beat).
The basic goal of a pitch, which is sent via email, is to catch a reporter or editor’s attention and leverage that attention to secure an interview with the organization’s spokesperson, a visit to the project site, etc. The best starting point is determining why the organization’s project should matter to the media outlet’s audience and leading with that information in the pitch, including in the subject line which is one of the key elements to catching a reporter’s attention.
In most cases, a pitch is a better option than a press release, since it requires less up-front work to develop and often leads to the same end result: media coverage of the organization’s project. This page is a great resource for understanding how to craft a pitch that will lead to media coverage.