3 Keys to Guide Your 2023 Communications Strategy

3 Keys to Guide Your 2023 Communications Strategy

It’s the season where most people’s news feeds and inboxes are overflowing with personal and professional advice for the year ahead.   

As you dive deeper into your marketing and communications plans for 2023, you may not want more general advice – but you may need some specific inspiration. So, I checked in with former clients, each of them nonprofit communications experts and advancement leaders, to provide you with the best takeaways from their recent successes. 

Here are three keys to encourage your own breakthrough ideas this year. 

1. Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment, with Data in Focus 

When advancement teams seek to cut their budgets, scaling back on print communications in favor of digital might seem to make a lot of sense. Print is costly and can seem so “old-fashioned” in a digital economy. Finding ways to track audience behaviors requires much more intentionality. But sometimes doubling down on print can be worth the effort, especially if you can use experiments to demonstrate value and make a case for ongoing investment.   

At the University of Rochester, amidst the daily drumbeat of grim coronavirus news, Associate Vice President Erin Martin Kane and her Marketing Communications and Donor Engagement team wanted to tell stories aligned with Advancement priorities – in a visually-pleasing, design-rich format that would delight alumni and friends who were spending a lot more time at home.  

While many communications shops moved to digital, the University’s data pointed to the strength of print among its audiences. A previous GG+A SurveyLab study showed that alumni and donors saw Rochester Review, the official University magazine, as a serious and authoritative voice. 

So, in 2021, Erin and her team launched  BUZZ: Good Things for Alumni and Friends, a colorful, 32-page lifestyle magazine. Playing off the University’s “Yellowjackets” mascot, this new publication provided graduating seniors, alumni, parents, and friends with “snackable” content to help them navigate uncertain times and connect with the University in a different way.   

The objective, explained Erin, is “to uplift, engage, inspire, entertain, and surprise our readers – and not make any direct fundraising asks of them.” In addition, she said, BUZZ is meant to cultivate “feelings of nostalgia, pride, and community.” 

While many communications shops moved to digital, the University’s data pointed to the strength of print among its audiences. 

Among its features, BUZZ highlights stories of alumni working in social justice; advice from the University’s Medical Center experts on fitness, nutrition, and mindfulness; Rochester points of pride; and “Q & As” with University leaders such as President Sarah Mangelsdorf.   

Each issue also includes a QR code for a survey to gauge reader response and solicit feedback about overall engagement and fundraising activities.  

“I know there are those who will say print is expensive, but university magazines continue to be a trusted source of information and in today’s day and age, that really matters,” Erin said. 

The reaction to BUZZ has been overwhelmingly positive – even among the digital native young alumni. As a result, the University chose to invest in publishing four more issues to date, a particular point of pride for Erin and her team. To top it all off, BUZZ was honored with a CASE District II award in 2022. 

Faced with uncertainty, Erin made a seemingly counterintuitive choice to bet on print. She took a risk but remained focused on the data, ultimately allowing her to demonstrate value and make the case for continued investment. 

2. Use Results to Advocate for a Seat at the Table  

It can be difficult in any institutional culture to position the communications office as a strategic partner, instead of just a production shop. But Stephanie Wasco, Chief Communications Officer at The Jackson Laboratory (JAX), found that by demonstrating results in unexpected ways, she could earn a seat at the strategy table.  

Stephanie faced a daunting challenge when she joined the noted biomedical research organization in 2015. Although multiple JAX research centers unite experts globally around critical disease research, unlike a university with thousands of students and alumni, JAX had no natural constituency of potential supporters.  

How could she and her team identify and engage with those who might support JAX’s leading genomic research? In a memorable brainstorming session, GG+A articulated a challenge: Could JAX engage potential supporters in the same powerful way that alumni and their families connect with their alma maters? 

To answer this challenge, Stephanie and her team developed a series of strategic multichannel campaigns targeting communities aligned with the very diseases that JAX is addressing. These campaigns include paid Facebook advertisements targeted to groups whose members care deeply about developing effective treatments for cancer and other diseases, offering the opportunity to sign up for specific disease-focused e-newsletters. Armed with this subscriber information, JAX’s advancement team identifies and conducts wealth-screening of prospects who may have the capacity and inclination to support its research.   

“Connect your communications strategy and objectives to the institutional strategic plan as early and at the highest level possible.” 

By the end of 2022, JAX had generated more than 100,000 new subscribers, in addition to developing deep partnerships with disease-focused organizations such as the Alzheimer’s Association.  The newsletters have also enabled JAX’s advancement team to reach a much larger audience for hybrid events and identify those who show greater interest beyond the newsletter. 

When new President and CEO Lon Cardon launched JAX’s five-year strategic planning process, he called upon Stephanie as the process leader. This has enabled her to further align her communications goals with JAX’s strategic direction. Now in 2023, she and her colleagues are prioritizing an institutional rebrand and website redesign focused on end-users and their journey with JAX. 

“Connect your communications strategy and objectives to the institutional strategic plan as early and at the highest level possible,” Stephanie emphasized.  

Identifying a challenge and applying strategic communications with laser-like focus can not only open new channels of engagement, but it can also earn the trust of leadership and position communications to be a thought partner in institutional strategy.

3. Make Stewardship an Institutional Priority 

While we all recognize the importance of stewardship, the strategy and execution of a major gift announcement is not always welcomed by campus partners with equal zeal. At times it can be challenging to interest internal colleagues in a story that might seem to folks outside of advancement like “just another piece about a wealthy individual.”   

But shifting the institutional perspective on stewardship can help generate energy and uncover resources that were previously untapped. That is what Jonathan Goldstein, Vice Chancellor for Communications and Donor Relations at the University of Pittsburgh, discovered in his most recent story of a transformational gift.  

David Frederick, a prominent Washington, D.C. attorney, was the University of Pittsburgh’s first Rhodes Scholar from 1983-86 at University College Oxford. So, he and his wife, Sophie Lynn, wanted their philanthropy to benefit the two institutions where David “spent many happy years as a student.”  

First, the Fredericks donated $35 million to Oxford’s University College to help develop Univ North, a new multi-generational community in North Oxford that will house students, adults, senior citizens, and kids. As part of the gift, University College agreed to distribute a portion of income generated from the completed development to Pitt for the Honors College, which would be renamed the David C. Frederick Honors College. The gift to Pitt, which also includes $5 million outright, is expected to create a permanent endowment valued at more than $65 million. 

 “We identified partners throughout the University and treated each one like a stakeholder.”  

Jonathan and his colleagues immediately saw the potential for a new way to approach stewardship communications around the Fredericks’ gift. Quickly, they marshalled colleagues across campus departments for input. 

“We identified partners throughout the University and treated each one like a stakeholder,” he said. “We told them about the gift and asked for their best ideas and their help in executing.” 

The result? The gift announcement and stewardship activities reached new heights for communications and donor relations at the University, much like the gift itself. A cross-functional team including communicators, fundraisers, and donor relations staff created a press release, a feature article in Pitt Magazine, a day-long symposium and public talk with David Frederick, and a custom stewardship experience during the Pitt/West Virginia football game in September for David and his family. The Fredericks even had the privilege of “dotting the ‘I’” of the marching band’s Pitt script formation during pregame festivities. 

“I have been extremely fortunate to have experienced some momentous events in my professional life, and this one moved me more than any others…. The entire day was exhilarating,” said David. 

Reflecting on the experience, Jonathan noted, “If you can make your colleagues across the institution into stakeholders, just as you’re going to try to surprise and delight the donor, this new coalition might surprise and delight you.” 

Stewardship should be more than just an advancement priority – it is an institutional priority. And the whole institution can take part in the stewardship if advancement leaders choose to be deliberate about engaging them. Such an effort takes relationship-building with campus colleagues, open communication, and willingness to “myth-bust” about donors and their intent.   

Best wishes in 2023 for your communications initiatives. If you would like guidance in developing strategic communications to engage with your constituents and potential donors, contact Ed Sevilla at esevilla@grenzglier.com. 

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About the author

Ed Sevilla

Senior Vice President

Ed Sevilla is a Senior Vice President of Strategic Communications at GG+A, where he partners with clients to develop effective marketing, communications, and messaging strategies to drive support for key institutional programs and initiatives. He brings more than 25 years of experience in public and private sector marketing, branding, and…