Why Every Nonprofit Has a New Job Title: Publisher


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Nonprofit employees have always had to wear a lot of hats: fundraiser, marketer, grant writer, etc. Here’s one more you need to get used to wearing: publisher. Fortunately, this additional job has a real benefit, as it engages current and potential supporters with useful, interesting and credible information that directly drives donor support.

Don’t confuse publishing with advertising. I’m not talking about one-way communication that people view as a “salesy.” Publishing is about producing blog posts, video, e-mail newsletters, e-books, white papers, free reports and other types of content. For example, the American Cancer Society (ACS) created a blog site called MoreBirthdays.com meant to educate and inspire cancer patients, survivors and caretakers—a resource that connects the cancer community with the cause and ultimately strengthens giving.

ACS and many other large nonprofits understand the key role published content has in their success. Smaller nonprofits are beginning to see the importance of publishing, but many still see this hat as an optional one. It’s not. Here are the three main reasons why every nonprofit needs to be generating useful content that informs, educates and inspires.

1. It’s part of being a top nonprofit brand. Charity: Water, Share Our Strength, March of Dimes and Make-A-Wish are all publishers. They actively create content that engages supporters, and I’m talking about a lot more than a quarterly print newsletter. While you may not see yourself in the same league as these organizations, you share their need to build community around your cause and to be a credible resource for those interested in your subject area.

Mark Horvarth at Invisiblepeople.tv has gotten national attention by filming the stories of the largely “invisible” homeless from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. Horvarth’s nonprofit is small, but his videos have spread the news of his work and caught the attention of many large companies, including GMC and Hanes. You might not be big, but you can be a top brand, even if it’s just in your community.

2. You need to stand out. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS), more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations are registered in the U.S. According to one study, 7,306 nonprofits were registered in just tiny Rhode Island last year. With more and more nonprofits coming online each year, content is a key tool in separating your nonprofit from the pack. This is especially important as people search for your nonprofit on Google, Bing and Yahoo. Several factors are important in how search engines rank and deliver search results, but one thing is clear: if you don’t produce high quality content and links, online searchers won’t find you. Period.

3. You can’t just do good work anymore. Nearly every day, I meet nonprofits that are making the world a better place. But it’s not enough. It’s like the days when there were only five or six television stations to watch. It was easier for these early networks to stand out and get viewers. These days, there are hundreds of stations to choose from and the competition is brutal. It’s the same with nonprofits. The Salvation Army, American Red Cross and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital were all lucky to build their brands during simpler times. Charities that have quickly gained ground over the last decade have been largely celebrity-driven (e.g., U2’s Bono for Product Red and Lance Armstrong for Livestrong).

Unless you have a star in your pocket, start learning to publish online and how to tell your nonprofit’s story with text, pictures and video. Focus on being compelling, useful and credible. Publishing is your path to stardom.

Joe Waters blogs on cause marketing and social media at Selfishgiving.com. He’s the co-author of Cause Marketing for Dummies.

  • eyeBrand

    Good article. Beyond being a publisher, though, you have to take one giant step back. You have got to focus on creating great, compelling content that is being published.

    We all receive emails, invitations to fundraisers or links to blogs every day. Each non-profit is doing great things and their cause is indeed worthy of support. But the key to success is to connect. Make sure your content is relevant, connects emotionally to the audience and is truly meaningful so it drives people to your desired action.

    Otherwise, your communications end up in the spam filter like millions other messages that are just pushed out there.

    Twitter: @eyebrand

  • Joe Waters

    Good point. That’s why I emphasized the title of PUBLISHER. It really is like running your own media outlet. I often tell nonprofits that their Facebook pages, for example, are like their own People Magazine. And like People, they need to be timely, compelling and competitive to be successful. A nonprofit mindset won’t help you. A publishing mindset will

    Thanks for commenting.


  • Monica Williams

    Hi, Joe. I couldn’t agree more. The Austin Community Foundation has jumped into this with both feet with GivingCity Austin. It’s a quarterly magazine about local philanthropy created with a mission to increase and improve participation in local philanthropy.


    (We were recently the subject of a story in The Chronicle of Philanthropy. http://philanthropy.com/article/A-Community-Fund-Lures-Young/131353/ )

    In GivingCity – the magazine, the blog, the Facebook page, the Twitter stream and even our channels on LinkedIn and YouTube – our goal is to create service-journalism, actionable content. While GivingCity has a home at the community foundation, however, it is not the house publication of the community foundation. In that regard, we think we’re pretty unique.

    I hope you’ll take a look. We’ve been doing this since 2007, and we grow our audience with every issue.


  • Nathan Slovin

    A mentor of mine years ago told me that “communication is not complete until the intended recipient receives and understands the communication.” How do you ensure that your communications are received by your intended recipients? How do you ensure that your communications are understood?

    I think this underscores your point that “content is king.” I ask every nonprofit I work with, “Can you tell a story like this?” and then I read them the following story….

    Imagine a girl who lives in a dangerous San Jose neighborhood. She wants to participate in the girls’ after-school program, but she cannot. It is unsafe for her to walk home at 6:00 at night and her parents work until 8:00. Therefore, she goes home, right after school every day at 2:30, where she waits alone until her parents return. This is a common story.
    1. Imagine that same girl.
    2. Imagine that she knows how to address obstacles that limit her. Imagine that she goes to her principal and explains the problem and then she calls one of her mentors who connects her to the County Supervisor in her district.
    3. She also organizes a group of friends who have the same problem. Imagine that she sets a meeting with her friends, the principal, the mayor and the County Supervisor.
    4. She facilitates that meeting with the aim of finding a solution. And she does.
    5. Now she and her fellow students stay after school and have a safe way home. This is our work.
    Imagine the possibilities if every year 1,000 middle school and high school girls learn how to tackle community problems like this one. Picture the huge number of powerful women leaders driving the Bay Area and the world toward success and well-being.


  • Cheryl Black

    The new publisher role goes right along with the saying “content is king.” It’s a great marketing strategy, not only for branding but for SEO. Here’s an article by a coworker of mine on the subject: http://www.connectioncafe.com/posts/2011/02-february/content-is-king.html

  • Howard Brodwin

    There are great points Joe made in the article, and I want to build upon those and some of the thoughts in the comments…

    To @EyeBrand’s point, there is another giant step backwards that has to happen before a nonprofit becomes a “publisher.” They have to be able to define their brand.

    A bit of the chicken/egg scenario because yes, publishing great content does help to build a brand. But many of the nonprofits I come across haven’t clearly articulated who they are through basic messaging and identity, and even with a great content plan they still run the risk of broadcasting an unclear message. A content plan (aka – owned media) is vital, and nonprofits need to look inward at the story-telling and content assets at their disposal. Every nonprofit has stories to tell.

    If you have your identity clearly defined, as Nathan Slovin said, when your messaging reaches your intended audience it’s understood – and I’ll add, “acted upon.” And the nonprofit needs to define that action: Do you want to drive awareness and exposure? Are you fundraising? Looking to build your volunteer base? Are you promoting an event? This is all part of a solid content plan.

    And to Joe Waters’ points in the piece, I’ll add one more…
    4. [I]If you’re seeking Cause Marketing partners on the corporate/brand side, you have to show them you can communicate.[/I]
    If a large brand is weighing the pros/cons of various cause campaign partners, you can bet that the nonprofit with a solid blog, strong video content, social media presence and engagement (engagement is the key here, not just “likes” on facebook…) is going to catch their eye. At the end of the day, the brand wants to know that you as the nonprofit can effectively communicate the campaign to your audience.


  • Joe Waters

    Great points, Howard. A good brand is a like a big magnetic that pulls in lots of good things. But it’s not easy to build…BUT YOU MUST WORK TO BUILD IT!


  • Joe Waters

    Thanks for the comment. I often tell nonporofits that we’re all in the magazine business now. You need to be relevant, timely, compelling and unique. Think of it as if you’re publishing your own PEOPLE Magazine – yes, PEOPLE, not Reader’s Digest – and be visual, compelling – do I dare say even dramatic. 🙂

  • Joe Waters

    I’m a big fan of everything Austin, Monica. Do you know David Neff? One of my fave nonprofit gurus in your area. I will check out all the great content you are creating!