Creating a content strategy at a nonprofit

Posted on June 2, 2016 by - Governance & Workflow, Strategy, User Experience

Digital services so good that people prefer to use them

The UK’s Government Digital Strategy aspires to build digital services that are “so good that people prefer to use them.” That’s a worthy goal for nonprofits, too. Photo by Dafydd Vaughan, CC BY-SA 2.0.

In the fall, I joined an international development NGO in DC to lead digital strategy. I wanted to join this organization in particular because of its focus on strengthening education, media, and civil society in developing countries.

I felt that this work was especially important given that so many governments are clamping down on media and other institutions even as record numbers of young people are struggling to find their footing in unstable states.

We’re a midsized NGO, with offices in twenty countries. Before the organization created my position, the communications team had only two full-time employees and an intern.

Anyone who has worked at a nonprofit knows that it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by day-to-day demands. But in a few short months, we’ve managed to be much more strategic by steadily creating the components of a digital content strategy in collaboration with employees across the organization.

Here are some of the activities that we’ve tackled during the past nine months:

Our work has been much more fluid than a list could suggest. We performed some of the activities in a few days while other parts took several weeks or months, as we worked on them a bit at a time between other responsibilities.

If we can do it, there’s a good chance that your nonprofit can, too. I’d like to share some of the steps that we’ve taken so far—and some of the resources that we’ve consulted—to better achieve our mission.

Lean research

In-house content strategists should never stop learning about their organization, their users, and the context that affects both. Users’ expectations evolve over time, especially given the pace of digital change. There’s always more to learn.

So I started doing research on day one at my new job, and we’ve steadily added to the research ever since. Because we conducted most of the research ourselves, it cost very little to gain valuable insights about our stakeholders, our partners, and our users. Now when we discuss digital possibilities with colleagues, we have more data to inform decisions.

Here’s a summary of the lean research that we’ve conducted during the past nine months:

Documentation review: Our NGO was completing a strategic planning process when I joined the organization. We reviewed the strategy materials and noted in a spreadsheet key information about objectives, users, employees, processes, and the organization’s strategy. We continued using this spreadsheet to record the most important findings from other research activities.

Stakeholder interviews: We conducted semistructured interviews with executives and staff to learn about their top priorities, their pain points, and their aspirations for the organization’s digital presence. We adapted interview questions from a number of sources when creating discussion guides for the conversations.

Hat tip to the sample questions in Kim Goodwin’s Designing for the Digital Age, Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld’s Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, the Content Strategy Alliance’s content strategy templates, and Kevin P. Nichols’s Enterprise Content Strategy.

Analytics: We reviewed our Google Analytics to look for overall trends and to answer research questions about users’ interactions with our digital properties. Staff came to us with ideas about Google AdWords campaigns and cross-channel initiatives to support project implementation. We worked with teams to set up analytics-enabled URLs, conversion funnels, and cookies to measure outcomes.

Hat tip to the Google Analytics certification courses and Brian Clifton’s Advanced Web Metrics with Google Analytics. Nonprofits, I’ve written a guide to measuring what matters in Google Analytics for you.

Online surveys: We used SurveyMonkey to create a public-facing survey (which we shared via our website, our main social media accounts, and our e-mail list) and a survey for staff. The internal survey revealed a surprising amount of consensus across the organization about objectives and priority audiences. The external survey helped us identify the top tasks that different types of users want to complete on our site.

Hat tip to Gerry McGovern’s The Stranger’s Long Neck for the “top tasks” methodology.

User interviews: We conducted semistructured interviews with members of our audiences. The conversations helped us learn more about users’ top priorities, the reasons why they wanted to do certain things, and ways in which digital properties met their needs or fell short.

Hat tip to Steve Portigal’s Interviewing Users and the other resources listed above in the section on stakeholder interviews.

Competitive analysis: We looked at dozens of organizations within our industry and outside of it to learn from their work. Staff nominated a range of websites that served as touchstones as we considered ways of translating top tasks and objectives into information architecture, task flows, and design patterns.

Hat tip to the Content Strategy Alliance’s content strategy templates.

Business model: Digital affects the entire organization. In order to be truly strategic, digital teams must ensure that their work capitalizes on the organization’s strengths while compensating for its weaknesses.

We summarized our business model by documenting the internal and external factors that affect the organization’s decisions. These factors include stakeholders, users, funding sources, expenditures, partners, competitors, trends, current events, legal issues, and the services that the organization offers.

Hat tip to Meghan Casey’s Content Strategy Toolkit for a list of questions to identify an organization’s business model. I highly recommend answering each of Meghan’s questions. But if you are new to your organization’s industry, you might start by filling out a business model canvas or doing a simple SWOT analysis.

Content inventory: We used an inexpensive service to crawl our main website and document its content in a spreadsheet. This content inventory lists every page on our site, along with each page’s URL, metadata, analytics, and links. We used the inventory to help identify which content to keep for the new site.

Hat tip to Paula Land’s Content Audits and Inventories and the Content Analysis Tool.

Inventory of digital properties: Improving an organization’s digital presence means more than just renovating its main website. It also involves improving the experience for users who interact with any of the organization’s digital channels.

During the past nine months, we’ve made a list of our organization’s satellite sites, social media accounts, e-mail mailing lists, and other “digital properties.” By mapping out the organization’s digital ecosystem, we’ve identified ways to reduce costs, avoid risks, and improve efficiency while creating a more effective experience for users.

Usability testing: As we developed prototypes, we tested them with users to validate the work. We conducted the tests via Skype, which allowed us to see the user’s screen and answer questions in real time. The tests revealed things about our designs that worked and things that needed improvement.

Hat tip to Steve Krug’s Rocket Surgery Made Easy and Nate Bolt and Tony Tulathimutte’s Remote Research. Nonprofits, I wrote a guide to remote moderated usability testing for you.

Phased approach to renovating our main website

Our NGO’s main website was last redesigned in 2010. Colleagues recognized that the site’s content management system, information architecture, design, and strategy were due for an update, especially given the organization’s new strategic direction. Because we don’t have in-house front-end designers or back-end developers, we partnered with a digital agency to begin renovating the site.

Our approach: We collected information from more than a dozen agencies and presented recommendations to our executives. We considered waterfall, agile, and phased approaches. We decided on a phased approach, and we’re aiming to launch the core components of a new site by July 2016, which will conclude phase 1.

Hat tip to Paul Boag’s Digital Adaptation and Russ Unger and Carolyn Chandler’s A Project Guide to UX Design for advice about waterfall, agile, and hybrid approaches. The Greenpeace Mobilisation Lab has a handy infographic for illustrating how making small, sustained investments can help organizations reduce the need for redesigns in the first place. See also David Hobbs’s five-point scale for assessing whether your site needs a redesign or iterative improvements.

Steering committee and working group: Our organization has a history of dividing responsibility for major initiatives between a steering committee of senior managers and a working group of midlevel staff, so we adopted this structure for the redesign. We defined the responsibilities of each group and obtained approval for the structure. We also introduced the concept of agile product management to explain how a product manager should have the responsibility and authority to weigh trade-offs and find solutions to meet the organization’s overall needs.

Hat tip to Roman Pichler’s Agile Product Management with Scrum for advice about defining the product manager’s role and avoiding common pitfalls. Lisa Welchman’s Managing Chaos offered helpful guidance about appropriate roles and responsibilities of employees at various levels of an organization.

Process for the redesign: We synthesized our research to identify objectives and audiences for the new site. Then we developed the information architecture (including a sitemap, taxonomy, content types, and metadata), visual design (including wireframes and design comps), and functional requirements. We are now writing, editing, and obtaining approval for the content while the developers build the new site.

Digital strategy, digital guidelines, and digital roadmap

Many organizations seem to think that simply redesigning their main site will solve their problems. Unfortunately, this rarely works. New sites quickly fall into disrepair in the absence of a sustainable strategy, practical guidelines, and a realistic roadmap. So we are creating those components as well:

Kernel of a strategy: We drafted a four-page outline of our digital strategy. The document (1) diagnoses the challenge that we have, (2) describes an overall approach for solving the challenge, and (3) lists a coherent set of actions. This structure has kept us honest about whether we are truly addressing the organization’s main challenges and whether the actions that we’ve proposed are appropriate for solving the most important problems.

Hat tip to Richard Rumelt’s Good Strategy / Bad Strategy for this framework, which he calls the “kernel” of a strategy. Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach’s Content Strategy for the Web is also essential reading.

Digital service manual: A digital service manual helps organizations focus on strategic priorities while reducing confusion among staff about digital strategy, roles, workflow, and expectations. We’re seeking internal feedback and approval for the digital service manual that we’ve drafted.

Our manual provides guidelines for employees who are either building approved digital services or creating routine digital content. The manual also specifies the digital team’s purpose, composition, and roles; the organization’s digital strategy; our guiding principles for digital projects; the steps we follow for prioritizing digital requests; and step-by-step instructions for building an approved digital property and for getting new content approved.

Hat tip to Paul Boag for his advice about creating a digital service manual. The Digital Service Manual served as an excellent example. We adapted our guiding principles from several sources, including the “Principles for Digital Development,”’s “Design Principles,” and the “US Digital Services Playbook.”

Digital roadmap: This is a work plan that outlines how we will implement the set of actions described in the strategy document. Our roadmap includes six main steps: (1) Adopt interim policies to mitigate risks, (2) clarify the process for routine digital projects, (3) conduct training sessions for staff, (4) create a digital governance framework, (5) draft digital policies and standards, and (6) gradually consolidate abandoned and underperforming digital properties.

Discussions, presentations, and training sessions

We have given several presentations and training sessions during the past few months, including a presentation about user research, a Google Analytics training session, and an introductory session with staff from 20 overseas offices.

In the coming weeks, we plan to start a regular series of discussions, presentations, and training sessions to support our content strategy. Topics may include implementing our brand guidelines, using a user-centered approach for digital projects, writing for the web, managing a social media account, taking good photographs, and preparing resources for publication.

Hat tip to Knowhow Nonprofit’s tool kit for building a digital workforce.

Digital governance framework

Good digital governance means that employees know who has decision-making authority and who provides input for various aspects of creating, maintaining, and improving digital services. This is essential not only for building a more effective digital presence but also for creating a more productive work environment for employees.

We’ve received approval to form a governance design team. The team will draft a digital governance framework and a core set of digital policies and digital standards.

Hat tip to Lisa Welchman’s Managing Chaos, which outlines how to create a digital governance framework, digital policies, and digital standards. Thanks also to Paul Boag’s article on digital structures and Content Strategy Inc.’s workshop on governance and workflow.

I’m proud of my team for accomplishing so much in such a short period of time, and I’m excited that the organization has embraced these initiatives. Along the way, I’ve been taking notes and refining templates. I hope to share more tools and lessons learned in the next few months.

Josh TongJosh Tong is a content strategist in Washington, DC. He helps colleagues create powerful content through research, strategy, and implementation.

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“Creating a Content Strategy at a Nonprofit” by Josh Tong is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

5 Responses to “Creating a content strategy at a nonprofit”

  1. Kathy Wagner on

    Fantastic to hear about what you’ve been up to, Josh, and what you’ve been able to accomplish in such a short amount of time! Thanks for sharing, and for all the valuable resources you included. Great article! :)


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