Big Communications for Small Nonprofits

by Matt James
Next Generation

This piece originally appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) as part of Making Ideas Move, a series on the power and potential of social sector communications produced by The Communications Network in partnership with SSIR.

When I sat down with co-founders Tom and Jim Steyer in 2010 to design the nonprofit now known as Next Generation—a strategic communications and policy group focused on clean energy, climate change, and investment in America’s kids and families—we quickly agreed on two guiding principles: Fact-based, nonpartisan information would drive the organization, and communications would be baked into our programmatic work.

We also wanted to have an outsized impact, but remain lean, nimble, and entrepreneurial. We’ve done that. We’ve created several successful, national initiatives and California projects, while keeping staff size small. How?

  • We hired the best and the brightest to head our major program and operations units—people who understand how to leverage information, communicate it effectively, and recognize emerging opportunities.
  • We created partnerships that deeply leverage our project ideas and communicate them across multiple platforms and organizations, creating a larger megaphone for our core issues.
  • We sharply target our messages and content. No organization—large or small—can afford to waste time and resources on messaging that does not reach its core audiences.

Our work on climate change provides a good example. A deeply political and often polarizing issue in the United States, climate change is often framed as “jobs versus the environment,” with little discussion of the potential economic impacts we face if we don’t address it. The US climate discussion has tended to fall quickly down two partisan rabbit holes: the debate over the science and the debate over the perfect policy solution. This leaves out the business and investment communities, important players in helping solve this problem. So we asked ourselves, “How can we change the current frame and increase engagement by business leaders?”

Our answer? The Risky Business Project—a research and communications project that quantifies the economic risks generated by the impacts of climate change, aimed in part at making the issue a business and local story, not just an environmental or political one. Early in the project’s development, co-chairsTom Steyer, Hank Paulson, and Michael Bloomberg led the recruitment effort for a high-level, bipartisan group of partners who serve as very active, involved advisors and messengers. How and why the group came together was nicely summarized in a New York Times business section piece.

We also recognized the importance of bullet-proof data, so we contracted with Rhodium Group to conduct specific, actionable analyses on climate impacts to the US agriculture, energy, and coastal infrastructure sectors. This resulted in some of the most-detailed analysis ever compiled on these issues, all of which is open source. Importantly, the group decided not to make collective suggestions on policy solutions; this allows the Risky Business Project to remain centered on facts and unencumbered by politics. Recent stories, like this one from the Columbia Journalism Review, have established the project as a game-changer in climate communications and demonstrate the exponential power of combining nonpartisan information, communication by respected messengers, and unassailable data.

Another example is a project developed under Next Generation’s Children and Families program. We wanted to create an initiative that would both magnify attention on the value of early investment in children, and provide parents and caregivers with tools that they could use to help their children right away.

The result was the Too Small to Fail initiative, created in partnership with the Clinton Foundation. Based on the input of notable researchers and advisors, the initiative focuses on narrowing the “word gap”—the difference in vocabulary—that exists between the youngest low-income kids and their higher-income peers, and that greatly hampers lower-income children’s opportunities for success. Closing the word gap is surprisingly simple and inexpensive—talking, reading, and singing to kids from the time they are born can make a difference in their life trajectory. Focus groups with lower-income parents indicate that many are not aware of the positive impact of early exposure to words, and many face challenges in making these simple acts a priority.

We included others, such as former Senator Bill Frist and Cindy McCain, to ensure that Too Small to Fail would be bipartisan in nature. We also partnered with national organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and Sesame Workshop, and leading researchers and other groups working toward closing the word gap. To communicate the message directly to parents and caregivers, we developed a multi-platform partnership with Univision; worked with the entertainment industry to place storylines in popular shows; and created city-specific initiatives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Oakland, California, where we work directly in communities and develop replicable models. We have made our creative content, from toolkits for parents to designs for outdoor ad campaigns, free to organizations and communities that want to develop their own campaigns.

So what communications lessons have we learned in the process?

▪    There is a role—and a true need—for non-partisan, fact-based initiatives.
▪     Small organizations with limited staff and financial resources can benefit by aligning with big partners as they compete in the crowded world of ideas.
▪     Nonprofits need to invest in staff that understand the value of—and possess the skills to implement—quality communications projects.


Many nonprofit leaders fail to make communications a true priority. To be successful, leaders need to develop and constantly reinforce an internal culture that values effective communications as a programmatic strategy.

I’ll leave you with the communications rules that the most successful nonprofits I have observed abide by: Communications should be part and parcel of program work, and organizations should highly leverage and sharply target communications initiatives. While these “rules of the game” do not ensure success, they can create a foundation that will allow smaller nonprofits to compete with larger organizations and drive social change.