No matter what industry you are in, you are competing for two things: time and money. It could be for the attention of a reporter, board member, or potential donor. It could be for a specific donation amount or the approval of next year’s operating budget.

Either way, you are working within a competitive environment. One that can dramatically affect the survival of your organization or a cherished program. This is where taking the time to develop key messages can help.

What are key messages?

Key messages are brief summaries of what you do, what you stand for, why you are different and how you bring value.

Most organizations will create multiple key messages. Some reflect the overall mission of the organization. Others are narrowly focused and are specific to an issue, campaign, or program.

The benefits of developing key messages

While they take time to develop, key messages form the foundation of an effective communications program and should be reflected in all your written and spoken communications. Repetition is key.

By distilling your program description and purpose, you help others–including donors, the media and important influencers–to better understand your organization’s role, perspective, and the need you help to fill within your community.

Instead of allowing someone to draw their own conclusions from a website or report that may be too complex or confusing, key messages can help influence what is said about your organization or program.

Ensuring clarity, consistency, and accuracy

Key messages give you a quick and easy way of describing what you do. This allows every one of your stakeholders–from board members to front-level staff–to be able to understand and describe the organization or particular initiative or issue in a clear, consistent way that builds authority and brand recognition.

You can use key messages to create elevator pitches, boilerplate for a press release, or to insert in a grant application. They save you time when developing a new graphic or brand identity. But most of all, they help keep you focused when under pressure, such as when talking with stakeholders or the media.

Below is an example of a before and after of a client I worked with several months ago. (The name has been changed to protect the innocent.)

Before (A general description of the organization):

The mission of the ABC Center is to build livable and economically viable neighborhoods. ABC Center develops community assets–enhancing the ability and skills of people, businesses and community organizations in low income communities to function effectively in a competitive society.

After (A 25 word key message)

ABC Center is a catalyst for change in South LA, equipping residents with the training, strategies and programs they need to transform neighborhoods and create economic opportunities.


Both examples describe the overall mission and goals of this Los Angeles based nonprofit. However, notice how the revised key message–which emerged after numerous conversations with board members, the executive team, staff and funders–uses specific language that makes the following things clear in the mind of whoever is receiving this message:

Where this nonprofit operates: South LA

Who they work with: Residents

What they offer: Training, strategies and programs

Their ultimate goal: To transform neighborhoods and create economic opportunities

Creating internal alignment

Key messages help you develop strategic communication plans and targets by ensuring that your communications and marketing goals match up.

By eliminating fuzzy thinking, they also help you to decide if a specific initiative fits within with your mission or if it needs to be canceled, redirected, narrowed, or expanded.

When does it make sense to work on your key messages?

In the same way that your perspective on an issue evolves over time, so does your key messaging. Typical circumstances that trigger the need for new messaging includes:

  • A change in your organization’s mission
  • A shift in the audience you are serving
  • A significant increase in staff size

The latter makes sense when you consider that as an organization grows beyond its grassroots origins, you often experience a gap between what long-term employees and newer staff believe are mission-critical priorities.

But the biggest benefit by far of working on your key messages will be the conversations and insights that emerge as you solicit feedback from a wide cross-section of stakeholders. When done well, they bring renewed vigor and enthusiasm to a campaign or an organization that may have gotten bogged down with ideas and beliefs that once were true, but no longer reflect what you truly want or where you need to go.

Need help developing your key messages?

An fresh perspective can be useful when clarifying your organization’s key messages. To set up a time to talk about your marketing needs, please send me an email, or better yet, complete the Project Planning Worksheet to get started.

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