Create a Style Guide for Your Nonprofit – Avoid Audience Confusion

There’s never enough time when you’re getting communications out the door. But when two different spellings of the same word (both correct) are used in a membership drive, or the way your nonprofit is described varies from letter to letter within the drive, or your logo appears in different colors and different sizes in different places, your audience will be confused. The answer? Clearly defined style standards published in a style guide.

The problem

Due to the ubiquitous nature of advertising and promotion, we are all bombarded by communications. Facing this quagmire, you’re making it difficult for your audience to recognize, at a glance, that all of your communications are coming from your organization. Remember, we are all scanners these days.

Furthermore, those who recognize that these divergent communications are coming from you are not likely to think much of your organization or your sloppy communication effort.

Consistency is the key for your audiences to absorb your messages and for them to “whisper along the way”, repeating those messages to others. No other form of communication is as powerful as this natural network.

A style guide is a long-term solution

An easy way to ensure clear and consistent communications is to create a two- or three-page layout and editorial style guide. Everyone needs to be on the same page when it comes to getting the word out. The standards presented in your style guide will make it easy for them to do so.

A style guide will also make it unnecessary for you and your colleagues to reinvent the wheel each time, saving you a great deal of effort.

Action plan

Here’s a step-by-step plan approach to putting together or updating your style guide.

  • Spread sample communications in front of you, including the print pages of your website and your email newsletter.
  • Write down the standards that work best in the following areas. Keep your audience in mind when you do this. You will want information from communications staff or consultants.

Traditionally, style guides covered punctuation and spelling. I suggest you expand this concept to include graphic guidelines and key messages. In this way, you have a single point of reference to shape your communications.

  • Logo: Size; colors; position on the page; what elements should be included when using the logo.
  • Colors: Official colors, with exact Pantone numbers if possible (Pantone is a color numbering system used by designers and printers), and notes on how those colors should be used.
  • Words that should not be used.
  • Word style preferences (eg, website vs. website, grantmaking vs. grantmaking).
  • The title of the published grammar style guide your group uses: Communicate the title of the guide your writers should follow when deciding whether or not to insert that trailing comma, or select the correct preposition to follow the parallel word (to or with). ).

Check out these titles, talk to colleagues, and select one if you haven’t already. The best picks are:

  1. The Associated Press Style Guide
  2. The Chicago Manual of Style
  3. Words in type.

  • Talking Points for Staff and Board: Key messages that briefly cover the who, what, when, where, and how of your group, and how they should be incorporated into most communications.
  • Positioning statement: The two or three sentences that establish your position in the philanthropic world and how it should be included, together, in most communications.
  • Font (for example, all newsletter headlines are in Times Roman Bold, 14 pt.).

Put your style guide to work

Your next step is to distribute the guide and make sure staff and consultants are clear about its content. Remember to add to your guide on an ongoing basis as questions arise and preferences are determined.