31 ways for nonprofits to save money on communications

flickr/Daniel Y. Go

flickr/Daniel Y. Go

If you’re really chafing under 2009 budget constraints, try this exercise.

List all your communications projects for the rest of this budget year and prioritize each from the standpoint of how important it is in meeting your strategic communications objectives. Eliminate the bottom 20% of that list.

It may seem drastic, but it also might surprise you how little effect it has on your communications impact. There’s never been a better time to cut programs and products that don’t contribute significantly to your end goals. It can give you extra time and money to focus on more effective tactics.

Below are some other ways you can squeeze impact from a smaller budget. But first, a word of caution.

You’re top priority is always effectiveness. If you find cheap paper but it doesn’t do what you need it to do, or you find an internal staff member who can take photos but they aren’t high quality–those savings are not really savings. The goal is to explore small ways of cutting costs without lessening the impact of your communications. Keep that in mind as you look over this list of ideas.

  • Cut down on meeting time. Free your staff up to get more work done so you have to outsource less. Eliminate most information-sharing meetings by using other kinds of internal communication. Meet only when you need a decision or action.
  • Hold your staff accountable for managing their budgets. Monitor slippage and tie it to performance review.
  • Attack all areas of cost, not just what you spend out-of-pocket. Look at internal staffing/overhead costs, and ask the tough question: Would I better off outsourcing this function?
  • Curb your enthusiasm. Do what you absolutely need to do well. Then—only if you have extra time and money—take on new projects. This is a time to think about what you can take off your plate, not what you can add.
  • Find volunteers, unpaid interns, or short-term lower-paid staff to keep up with the daily routine of maintaining relationships and accurate contact data, and doing follow-up tasks. Once the routine has been explained, these workers shouldn’t require a lot of supervision.
  • Cull and update your mailing lists. You cannot believe how much postage you’ll waste if you don’t. Add “address service requested” to the mailing label of one of your newsletters (or another mailer) to improve the accuracy of your list.
  • Be ruthless about which publications you really need to produce. Don’t rely on: “We’ve always done it this way.”
  • Eliminate some of your printed publications and publish online PDFs instead, to save on printing and mailing.
  • Group print jobs together to save on press time. This means you have to plan in advance.
  • Have your printer/designer analyze everything from paper stock and size to number of halftones and colors to see if you can shave costs.
  • For important publications, ask your designers to try to leverage free or discounted paper from paper companies.
  • Take your own digital photos and video. There are plenty of online sources that can teach you to do this well. (My Thursday blog post this week will give you some resources for this.)
  • Use free online stock photos. (See my April 16 post for sources.)
  • Can you eliminate a conference or workshop and replace it with a less expensive webinar?
  • Ask your board members if they know printing or design vendors who might offer discounts or even pro bono work to your nonprofit.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel unless you have to. Adapt the great ideas of others (but absolutely no plagiarism!) There are many places online to find design inspirations for all kinds of communications.
  • Instead of attending professional conferences, make use of free professional development opportunities online in the field of communications (webinars, blogs, etc.).
  • Use every free tool you can get on the internet—photo and audio editing tools, jargon finders, Web site analytics, PitchEngine, Google Docs, SlideShare, JS-Kit, and much more. (For ideas, select “freetools” on the ImpactMax tagcloud. I highlight a new free tool every Thursday.)
  • If you’re still using a clipping bureau to track media coverage of your organization, use free online Google alerts instead. Set up alerts for your organization’s name and acronym, your CEO’s name, and other top executives’ names. You can also set up temporary alerts for special keywords related to your media relations tactics.
  • If you’re considering using a low-cost, online vendor for emails, enewsletters, teleconferences, or webinars, be sure to take advantage of the free trials they offer to test their services.
  • Small nonprofits may want to put wish lists for in-kind contributions in their newsletters (e.g., perfectly working electronics like digital cameras, video cams, printers, etc. and new office supplies—whatever is needed).
  • If you need a quick, low-cost design, consider 99 designs, where you can hold a little online contest for a project.
  • Talk to instructors at local colleges offering design courses to see if you can make the design of one of your major publications into a class assignment or contest. This takes advance planning to give instructors enough time to prepare. Be sure you control the final decision.
  • Talk to journalism or creative writing program graduate program directors to explore what kind of talented writing interns you might be able to place with your organization.
  • Cut spending on special events and galas. Think about lower cost events that have more of a programmatic context.
  • Do more fundraising through email than higher cost direct mail. (But make it permission based.)
  • Use free Web 2.0 media as alternatives to traditional paid communication channels. But remember, while they’re free, these media take staff time and thoughtful planning to use well.
  • Use email news releases rather than printed snail mail. You save on paper, printing, and postage, and reporters prefer email.
  • Explore partnerships with businesses related to your issues or in your geographic area. They can sponsor events, underwrite publications and advertising, etc. But know they will want recognition in return.
  • Leverage your staff expertise. Encourage staff members to publish articles and accept speaking engagements to help you raise your organization’s visibility.
  • Network, network, network. Partner and collaborate to cut costs. Share video cams. Share webmasters. Share copywriters.

What cost-saving ideas would you add to this list?

Thanks to LinkedIn contributors Janet de Acevedo Macdonald, Bridget Bevis, Jonathan Carter, Jill Eckhoff-King, Elizabeth Flynn, Jeffrey Kramer, Randy Milanovic, and Ed Peabody. Their smart ideas are part of this list.

CC photo credit: Daniel Y. Go



3 Responses to “31 ways for nonprofits to save money on communications”

  1. Mr. Google Alerts Says:

    Cutting back on paid clipping services with Google Alerts makes a lot of sense, but you have to be careful that you aren’t costing yourself more in wasted time. Google Alerts can deliver a lot of irrelevant results, if you aren’t careful about how you set up your results. I just wrote a recent blog post with some tricks for increasing the relevance of your searches that your readers might find helpful:


  2. amy's brand buzz Says:

    There are some terrific ideas in here. The one I would slightly revise is the idea of using volunteers, unpaid interns or lower-paid personnel to handle “maintaining relationships.” It really depends what’s involved in that task for your nonprofit and who you bring in to help. Retirees and people “in between jobs,” of which there are many right now, can be great. But both will require training not only in the task at hand, but in your goals and mission and will need ongoing supervision. For more info on how to ensure volunteers maintain your brand consistently, see my blog post @ http://amydelouise.wordpress.com/2009/02/17/volunteers-and-brand-consistency/

  3. Cutting Nonprofit Communication Costs | Poke the Beehive Says:

    […] consultant Gayle Thorsen at IMPACTMAX had a great post recently on how nonprofits can cut their communication costs. The key takeaway is that you can save […]

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