A Very Quick (But Not At All Dirty) Guide to Budgeting for Program Communications

Expand your reach. Impress donors.

We get it. Your program promotion efforts consistently fall short of expectations, and you want to do more effective outreach. Here’s how to fix it: you need a way to reach potential program participants, and using communications effectively is one of the best ways to raise awareness of your programs and services. Communications may seem like an afterthought, secondary to ensuring your programs actually run effectively and address defined needs. But, increasingly, donors view communications as necessary to mounting a proper outreach effort. In fact, the Center for Nonprofit Management (CNM) notes: “… integrating communications into overall program planning (and related grant requests) demonstrates a sophisticated, holistic approach to realizing your mission.” Use our tips to develop communications that lead to:

  • Better outreach efforts
  • Less mission drift
  • Programs that ultimately serve your most important stakeholders: your audiences

Understand Communications

Program communications activities can consist of so much more than developing and distributing print materials or slapping social media content online. As outreach efforts have become more multifaceted, there are a number of ways to diversify program promotion efforts with digital marketing, data-driven research, and just generally developing a more complex social media strategy. (Need help with developing a forward-facing and inclusive program communications plan? Discuss your ideas with a consultant.)

Where to Include Communications in Your Program Budget

Historically, the not-for-profit industry has been uncomfortable with anything resembling sales or advertising activities. You probably already know why. It’s because many institutional funders have chosen to give only restricted funds — which excludes overhead, marketing, and other “indirect” expenses. This legacy approach usually led organizations to take one of two paths:

  1. Use a small bit of strategic reallocation. Set aside money for “communications-adjacent” expenses, such as program materials, or use funds from the direct costs category to supply promotion expenses.
  2. Completely underestimate exactly how much money is needed for a meaningful, well-designed communications plan, and instead budgeted only for direct program-related expenses.

These kinds of approaches are no longer needed — you can make a separate line item for communications in your program budget. Your organization can also apply for funding strictly for communications support. As the Center for Nonprofit Management states, ” … support for communications should be built into your grant requests as a matter of course.” CNM continues, “[b]y ensuring communications is a core function across your organization, you will position your organization as a far more attractive and strategic investment in the eyes of funders.”

Use Our Template

While there’s no one-size-fits-all template to follow regarding planning your program communications budget, we recommend the following approach:

  • STEP 1: Determine the percentage of your organizational budget that is dedicated to communications. For example, let’s say you’ve devoted 10% of your overall organizational budget to communications and marketing expenses.
  • STEP 2: Take that same figure (i.e. 10%) and apply it to your budget for individual programs. In other words, when making a budget for an individual program, make a line item for communications that consists of 10% of the overall program budget.

Voilà, you’re done! With that line item added to your proposal, you’ll be taking the first step to creating innovative, audience-focused program communications. Easier than you thought, right?