5 Communications Lessons Learned Working at an Anti-Poverty Nonprofit

By: Caroline Avakian

The United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are the world's targets for addressing extreme poverty in its many dimensions. The MDGs target date expires this year, and as we collaboratively build out new goals for the next 15 years, it will be critical that nonprofit communicators in the global development sector build on what we've learned as well. So it got me thinking about what some of my lessons learned were after almost five years working at Trickle Up --- an international organization that empowers people living on less than $1.25 a day to take the first steps out of poverty, providing them with resources to build sustainable livelihoods for a better quality of life.

Trickle Up is a small but dynamic organization that serves people at the very bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Founded in 1979, they have a long history of serving the poorest, a population that until recently had been ignored by governments and even many other poverty alleviation organizations. When I came to work for Trickle Up in 2008, as their Director of Communications, like any communications staffer, I was tasked to expand our message, our audiences and media opportunities.

Looking back on what the greatest returns were for our effort, I've made a list of the five communications tactics that helped us grow our communications as well as our organization in the almost five years I worked at Trickle Up.

1. Stay on message and repeat, repeat, repeat.

Whether it was at a conference, at the UN, or one-on-one, when anyone asked about Trickle Up, I was always sure to address that we worked exclusively with the ultra poor -- people living on less than $1.25 per day. There was something powerful and memorable about the consistency and repetitiveness of, "Are you working with the ultra poor", "Is this project also targeting the ultra poor?", "What can we do to make sure that the ultra poor are represented in this conversation?", that became key to keeping our beneficiaries in the forefront and made our participation more effective.

2. Twitter can help build communications partnerships that can grow a smaller organization's voice.

Committing ourselves to tweeting more strategically and targeting influencers, policy makers and mainstream media outlets, helped us raise awareness on global poverty and the ultra poor, and led to media partnerships like one with Huffington Post Impact, that helped bring our message into the mainstream.

3. Flashy websites are great but make sure you're also educating.

Everyone likes a beautifully designed website but make sure you're also doing your part to educate your audience on the issues your organization tackles. When I launched Trickle Up's revamped website in 2010, we had added an "Understanding Poverty" section front and center to make sure it was visible and not just secondary to our own programs. One piece of feedback that we heard consistently was that the website not only looked great but was also deeply informative. Educating people on the nuances of poverty was a main communications goal, and our website served as a resource and reference for many looking for information on people living on less than $1.25 per day.

4. Blogging and content sharing is key to growing your audience.

Once we started growing our blog and sharing our content with other organizations looking to publish similar content, we grew our readership exponentially. Sometimes we made the decision not to publish a blog post on our website blog, but rather on a partner site or media site that publishes interesting global development content. It was always worth the extra effort and introduced our organization to many new audiences and other organizations.

5. Growing your peer network is critical to your success.

Some nonprofit organizations view their peers as competitors and don't engage them as much as they could. When I came to Trickle Up, I knew that I wanted to expand our communications strategy to more actively engage our peers in our work. There are many ways to do that from a communications standpoint and make it interesting -- a blogging series with three different poverty alleviation organizations writing from their viewpoints, a tweetathon, or even just attending each other's events. You are not only growing your organization but taking your supporters on a more interesting, robust journey that ultimately engages them more effectively.

What's Next: Expanding our Global Communications Strategy

The United Nations Millennium Development Goals are the world's targets for addressing poverty, hunger, disease, lack of adequate shelter, and exclusion -- while promoting gender equality, education, and environmental sustainability. It provides a road map for how all countries could collaborate on the future of development and the ending of extreme poverty. That agreement, however, expires this year. As we build out new goals for the next 15 years, it will be critical that the targets benefit all people living in poverty. Equally important is that we ensure that we continue to improve on policies that enable their success and that keep governments accountable.

With that in mind, global development communications will now have an even greater task of engaging audiences in the important work ahead. Just as the MDG's are sustained through country partnerships and collaboration, the same could be said for strengthening and revitalizing our communications partnerships in organizations of all sizes and budgets, to ensure clarity, unity and power of messaging.

Caroline Avakian is an Emmy-nominated TV correspondent, communications strategist, and a social entrepreneur. She is the Managing Partner of Socialbrite, a leading social media for nonprofits consultancy and digital learning hub. In 2014, she founded SourceRise, an award-winning social enterprise and digital platform that connect journalists to on-the-ground expert sources during humanitarian crises.

Twitter Handle: @CarolineAvakian