Nonprofit Content Strategy: 11 Tips and Steps to Consider

Let’s play some word-association: When I say NPR, you say…
Did I hear NPR News? Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me? This American Life? Serial? Tiny Desk Concerts? Chances are if you (like me) are a proud tote-bag-carrying supporter of public radio, you got that tote bag because you wanted to support a specific show or site section or podcast that falls under National Public Radio’s auspices.
So what if I were to ask you what NPR’s mission statement is? Something about creating content or reporting news, right?
Wrong.

The mission of NPR, in partnership with its member stations, is to create a more informed public, one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas, and culture within the United States and across the globe.”

Content isn’t the mission of NPR, but it is the vehicle that they use to achieve that mission. And sell tote bags.
Consider this the next time you pull up a podcast or Google Ira Glass, and then consider how content can be used as part of your nonprofit’s strategy. Perhaps you have a solid content strategy already, or maybe you’re figuring out where to start. Perhaps you think the last thing you’ll ever do with your time is create content and you don’t want to hear me talk about how a social impact editorial strategy can move the needle forward on causes. That’s fine; you can click out of this article and onto 10 hours of Jeff Goldblum purring.
Come for the content, stay for the Jeff Goldblum ASMR. It's the nonprofit guide to content strategy. Click To Tweet
Oh, wait, that’s playing right into Vice’s content strategy… Instead of that, or maybe with the dulcet ASMR purrs of Jeff Goldblum in the background, learn how you can build a seamless and successful content strategy within your organization.  

1. Make sure your content is being built on a solid foundation

Any of the following advice around content strategy will be useless if your website is in poor technical SEO health. Run a crawl on your website through a service like Moz (which offers a 75% discount to nonprofits) or Screaming Frog to identify any critical errors on your site, such as 404 errors or duplicate content. These are the kinds of issues that Google and other search engines will penalize your site for, thereby making them less likely to pay attention to the key stories of impact or educational resources you’re sharing.
You can also check out your site health in Google Search Console. Make sure to look at site speed and mobile-friendliness as these elements become more and more vital to the mobile experience.

2. Understand what’s working — and what isn’t

Once you’ve addressed any technical SEO issues, you can move into seeing how people currently interact with your website. What are the top landing pages? What pages on your website are serving as the front-door for users? Are these the pages you even want to be your users’ first introduction to your organization and your digital presence?
Once you know what’s working, build on the bright spots. In the time that we’ve worked with Power Poetry, one content audit we conducted using Google Analytics showed that some of the search terms leading users to the site were phrases like how to write an ode poem. This wasn’t content that Power Poetry offered at the time, but since their goal was to grow their database of teen poets, we could intuit using demographics tracking in GA that the user was a teenager most likely searching for this type of a long-tail keyword because they had an assignment for school. What better way to meet users on their level by helping them do their work (or homework) more effectively, and then asking them if they’d like to join the Power Poetry community to get feedback on their poems from their peers?
Power Poetry’s how-to articles now cover a wide swath of poetic forms, and have led to pages like 5 Tips for Slam Poetry to be some of the website’s top content. They’ve also helped to grow the database to over 500,000 users.
 

3. Define your site content sections

When we talk about content strategy with clients, many of them think this means they have to start a blog or build out an entirely new site section. Blogs can be effective means of writing, publishing, and organizing content (just don’t share photos from your staff retreat — nobody wants to see those). However, if that’s not relevant to your organization or something you have the bandwidth to maintain, not a big deal.
If you think your organization blog is the place to share photos from your staff retreat, you need this guide to content strategy for social impact. Click To Tweet
What are the main questions your organization exists to answer? What are the questions your supporters ask the most often? These can be the basis for creating key landing pages that serve as evergreen, timeless resources that don’t need to be tied to a publication date or news cycle.
In our work with the National Aphasia Association, we’ve seen their traffic grow by 900% in part through a content strategy that focuses on the fundamental information for raising awareness around aphasia: Its types, symptoms, and treatments. These correspond with pages that NAA now ranks for in the #1 spot in Google searches. While there was some initial legwork around getting these pages written, edited, and published, they now pay for themselves in organic traffic and lead acquisition.
 

4. Do some competitive research

Yes, yes, we’re all friends in the nonprofit sector and there is no such thing as competition. Except that there totally is—especially on the Internet and especially in search engine rankings. That’s where some (friendly) competitive research comes in.
Look at the organizations working in the same space as you, whether they’re directly competing for your donor base or catering to an adjacent sector within your cause. For an organization like Crisis Text Line, you may even be able to look at your partner organizations to better understand how they’re providing content to their users. Crisis Text Line is unique in its work in that they serve as text-based counseling to those in crisis — whether that crisis is an anxiety attack, suicidal ideation, or being bullied at work or school.
Crisis Text Line also works with a number of organizations that support specific crises, including To Write Love on Her Arms (which focuses on addiction, depression, self-injury, and suicide), the It Gets Better Project (which provides support to LGBTQ youth), or the National Eating Disorders Association. We could start to look at the resources these websites provide since there’s some crossover with Crisis Text Line’s larger “umbrella” of counseling and education to see how they’re presenting that content and even which keywords they’re indexing for. Then we can plan to meet them on the front page of Google.  
If you’re stuck for ideas because you don’t have a robust competitor or colleague pool — or if they don’t have much in the way of content — you can think outside of the nonprofit box. For instance, the nonprofit Sojourners, which works at the intersection of faith and social justice (and publishes a monthly magazine) could look at other publications that focus on religion and current affairs. Part of this is understanding what these outlets — in the case of Sojourners, we could look at Mother Jones or Tikkun magazine or even websites like On Being or the School of Life — write. But the other side of the coin is to see how they present it. Publications are angling even further on the frontlines for SEO, so seeing how they adapt their digital content to meet users online versus in print can be an enlightening experience.
 

5. Make sure the center will hold

The center here being your keywords. Google (and all other search engines in its wake) crawls the Internet and indexes the web’s information by scanning both links and keywords that it deems to be central to the content they represent. Moz is once again a handy tool here, allowing us to understand how popular our intended keywords are, how difficult it is to land on the front page of Google search results, and the average click-through rate for search results related to that keyword. Plus they provide an aggregate Priority score that’s helpful for… well… prioritizing our keywords.
The center may not hold, but your keywords should. #rulesofcontentstrategy Click To Tweet
When working with keywords in content, you’ll want to use that keyword in the body of the text (though not so many times that it seems un-human — Google can tell if you’re trying to stuff the proverbial ballot box), as well as in the headline, one H1 header tag, the URL, the meta description, and especially in the first paragraph. It’s also a good idea to use synonyms related to that keyword: As Google becomes more semantically intelligent, it’s starting to make associations between phrases like “SEO for nonprofits” and “nonprofit SEO,” or even less-strictly related terms like “content strategy for nonprofits” and “editorial calendar.”
If you have to choose between spending more time writing the piece or finding the ideal keyword to build the piece around, go with the keyword.

6. Consider the front page of Google against your keywords

This happens to me at least once a month: I find a keyword that seems like the ideal keyword to index a client site against. It has a high click-through rate, high monthly search volume, and seemingly low difficulty for beating out the current Top 10.
Cue the record scratch.
The way we use keywords internally may not be how the rest of the internet uses those keywords. This is especially true for acronyms which can mean a whole number of things — many of which may be the last thing you want to have associated with your website. What’s more, this becomes a fool’s errand trying to bend the search term to your content.
Google is also a good barometer for figuring out, if the keyword is a fit for your site, how the top content is talking about it. In working with the Stanford Social Innovation Review, for example, we wanted to understand how their piece around social entrepreneurship looked compared to the rest of Google’s front page. Most of the related searches focused their titles around defining social entrepreneurship or explaining the concept — which meant that SSIR’s piece, Social Entrepreneurship: The Case for Definition, fit right in. Had they been looking to write a piece about social entrepreneurship for puppies that could index around the keyword “social entrepreneurship,” they may have had a harder time.

7. Don’t stress SEO when you’re writing

We learn the rules of SEO so that we know how it works, not to have them keep us up at night worrying whether or not the keyword is placed exactly at the front of the title or used verbatim in the URL (that’s especially not helpful if your keyword includes stop-words like a, an, or the).
Whereas baking is an exact science (and seemingly a talent that is universal in the UK) that can spell disaster if you don’t use an exactly leveled-off teaspoon of baking powder in your soufflé, SEO is more of a recipe for stew. You know the basic components you’ll need, but you can also make substitutions with impunity, add more paprika, use less water, and at the end of the day you’ll still have a satisfying meal. What’s more, it’s painfully obvious when you try to play too close to the SEO rules, and may backfire against your user engagement.
The first rule of SEO? Don't stress SEO. Click To Tweet
Content should first and foremost be useful. Write for your humans, and optimize for the robots. And know that how your humans behave on your site and engage with your content will also serve as optimization for your robots.

8. Remember the Curse of Knowledge

As mentioned in point 6, the way we talk about things is not how others will talk about those things. Anyone who has ever lived in New York and given directions — or who has visited New York and asked for directions — will have experiential understanding of the Curse of Knowledge. It’s unclear to the direction-giver why this tourist doesn’t understand intuitively how to get to Broadway and Lafayette from Canal and Greene (and that doesn’t even require a subway ride which is next-level Curse of Knowledge!). Meanwhile, the person who asked for directions is thinking a 10-minute walk will take them the next decade of their life.
Google Trends is a good resource to consult to understand how (and how often) users talk about your topics. For instance, with the Lung Cancer Foundation of America, we’ve worked with them on prioritizing resources for the various types of lung cancer based on both Google Trends data and CDC data. This has helped to create an order of operations. With the National Aphasia Association, there are several ways to refer to different types of aphasia. So do we call it “Broca’s aphasia” or “non-fluent aphasia”? How users refer to it outside of the organization can provide a lot of context for how we can meet them on their level.

9. Plan in advance

Anyone who has worked in publishing can tell you that, if they’re on staff at a monthly magazine, Christmas comes sometime in the summer. This is so that the content is ready and available by the time the rest of the world starts to think about Santa and sugar plums (or Festivus poles and the airing of grievances… #differentstrokes). Similarly, indexing in Google — especially on Google’s front page — takes time. Usually 2 weeks is the minimum to see any movement in search engine rankings unless you’re in the world of breaking news (as we can see with the New York Times or CNN).
Whole Whale’s own piece on Giving Tuesday ideas, which brings us a steady influx of traffic each year between Halloween and the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, was written in March. Wegot a head start because we knew we’d need time to cultivate our search rankings in order to be at the head of the class by the time nonprofit professionals started to think about their end-of-year campaigns.
Use an editorial calendar to plan out your content once a quarter, or track it in a service like Airtable if you have a lot of irons in the fire. It may look odd at first to talk about a winter holiday in the summer, but SEO is the digital example of the tortoise and the hare: Slow and steady wins the race.

10. Share, share, and re-share

This is one step many publications forget to do, and it’s crucial to see the hard work you put into writing your content really pay off. In fact, estimates around content from newsrooms like the New Yorker and the Times show that 50% of your efforts in content strategy should go to sharing and re-sharing your content over time. Consider holidays and hashtag-observances on social media, anniversaries or birthdays for related topics or subjects, or come up with your own theme: Perhaps every Friday you share a blog post that’s a listicle or focuses on good news or talks about one area of your organization’s impact or one country you work in.
Check out social media profiles for publications like the Paris Review, which is constantly sharing the same archival pieces, while also A/B testing different captions to go with them. Perhaps it’s a quote from the author, perhaps it’s a contextualizing question. M+R Benchmarks have shown that, over the past few years, the organic reach of a nonprofit’s posts on social media is roughly 7% of their audience. That means you have plenty of opportunity to reach the other 93% with thoughtful re-shares — and are losing out big-time if you post it once, never to be discussed again.  

11. Give your content an annual checkup

Search engines want to deliver fast, accessible, and relevant results to users — emphasis on relevant. If you’re publishing data that is refreshed year after year, keep updating the existing piece you have to build that one page’s authority over time. You can keep older data on an archive page — or remove it entirely if it’s no longer relevant and fold past insights into the context of your current analysis.
Part of the SEO game is monitoring your pieces to see how they perform over time in search results, making tweaks and edits that amount to directing traffic and can be done in just a few minutes when done correctly. Yet for 10 minutes’ worth of work, the pay-off in organic traffic — and, ultimately, goal completions — can be huge.

Where to next?

Dive deeper with Whole Whale University. Check out our course on Building Better Traffic: Content Marketing + SEO to Drive Impact and walk away with clear steps to immediately implement, track, and measure a content marketing strategy at your organization.