The 5 e’s of co-creating communications with community

Written by Michelle Baldwin, Executive Director, Pillar Nonprofit Network

Pillar, in true network style, leads with collaboration and co-creation even for its communications and branding. Our Pillar, Innovation Works, and VERGE Capital brands have all been co-created with our members, collaborators, network, and the community. Co-creation involves purposefully engaging those relationships in our network and sharing decision-making and power. Along the way we have learned how to co-create communications messages and branding that evolve, capture our essence, evoke energy and empathy, and embrace equity. We certainly do not always get this right, but are committed to continuing this work. Here are five key elements of co-created communications and branding.

1. Evolution

Brands evolve over time and organizations that endure understand they need to be flexible and adaptable to continue to meet their clients’ needs. When Pillar contemplated undergoing a rebrand in 2007, from a “Voluntary Sector Network” to a “Nonprofit Network”, we engaged our members to reflect on the brand equity attached to the Pillar name. Members ultimately defined the tone that led to our current conception and logo.

With the Innovation Works branding exercise, which was led by our founding partner, London Arts Council, along with a committee of community members and a depth of internal experience in the organization, we elected to develop a standalone brand because the project was driven by community. Today, Pillar is the operational backbone of this co-working space designed to foster social innovation, and also manages a Social Finance program, VERGE Capital, with the support of community partners in our region. With the expansion of our network to include nonprofits, social enterprises, co-tenants, and businesses we believe we can provide more value to our network by facilitating connections across our growing community. With this in mind, we are weaving the story of connection across our brands and sharing the broader scope of our work with members engaging with us through different avenues.

The evolution of our branding and communications strategy led Pillar to bring a Director of Impact and Storytelling onto our team, as we understand the direct and critical relationship between measuring our impact and sharing our story. Additionally, as our organization has grown to include staff clusters that operate within Pillar, Innovation Works, and VERGE Capital, we have introduced a cross-cluster communications committee where each cluster (team) is represented and contributes to developing our communications strategy, plan, and schedule. Since we are a lean organization without a communications department, everyone on our team is a content creator and storyteller.

2. Essence

When you co-create with community, in order to deliver something that really fulfills a need you should be sourcing the essence of community members’ ideas. Innovation Works took 8 years to develop, and we turned to co-creation and collaboration principles for many aspects of the project. We conducted a community survey to source potential names for the shared space, but discovered that we had asked the wrong question. Branding requires reflection to figure out who you are talking to, who your primary audiences are, what you want them to feel, think, or do, and what tone you are going for. We quickly realized that without the community fully understanding these components, the names they suggested were missing this vital context. We should have solicited their help in describing the essence of the brand. So we engaged in a proper branding process led by our communications committee and a professional communications company with a creative brief that led to our current brand. Finally we landed on a name that captured the essence of a space that would foster creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, and spark collaboration.

Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.

3. Empathy

Empathy has the power to strengthen community connection, and personal stories are one of the most effective ways to evoke emotion and empathy. Sharing stories that reveal a narrative of the journey, not just the final outcome, paints a picture and helps the audience connect to the story by eliciting moments of affinity through shared experience. The Pillar Community Innovation Awards is in its 13th year and we have shared 156 stories of local achievement with more than 7500 attendees since the program launched. Storytelling is at the core of this event; we honour individuals, organizations, and collaborations that are doing exceptional work to help create a more engaged, vibrant, and inclusive community. Storytelling is a powerful tool for change. Stories help us find the strength to continue putting in the work. They help us hear voices that might otherwise remain silent or silenced. Stories remind us that we are in service to one another and that at our core, we are resilient and strong.

4. Energy

Testing the user experience that your brand and communications messages provide for your audience will help you match your messaging to the energy you are going for. Customer journey mapping has helped Pillar and its subprograms better understand who our target audiences are so we can focus our efforts in the right places. Understanding the kind of energy your brand’s tone and vibe are evoking is essential to reaching your audiences and inspiring them to answer your call to action. Recently, we updated our communications plans to reflect the different tones and key messages Pillar, Innovation Works, and VERGE Capital deliver.

Another aspect of energy as it relates to communications is finding those bright minds who bring new ideas and resources to the organization. Pillar has harnessed the energy of many students from Western University & Fanshawe College over the years. They have conducted writing, research, media relations, communications planning, and evaluation of communications and storytelling for a number of our programs.

5. Equity

There are two main ways Pillar strives to achieve equitable representation in its communication of co-created initiatives. First, we believe that all communications materials should reflect the community. For every website or social media platform we manage, we strive to select photos, videos and language that reflect the diversity of the community. We have not always got this right and we stay open to feedback. For example, for our Be Inclusive Series, where we explored the diversity that makes up our community and the real stories that surround us, our communications were fluid in that we received so much constructive feedback that we needed to make changes multiple times. We were learning right along with the community. The second way we consider equity is by ensuring that communications reflect all partners in collaborative initiatives like VERGE Capital. This approach is about striving for equity, but is not always equal. For example, in a collaborative initiative you can suggest that media speak with all key collaborators, yet every medium will contact the players they think will bring the story to life for their audience. As a collaborative, we endeavor to have all the voices of a partnership heard but sometimes it is out of our control.

Nonprofits and social enterprises can harness the energy of community to co-create lasting and meaningful brands and communications. Without a doubt, telling stories is the single most persuasive tool that we have available to us. We can mobilize the ideas and resources we have to share the stories within our network as well as our own stories of impact.