The Nonprofit Marketing Blog

Style Guide Your Way to Recognition, Repeats, and Actions: Part One


Read Part Two


Keeping everyone on the same page is tough, especially when it comes to content and conversations.

Think about it: You’re asking your fundraising colleagues and other organizational messengers to write and speak in a consistent voice and an appropriate tone. On top of that, there’s the matter of making sure that branding, spelling, grammar, and look-and-feel flow consistently from one page or email to the next, as well as across programs and channels. That takes time, focus, and energy.

Same-paging it is a challenge! That’s why I’m a huge advocate of creating a comprehensive style guide for your messengers to use. It’s the most effective way I know to maintain a unified organizational presence across online and print content and conversations and to make it easier for your colleagues to spread the word in a clear and consistent way.

What’s a Style Guide?

A style guide is a set of ground rules for usage decisions, both editorial (spelling, sentence structure, tone, and more) and design (colors, fonts, and other elements).

The goal is to ensure that all of your messengers—whether that’s just you and five board members or 639 colleagues, 18 board members, and dozens of volunteers—are on the same page when it comes to how you say things. This includes grammar, spelling, capitalization, punctuation, fonts, and every other small but vital detail of content creation and conversation.

WIIFM: Why Add Creating a Style Guide to Your Overloaded To-Do List?

When your style guide is comprehensive, clear, and religiously used:

1. It serves as a shortcut to action—donating, registering, and more.

The clearest and most valuable result of adhering to a comprehensive style guide is increased actions from the people whose help you need to move your mission forward (that is, your supporters and prospects).

That’s because consistent content—impossible without a style guide—enables your audiences to recognize your organization in a flash and relate it to any previous interactions with you. It’s a shortcut to engagement—these folks are much more likely to listen or open—and therefore to action.

Keep in mind that this consistency must stay relevant and flexible—paradoxical but true. What’s on point and meaningful might change over time, or a particular channel, audience, or other factor might be radically different from the norm. When that happens, update your style guide.

2. It boosts the likelihood of your messages being remembered and repeated.

Repetition etches your content and visual identity in supporters’ memories. Being easy to recognize at a glance—“Oh, yeah, this is from the Community Food Bank”—and repeat means your supporters are more likely to spread that word to friends and family. No other outreach is as powerful as this natural network that exponentially extends your organization’s reach.

3. It saves time and decreases duplicated effort.

With a style guide, there’s no time wasted figuring out how to lay out a printed registration flier, punctuate a thank you letter or gala speech, or diplomatically revise your board chair’s letter in your annual report. Extend that time saved across your colleagues, and it really adds up!

4. It reduces frustration and conflict.

Your style guide will save more than time. Having a clear guide to expression—and that’s really what a style guide is—will prevent the frustration of being stalled by not knowing and then revising after you’ve worked so hard on something. You’ll also avoid the conflict inherent in “fixing” your colleagues’ content. Whew!

Instead, your style guide leads to clear sailing—a huge relief!

Begin by Outlining Your Editorial Guidelines

The primary purpose of editorial guidelines is to clarify writing standards specific to your organization that are not adequately covered in the established style bibles: the Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook.

In addition, your style guide summarizes your organization’s approach to its most frequently raised style questions—topics that aren’t dealt with in Chicago or AP—to provide your colleagues with a reference tool that’s more relevant and comprehensive (and therefore more likely to be used).

Questions of style, unlike many questions of grammar, usually have no right or wrong answer. Establishing a preferred style helps different colleagues, leaders, and even supporters consistently maintain your presentation across content and conversations.

Your editorial standards should include the following:

  • Spelling
  • Abbreviations and acronyms
  • Capitalization: Do you capitalize the names of your programs and services?
  • Word usage
    • Preferences: For example, Web site vs. website, grant making vs. grantmaking.
    • Words to avoid: Particularly helpful for guest bloggers.
  • Terminology: Is it Internet or internet? LGBTQ, LGBTQIA, or LGBTQQIAAP?
  • Sentence structure
  • Person
  • Tone: Academic, formal, chatty, warm, authoritative, sophisticated, etc.?
  • The title of your preferred style guide (see below): This gives your content creators non-organization-specific guidelines to follow when deciding whether to use the Oxford (aka serial or series) comma or selecting the right preposition to follow the word “parallel” (“to” or “with”). Most important, buy print or online copies for everyone who needs to use it!

Review these top two style guides, talk to colleagues, and select one if you haven’t already:

Next, Define Your Graphic Guidelines

Since the power of a strong visual identity can only be realized through consistent application, following these standards throughout your nonprofit communications is crucial.

Elements should include:

  • Logo: Specify size, color, page position, and what elements should be included when your logo is used.
    • If you provide multiple versions of your logo(s), clarify when each should be used.
    • Show examples of different ways the logo can and cannot be used.
    • Clarify what alterations are acceptable.
  • Color palette: A defined palette is one of the most important visual elements you have to work with. Consider the Red Cross: Would you clearly identify the organization if the cross were another color?
    • Select primary and secondary colors, ideally no more than four total.
    • Make sure your palette is distinctive (easily recognizable) but flexible enough to be used across platforms as needed.
    • Define each color by name and color value (CMYK for print, RGB and HEX for digital projects).
    • For example: Headlines are in Gooey Green. All body copy is in Blue Black.
  • Typefaces or fonts: List which fonts to use and where.
    • Include specifics, such as size, weight, and when to use underlining or italics. For example: All newsletter headlines are in Times New Roman, Bold, 14 point.
    • What kind of bullets should be used? How should numbered lists appear: 1, 1. or 1)?
  • Page layouts and templates
    • What elements should go in each type of communication, such as a program ad, postcard, brochure, website page, or e-news?
    • One nonprofit I work with places its logo and name at the top left corner of every single communication, both print and online. Another nonprofit moves those elements around in every single thing I get from them. Guess which one I recognize in a flash?
    • Provide templates for the most frequently used layouts to make it easier for colleagues to stay consistent.
  • Photo and image specifications and library
    • What are your guidelines for selecting photos and other images?
      • Are there any unacceptable types of imagery?
      • Is clip art acceptable?
      • Can images be purchased? If so, where and how?
      • What kinds of permissions are required?
    • How should images be presented and placed?
      • With a white margin and/or black border?
      • With credit or caption and, if so, where?
      • Always placed at left or somewhere else?
      • Should text wrap around images?
    • Accessibility standards—for example, when and how should alt text be used?

Use Examples Throughout to Make Guidelines Crystal Clear

No matter what standards you establish, they should be specific. What’s clear to you, especially if you create the guide, might not be clear to another user. Avoid misunderstandings by showing what you mean, such as in this editorial guideline:

Oxford (aka Serial or Series) Comma: In any sentence with a series of three or more items, use a comma after each item in the list, except the last.

  • Correct: Our generous donors, committed staff, and loyal volunteers are key to our impact.
  • Incorrect: Our generous donors, committed staff and loyal volunteers are key to our impact.

Or this graphic standard:

Graphic Standard


Clear explanations and relevant examples reduce questions from your colleagues and minimize inconsistencies in content and conversations. Double win!

Stay tuned for “Style Guide: Part Two,” with a style guide creation checklist, guidance on how to get people to use your guide, and links to examples of nonprofit style guides.

Does your organization use a style guide? If so, please share the link and/or how the guide has (or hasn’t) helped. If you don’t use one because you’re convinced the value isn’t there for your organization, I’d love to hear about that as well. Thanks!

Read Part Two

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About This Blog

Linda Lombardi
Content Manager

We’re here to help you win hearts and minds—and donations.

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