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How to Create an Organizational Style Guide

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Published May 18, 2015 Reading Time: 4 minutes

We often think of voice and style as innate qualities, hard to define but you know it when you see it. This is why some people are hesitant to create a style guide for their business or organization. Others hesitate because they just don’t need another task added to their to-do list.

But an organizational style guide can be a valuable resource when it comes to marketing and branding your nonprofit. It’s also especially helpful when you’re growing and you need to get new staff and volunteers up to speed.

Style guides help organizations present themselves in the way they want to be seen and they help your staff represent the organization appropriately. To get started, learn the why behind style guides, how to define your nonprofit’s style, and what to include in your guide.

Why You Need a Style Guide

Consistency is the overarching goal of a style guide. The point is to make sure everyone representing your organization is on the same page. You’ll notice that big organizations (both nonprofit and for-profit) are consistent in the way they present themselves. Consistency conveys a measure of professionalism and preparation.

Furthermore, using the same imagery and language in your marketing and communications is important to building and strengthening your brand. Remember, your brand is your identity in the public’s mind. It’s what people think of when they think of your organization. Every email, ad, appeal, and social media post contributes to the way your nonprofit is perceived. Establishing guidelines for communications is vital for maintaining your brand.

Creating a documented style guide for your nonprofit allows every staff member (and volunteer, if you choose) to speak, write, and promote your organization the right way. It can also save time by giving staff members a resource for stylistic decisions. No more endless email chains asking “how do we usually do this?”

Finding Your Style

The first step to creating an organizational style guide is clarifying how you want to present yourself to people. You can begin by gathering any documents or communications that you feel truly represent your brand. These communications will be helpful in setting guidelines and offering examples in your guide.

A style guide can be as simple or detailed as you like, but here are some of the most common and valuable sections to include.

  • Voice – How does your organization speak to the public? Are you serious? Playful? Do you reference pop culture or stick to more traditional touchstones?These are some of the questions you can ask. Essentially, you want to document the type of personality you want to exude. If your nonprofit tries to come off as a research authority in your field, for example, your diction will be different than if you wanted to come off as funny and approachable.
  • Terminology – Many cause sectors have their own terminology and many organizations have preferred terms for their own strategies and initiatives. Your style guide can be the authority on how your nonprofit talks about itself and the issues.Many LGBT organizations now use the phrase “marriage equality” instead of “gay marriage,” successfully changing the public dialogue to focus on similarity as opposed to difference. This is the type of terminology choice that is often settled by a style guide.Think about which terms your organization uses to influence the conversation around your cause.
  • Format – While how to convey a nonprofit’s voice might be open to interpretation, formatting rules can be relatively cut and dry. What font does your organization use for most communications? What colors do you use?This is where you can set more design-related rules. It’s also a good idea to choose a main literary style guide for blogs and impact stories. These external writing guides will settle questions of punctuation and text formatting. Some of the most popular are the AP Stylebook, MLA Handbook, and APA style.
  • Style for Specific Communications – In many cases, small organizations will be able to use one set of guidelines for most communications. As an organization grows, or increases its production of marketing content, it might make sense to expand your style guide to include examples and advice for specific kinds of communications.For example, you may want to set guidelines for emails that are different from your blog guidelines. Perhaps one is more formal than the other. Meanwhile you may have a different tone on Twitter than you do on LinkedIn or Facebook.

Some General Tips

  • Aim for simplicity and clarity in all your communications.
  • Emphasize to your staff and volunteers that plagiarism is unacceptable. If necessary, provide information on how to properly quote and attribute ideas.
  • In your style guide, it’s helpful to include links to resources such as dictionaries and your chosen literary style guide.

Creating an organizational style guide can seem like a big undertaking, but remember that you can start small and add to it as you go. Your style guide is a living document and can grow and adapt over time. Start by simply documenting the brand and voice your nonprofit is seeking to put forth. From there you can add preferred terms, formatting guidelines, and more.

The point of a style guide is not to stifle individual speakers, but to help each member of an organization contribute to and support the organization. Creating an organizational style guide helps your nonprofit present itself in a professional, united way.

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