Editorial style guide or brand book, whatever you call it, your nonprofit will benefit from written documentation about how the content you create should look and sound.
The Types of Nonprofit Style Guides
Cheat Sheets: Maybe you just need a simple one- or two-pager summarizing the most important points you want everyone to implement.
Style Guide: This is a middle-of-the-road option that most nonprofits follow. They are typically 10-20 pages long.
The Brand Book: This is a complete guide often with very detailed directions and lots of examples that can run up to 100 pages.
We have a free Style Guide Starter Worksheet available to anyone in our community. You can sign up here, navigate to the “Free Worksheets and Templates” space, scroll down to “Key 5: Brand Consistency and Management,” and find the worksheet.
Nonprofit Graphic Design Style Guide
Here’s what goes into a nonprofit graphic design style guide:
- Color Palettes
- Other Graphic Elements
- Formatting Guidelines
We have more advice on creating design style guides here and here.
Nonprofit Editorial Style Guide
This guide is all about the words and usually takes up more pages than a style guide.
Your editorial style guide should contain a word list that shows how you will use, format, and spell certain words.
- When do you spell out numbers? Under 10 or 100?
- Do you hyphenate certain words or not? Is it email or e-mail? Decision-maker or decisionmaker? Fundraising or fund-raising?
- How do staff’s proper names appear in print? Robert or Bob? Middle initial or not?
What about preferred terminology? For example, do you ask people in email and on your website to “click” on a menu option, or “select” it, or “choose” it? When you save something does a “window” appear, or a “box” or a “pop up”?
You should also include rules about abbreviations, capitalization, acronyms, formatting, and anything else related to how words, numbers, and punctuation appear in your publications.
- Do you use periods in acronyms or not, such as USA or U.S.A.? Washington, D.C. or Washington, DC?
- Formatting phone numbers: use parentheses around the area code or not?
- Formatting email addresses: all lower case or are capital letters OK?
- Formatting website addresses: include the http:// and www. or not? What about capital letters?
- Formatting numbered lists: 1. and 2. or 1) and 2)
- The serial comma: dogs, cats, and birds or dogs, cats and birds
- When should you and shouldn’t you use italics, bold, and underline for emphasis? (Hint: never use underline online unless it’s a link!)
But a word of caution: Don’t turn into the Style Police where that isn’t necessary. It’s important to know the difference between undisputed rules of grammar and punctuation and questions of personal style. Where you do have choices, like those I’ve outlined above, decide what you like and stick to it. Consistency is your goal. Strongly encourage everyone in your organization to go along, but don’t go overboard. Pick your battles.
In our worksheet, you’ll find space for these sections. Some will be more or less important to you, depending on your nonprofit’s mission.
- Tone and Style
- Word Choice
- A to Z Word List
- Common Mistakes
- Abbreviations and Acronyms
- Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation Guidelines
- Cities, States, Regions
- Disease, Disability, Disorders, Mental Health
- Race and Ethnicity
- Accessibility Guidelines
- Procedures and Instructions
- Use of Jargon or Technical Terms
Finally, it’s also a good idea to include your boilerplate, or the proper wording of taglines, mission statements, and program titles and descriptions.
The Brand in Use
Include examples from as many of the different communications channels and types of communications pieces your organization creates as you wish.
I love guides that include “Do This” and “Dont’ Do This” sections, or Good, Better, Best examples. So much of style is hard to teach in the abstract and you can make your intent more clear with good examples. I think examples are especially important when trying to show others on staff how to convey voice, style, and tone.
Rely on Other Style Guides to Build Yours
You don’t need to include everything in your guide. Focus on what is most important and what is specific to your work. Pairing your guide with other venerable style guides can save you a lot of time. Those guides can become the arbiter of internal style disputes.
The Big Style Guides
Our recommendation: Pick just one of these as your tie breaker.
Chicago Manual of Style
CMOS Shop Talk is a great resource that often covers both Chicago and AP.
You might also like:
Buzzfeed Style Guide
Microsoft Style Guide
Specialty Guides (Many Are Written by Nonprofit Advocates, Often for Journalists)
Our recommendation: Cite these as sources for decisions in your own style guide, so that you can review and update language choices as these guides update their recommendations.
A Progressive’s Style Guide
Conscious Style Guide
Diversity Style Guide
APA General Principles for Reducing Bias
National Center on Disability and Journalism Style Guide
Trans Journalists Style Guide
Race Forward Reporting Guide
GLAAD Media Reference Guide
Global Press Journal Style Guide
International Council on Active Aging Style Guide
A11Y Project Style Guide
Mailchimp’s Guide to Writing for Accessibility
Nonprofit Style Guide and Brand Book Examples
Need some inspiration? Here is a very diverse list of organizations that share style guides online.
Médecins Sans Frontières
National Association of Broadcasters
Bibles for America
US Figure Skating
Austin Parks Foundation
Fort Worth Independent Schools District
The NPR Style Guide
Creating a nonprofit style guide takes time, but it will save you lots of time down the road. It’s worth the investment!