What the right communications staff can do for you
“Communications” and “marketing” are not always defined in clear and useful terms, nor are they well understood as functions within many nonprofits. Here’s our definition: Communications is the consistent practice of establishing and maintaining connections with people on behalf of the organization.
I know what you’re thinking: Many people within your organization should build meaningful relationships with your primary audiences.
Absolutely! Everyone in your organization, regardless of how large or small you are, or what your mission is, should think of themselves as a communicator.
However, in most organizations, communicating ends up being mostly job-related (development staff will connect with your donors, programs staff with your clients, etc). Only your communications staff (or your executive staff, if you’re too small for dedicated comms people) can help weave together all the messages and voices, and help your organization craft something cohesive and compelling.
Here are a few recommendations for organizations trying to build a strong communications function in-house to advance the mission in ways that go beyond day-to-day tactics.
Avoid decentralized communications. In many organizations, each department or program maintains its own lists and sends emails or other messages. While that saves the work of coordinating with others, it creates new challenges internally and externally. Without coordination, one individual can receive multiple messages from the same organization -- perhaps on the same day -- shaping a perception that the organization is too noisy, disorganized, or overwhelming.
The decentralized approach can leave your target audiences feeling lost, disinterested, or just plain put off when we’d rather they notice, connect, and engage more deeply. No wonder open rates on emails declined 7 percent in 2016. Engagement increases with more coordination, fewer messages, and a clear expression of the “big picture.”
Improve learning organization-wide. When data isn’t shared internally through organization-wide dashboards, metrics that help determine what’s working, and consistent standards, lessons and information that might benefit multiple departments gets lost. If nobody’s able to review or consider the big picture, “buckshot communications” become the norm.
Create a cohesive experience of your organization. Strategic and regular communications practices -- not just the tactical, reactive creation of material -- create an experience that connects audiences with the organization as a whole. One key aspect of that is defining the organization’s overarching voice, which includes planning out and implementing its ongoing communications. Going from siloed communications to one organizational voice represents a big shift in culture, requiring (for starters) seniority, trust, and the right tools.
Hire experienced communications staff. If communications is to establish and grow relationships, it must be a collaborative and mature department, trusted by other departments. If senior staff don’t feel that the communications team helps them reach people and achieve their department’s goals, they’ll see the communications team as an obstacle. That’s most likely to occur when the department is staffed by people with little professional communications and nonprofit expertise.
Think about hiring for seniority and maturity to inspire respect in the eyes of your development, programs, and other staff. Hiring communications staff with less expertise, or giving them less authority within an organization, sets them up to be order-takers, rather than strategic partners and allies.
Build interest, mindshare, and engagement. Again, everyone in your organization should be in the relationship-building business. Staff in programs, advocacy, or development often focus on the highest-value relationships: major donors, deeply active clients, etc. The communications team can help them by cultivating and stewarding relationships that aren’t on the front burner. I often think of it this way: Communications staff chum the waters so other departments can go fishing. To do this, communications staff must continually work with other departments to help them build interest in and curiosity about your organization’s work, capture and build mindshare (where branding is often helpful), and cultivate new ways to connect and engage.
Sarah Durham is CEO of nonprofit communications firm Big Duck.