Photo by Ryan Quintal on Unsplash
4 min Read
March 10, 2020

How does your nonprofit define communications?

Whether your organization is working to cure cancer, shelter or feed people, create safer streets, advocate for equality, or create change in another way, you’ve got a mission. A nonprofit’s mission is the fundamental reason it exists and defines the work it will do. Nonprofit missions help organizations move the needle on issues, change behaviors, change minds, and inspire action.

 In high-functioning nonprofits, the mission is visible, alive, and flourishing. Even when people can’t recite the mission statement verbatim, they understand the essence of the work, who it will help, and why it’s beneficial. 

 Most departments have clear mandates and fit together like puzzle pieces and clearly help advance the mission. Program staff bring the mission of a nonprofit to life through programs and services. Development advances the mission by raising money. Operations supports the rest of the organization’s work with infrastructure. Each has a specific audience (or audiences) that they must reach and engage.

 But if you ask ten different people to articulate the purpose of their communications or marketing team, you will get ten different answers. Most of those answers will be murky or focused solely on tactics and channels (“They’re the people who keep our website up to date” or “They’re the folks who make our brochures”). That’s because communications teams have varied and unique responsibilities in different organizations.

Communications is more like the shellac on the puzzle or its cardboard backing: intrinsic to the overall stability, reliability, and appearance of the whole organization, but not a neatly defined, separate puzzle piece on its own.

At the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice, communications largely supports advocacy and movement-building goals. Its small communications team works with bilingual media and community activists to elevate voices and advance the solutions that best serve their communities.

At the Healthy Materials Lab, communications is focused on educating architects and interior designers about the impact of toxic building materials. The comms team works in service of advancing core programs.

 At the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, communications supports fundraising by creating useful tools to engage donors with their mission and groundbreaking science.

 All these communications teams are working to advance the mission of their organization and shape how their issues are perceived, using whatever resources are available given their nonprofit’s unique size, structure, and needs — and they all do it a bit differently.

While many executive directors struggle to articulate what “great communications” means for their organization, they recognize its absence or failure. As I wrote in my new book, communications is an engine that helps power other essential functions of the organization: If it’s not working well, then programs, development, advocacy, and other mission-critical functions are likely to suffer.

 Our sector needs a clearer, more widely shared definition for how communications supports nonprofit missions. This definition should reflect how varied and interconnected with other departments communications can be. Here’s what I think it is:

Nonprofit communications is the practice of creating and sustaining mindshare and engagement that advances the mission.

A practice requires repeated effort; it’s something we must do over and over again. In practices like meditation, exercise, playing an instrument, yoga, and others, the work is never actually complete. Stop exercising and you lose the benefits of exercise. Stop eating or sleeping well and you feel lousy. Nonprofits must constantly practice communicating effectively, both internally and externally, or they increase the risk that a lack of connection will make it hard to reach, engage, and collaborate with the audiences who are essential to advancing their mission. The practice of establishing connections — or, more specifically, mindshare and engagement — is ongoing, no matter how old, large, or successful a nonprofit becomes.

 Mindshare and engagement are strategies to build connections and relationships with an organization, issue, or movement. Fundraisers and senior leadership likely have relationships with major donors. Programs staff have relationships with key partners and peer organizations. All of them rely on effective communications to keep the people they have relationships with engaged.

 When a nonprofit communicates successfully, external audiences (individuals, other organizations, foundations, etc.) become aware of and engaged with its mission. They take action to advance the organization or the issues it serves — hopefully more than once. Staff and board recruitment also benefit from effective external communications because candidates with experience in the field may be more likely to know of the organization. Relationships between staff and the people they work with grow deeper and stronger through the organization’s marketing and communications efforts. In short, an effective communications engine powers the mission.

 What would it be like if your organization did a phenomenal job of communicating? Would your nonprofit be a household name with a deep base of regular supporters who donate, volunteer, and take other actions easily? Or would you be a force for good that inspires loyal support from a deeply engaged but selective base?

This article was adapted from my new book, The Nonprofit Communications Engine: A leader’s Guide to Managing Mission-driven Marketing and Communications,  which provides a simple framework designed to help nonprofit leaders build, refine, and optimize their organization’s ability to communicate effectively. Check it out on Amazon and download our free self-assessment tool you can use to benchmark the outcomes and elements in your organization’s own communications practice.