June 1, 2020

Building your Nonprofit’s Communications Engine

Steven Shattuck

To watch or listen to this webinar, please complete the form at the bottom of this page.

The Nonprofit Communications Engine is a framework designed to help nonprofit leaders build, refine and optimize their organization’s ability to communicate effectively. Based on Sarah Durham’s new book, “The Nonprofit Communications Engine: A leaders guide to managing mission-driven marketing and communications,” this session is for nonprofit leaders who need to set clearer goals, build stronger teams and manage communications in their organizations so it truly advances the mission. You’ll learn a scalable theory that you can apply to your organization immediately from Sarah Durham and Steven Shattuck in this recorded webinar.

Learning outcomes:

  • Understand the results a successful communications team should consistently generate for your nonprofit
  • Understand the six elements you must have in order to achieve these results
  • Gain a simple approach that can be applied to assess where your organization’s communications are strongest or need more attention


Steven: Alright, Sarah, I think we’re ready to kick it off. Okay if I go ahead and get this party started?

Sarah Durham: Yeah.

Steven: Nice. Let’s go! Cool, well good afternoon, everyone! Good morning, if you’re on the West coast side to say thanks for being here for today’s Bloomerang webinar, Building Your Nonprofit’s Communications Engine.

Steven: Thanks for being here, thanks for taking the time! I’m Steven, I’m over here at Bloomerang, not at Bloomerang, I’m in my house as most of you probably are as well, but I’m happy just the same to see all of you here. Thanks for taking the time.

Steven: Just for a couple of housekeeping items real quick. Then we’ll pass things over to our guests. We are recording this session, so if you get interrupted, if you have to leave early, or you’ve got another appointment. If an animal or a child interrupts you, don’t worry, we’ll get you the recording and the slides later on today.

Steven: But most importantly, we are going to save some time for Q & A at the end. So, don’t be shy, send in questions. There’s a chat box and there’s a questions box. And if you put your questions in the questions box, I’ll see them better a little bit. They won’t get lost in the shuffle. So, do that. If you want to ask questions, hopefully you do. We’re going to try to keep this interactive, so don’t be shy.

Steven: You can also do that on Twitter. I’ll keep an eye on the Twitter feed for all of those things. If you are new to Bloomerang, if this is your first Bloomerang webinar, just for context, we love doing these webinars. We’re actually doing these webinars almost on a daily basis now. We used to do them once a week, but now it seems like almost every day we’re doing them, and we love it!

Steven: Bring on great guest speakers, love to give out the advice. But what we are most known for is software. We are donor management software if you’ve never heard of us. So, check that out! If you’re curious about us and just want to learn more, you can visit our website.

Steven: But don’t do that right now, because Sarah Durham is in the house, from a beautiful central Massachusetts by way of Brooklyn where she normally is. Sarah, how’s it going? Are you doing okay? Thanks for being here.

Sarah Durham: I’m doing great. Happy to be here with you, and I hope everybody who dialed in today is feeling okay and managing okay.

Steven: Yes, it’s good to see you. I’ve been worried about you because you are a New Yorker. You’re one of my favorite people. You’re my go-to for branding and I don’t just mean graphic design, but I mean all things, an employer and an organizational brand.

Steven: She’s awesome. She wrote the book on it—wrote a couple books on it, actually, I wish I had them here. They are at Bloomerang. I didn’t think to grab my library of books. But yeah, you’re going to want to buy those books after this presentation. So we’ll give you the information on how to do that.

Steven: But if you don’t know Sarah, check her out. She’s over at Big Duck. Awesome, awesome agency. I can vouch for their work. They do awesome things. We’ve even had some shared clients and customers always really happy, and she’s all over the place. She’s getting interviewed by people all the time. She’s at conferences when we’re having conferences and when that starts up again, you’ll definitely want to attend her sessions.

Steven: But I’m going to pipe down, but you don’t want to hear from me. You’re here to hear from Sarah. So I’m going to stop sharing my screen, Sarah, and my video, yeah, we’ll skip this going here.

Sarah Durham: Thanks Steven. While I get this going, and I will just turn off my video, to stop distracting myself.

Sarah Durham: I want to tell you what we are going to talk about today. For those of you who are just logging in, this is a session that I developed a couple of months ago, but I’ve adapted a bit to be more relevant and specific to the moment we’re living in.

Sarah Durham: And I’m going to take you through an overview of the theory that’s in my new book, which is called the Nonprofit Communications Engine. And I’m going to encourage you as we go to please chat in questions and comments. I won’t be monitoring them as I go because of this full screen view I’m in now, I can’t see them, but Steven will be and we will move into a Q&A and discussion format and try to leave at least hopefully 15 or 20 minutes at the end.

Sarah Durham: Steven and I have both been talking to a lot of organizations who have a lot of questions about how and what to communicate right now and this is, I hope, the perfect forum to tackle some of those questions.

Sarah Durham: So, let’s dig in and we will see where we get. This is me. You can find me online @BigDuckSarah. And my company, Big Duck, for those of you who don’t know us, it’s been around for 25 years. We celebrated our 25th anniversary recently and we help nonprofits communicate more strategically and effectively. We help nonprofits develop strong brands, strong campaigns and strong communications teams. Really, our mission is about helping nonprofits use communications as a strategic tool to advance their mission.

Sarah Durham: And everything I’m talking to you about today is extracted from my new book, The Nonprofit Communications Engine, which you can find on Amazon.

Sarah Durham: But I’m going to give you kind of a cheat sheet to it today. And there are also a bunch of free resources extracted from it. You can find it online at

Sarah Durham: So when I sat down to write this book a few years ago, what I really wanted to do was I wanted to answer, kind of once and for all, what communications is for a nonprofit, because communications is this term we throw around liberally.

Sarah Durham: But if you ask 10 different people in 10 different organizations what communications is in their organization, you probably get 10 different answers. And a lot of times it depends on the point of view of the person who’s talking. So if you ask an executive director, they might say, well, communications are the people who help us stop being a best kept secret and start being an organization that, you know, has a voice in the issues that we work in.

Sarah Durham: If you ask somebody on the programs team, or maybe the fundraising team or your advocacy team, they might say, well, communications is the department that makes all the stuff we need to do what we need to do.

Sarah Durham: And if you ask somebody on your marketing or communications team what communications is all about, they might say something like, well, we are the people who help articulate the voice of our organization and help make sure we’re communicating the right things in the right ways, in a strategic way.

Sarah Durham: But you know, which one of those is right? And how do you do that in a nonprofit where often the budget is really, really much smaller for communications than the need? This slide is extracted from the 2020 Nonprofit Communications Trend Report, which is produced annually by the nonprofit marketing guide, which is a great resource.

Sarah Durham: And what you can see in this slide is the number of full time communications employees in typical organizations by size. I suspect that this is probably for many of you even optimistic and that in the coming months we’ll see more and more communications people who might be, you know, having their jobs reduced or shrunk. But even in this sort of best case scenario, this is 2019 data, you can see that there are rarely more than one or two, maybe three people who are responsible for communicating on behalf of the entire organization. And those people get stretched pretty thin.

Sarah Durham: I had a really interesting conversation when I was researching for this book with Mark Graham, who is the director of communications at American Friends Service Committee, which is a very large organization. And Mark at the time I interviewed him, had a lot of people on his communications team. I think it was 20 something people in communications.

Sarah Durham: And Mark told me a story about having a retreat for his communications team where they talked about if their organization or their department was a restaurant, what kind of restaurant would they be? And some of the people on his team said, well, we’re really like a kind of an elegant four star restaurant. You come in, we make recommendations for you, we help you get just what you need. We try to make sure that you know, you, you, you don’t just get this sort of, you know, off the mill thing, you get it right. And we really help the organization by doing that.

Sarah Durham: But other people in communications said, well, we’re actually also kind of like a fast food truck. Like, our job as a communications team is to get stuff done quickly. People in other departments walk up to us, they place an order and they just want us to get it done quickly.

Sarah Durham: And actually both of those things are true in many organizations. Communications has a strategic function, but it also has a kind of tactical day to day function. Like staying on top of communications. So in my research, I wanted very much to define communications in a sort of universal way, in a way that was applicable for small organizations, big organizations, and organizations of different missions.

Sarah Durham: And what emerged from my research is that ultimately nonprofit communications is the practice of creating and sustaining mindshare and engagement that advances the mission. And we’ll unpack this more in a minute, but I just want to highlight two terms in this that I think are most critical and particularly critical right now as you are making decisions about what to communicate or even how to manage your communications team, and those terms are mindshare and engagement.

Sarah Durham: Mindshare is about the level of consciousness or awareness that people might have about your organization and these days in particular, maintaining mindshare is going to be really critical to weathering the storm. And engagement of course is about how we get people to take action on our behalf.

Sarah Durham: So we’ll talk more about that in a minute, but before we dig into unpacking those terms in more detail, I think it’s really important that we first and foremost start by talking about outcomes. If you have a communications team or a communications engine in your organization that’s humming along and thriving, what does it actually going to do for you? Why is that a worthwhile investment? And I think particularly these days, for those of you who are feeling the pain financially, you’ve got to really be sure that every dollar you invest in communications is worth it.

Sarah Durham: So let’s start for a minute by talking about outcomes and there’s actually a downloadable PDF, and Steven maybe if you are game, you could chat out this URL. It’s, but this is a one page PDF that will allow you to do a self-assessment and you can download it at any point and kind of, you know, with your team, perhaps assess your communications as we go.

Sarah Durham: So, as we go through this next section, I’d love for you to score yourself. I’d like you to think about are you very satisfied, satisfied, not so satisfied or very dissatisfied with your ability to generate certain outcomes?

Sarah Durham: And the first thing I think we should talk about is engagement. I mentioned that earlier. If your organization has a successful communications engine, then that means that the right people know, remember and connect with your organization and work and they take meaningful action on its behalf.

Sarah Durham: A lot of times when I talk to people about what they want to do with a specific program or project from a communications point of view, they’ll say things like, well, I want to raise awareness for this. Or you know, I want to make sure that we increase our visibility. But I would argue that increasing awareness or visibility is only good if it sparks action.

Sarah Durham: And that action is really what drives your mission. When donors engage, when people sign up for programs, when members renew, that’s the engagement that is going to power your mission. And it’s particularly critical right now, first and foremost, that communications supports engagement.

Sarah Durham: The second outcome that is critical for a nonprofit communications engine is to help establish your organization’s voice and make sure that it’s clear, credible, compelling, and consistent at all points of contact. You’ve perhaps seen me on other Bloomerang webinars and other content talking about Brandraising, and Brandraising is all about your organization’s voice and not just communicating about a specific program, but communicating about your organization in a bigger way and why you deserve ongoing support.

Sarah Durham: And finally your communications engine should help you generate sustainable momentum. I see a lot of organizations who have either a very charismatic executive director, maybe a board member, and that person is sort of the epicenter of everything that gets communicated.

Sarah Durham: But without that person, nobody knows what to do or how to communicate. Or in other cases it might be that there is a person who works in your organization on the development team or the communications team who is the only person who knows how to do stuff and if they left or if they are unable to work for some reason, there’s no momentum.

Sarah Durham: So I think it’s critical when you think about your organization’s communications momentum that you think about systems and processes and tools that are bigger than any one individual. So if you haven’t done so already, this is a great moment to kind of score yourself. Are you satisfied, very satisfied, not so satisfied or very dissatisfied with your organization’s engagement, clear voice and sustainable momentum. If you score yourself with those terms, you might be able to start to get a sense of what to prioritize.

Sarah Durham: And I also want to put this in context to say that these three outcomes are not all created equal. That in any time I would say engagement is the area that most of your efforts should be focused on. But particularly now, particularly now if you have limited bandwidth, limited resources for communications, first and foremost, maintaining momentum around engagement, making sure that you’re reaching and connecting regularly with your donors, members of your community and others is going to be critical to success.

Sarah Durham: So if engagement, voice, and momentum are the outcomes we’re trying to achieve, I think the next question we’ve got to dig into is, you know, what happens if communications or marketing gets cut? I have been fortunate or unfortunate enough to run a business for 25 plus years that has seen a number of recessions and economic downturns. And in some of those times, like after September 11, often times communications people or marketing people, their jobs are on the chopping block and they often get cut because they can be viewed as an extra expense.

Sarah Durham: In other times, like 2008, we actually saw an increase in investment in communications with more people hired in-house in nonprofits and more money spent externally on things like branding or campaigns. And I think the difference between those times is that in 2008 more and more nonprofits were realizing that communicating clearly and effectively was going to be critical to their ability to fundraise and to bounce back and differentiate themselves in tough times.

Sarah Durham: So that’s the risk. If you cut communications or marketing, you reduce your organization’s capacity to reach and engage those people who help advance your mission. And if you’re going to do it over on one side, like a particular department, you’re probably going to need to find ways to increase communications through other arms, through other, you know, programmatic staff, through development staff, etc. The function of engagement can’t go away. You have to really be clear who’s responsible for keeping that engine humming along.

Sarah Durham: And you know, if we are going to, I see that there are some chats and things which I can’t read yet, but I will get to them in a minute.

Sarah Durham: So what does a nonprofit need in order to successfully achieve those three outcomes? Well, you know, one way to think about it, just to sort of put this in context, is that if engagement is kind of like a cake you’re trying to bake every day, what are the ingredients you need to bake that cake?

Sarah Durham: Hopefully some of you recognize Claire Saffitz, she’s probably the world’s most internet famous baker. And one of the things we know if you, like me, have been watching too many Bon Appetit cooking videos recently, is that sometimes you don’t get all the ingredients right the first time, but it’s about really understanding what goes into the recipe to make it succeed.

Sarah Durham: So in my book, I break down what it takes to create engagement, to create an organizational clear voice and to create sustainable momentum into communications. And the elements that I identified through my research boil down to six core functions. And it doesn’t matter how big or small your organization is, these are the six elements that are going to power a successful communications outcome for you and their strategy, team, culture, tools, processes and reflection. And you know, one way to think about this is strategy powers everything.

Sarah Durham: Team and culture are the human side of it. They are about the people and the way those people interact. Whereas tools and processes are more, you know, hard elements and systems and all of those things drive the work we do, which we have to reflect on. We have to make sure that every time we try something new, we test it, we learn from it and we get better, because resources are too thin in a nonprofit to keep doing the same old thing, the same old way.

Sarah Durham: So what I’m going to do in the next section is I’m going to briefly walk through a couple of these, but because of what is happening right now, I want to emphasize in particular strategy and team because these are the areas I think you probably need to really lean into right now as you navigate this tricky environment we’re in.

Sarah Durham: So, again as I’m going, you may want to scale yourself or score yourself across each of these areas and see which is your strength and which are the areas where you are at least satisfied. And I would encourage you to focus first if you’re going to do work here on the areas you’re least satisfied because that’s obviously where you have the most room to grow.

Sarah Durham: So let’s start with strategy. What does that mean? It means from a communications point of view that your organization is clear who its target audiences are. You have a strategy to reach and engage them and you have solid plans to implement that strategy. And the strategy section of my book is probably the longest, but I want to give you kind of, I want to, you know, peel away some of the things that are in that chapter for you to talk about.

Sarah Durham: One of the biggest is understanding your audiences. I would say that a surprising number of organizations aren’t really clear who they’re trying to communicate with. They know they want to reach people, they know they want to build mindshare, but they’re not necessarily focused on who those people are and what that those people are looking for. Once you’re clear who your audiences are, though, you have to be really deliberate about how you’re going to reach and engage them. And I’ve done some writing over the years about the idea of a Chief Experience Officer because oftentimes building mind sharing engagement is about managing the experiences of your audiences as they interact with your programs.

Sarah Durham: This is one way I think you can start to map your audiences if you’ve never done this. Who must you engage with? If you are a community based organization that provides services in your community, you must engage with people in your community in order to advance your mission. But who surrounds that group? Who should you engage with? Well, in a community based organization it might be people who aren’t essential to the mission from a programmatic point of view, but are important to support that mission. Maybe a corporate partners or city partners, and then who could you engage with?

Sarah Durham: Usually the outer rings are more the general public or they’re people who are not going to necessarily consider you their top philanthropic priority and when times are difficult and resources are constrained, our advice is always start with the center. Start by prioritizing who you must engage with and make sure you’re doing a great job communicating with your base before you try to reach and engage the person on the street who’s probably not going to be highly motivated to engage with you to begin with.

Sarah Durham: And as you start to communicate with your audiences the balancing act that you have to do and your communications team has to do is between communicating what your organization wants to say or do. For instance, right now how you might need extra support or what’s happening in your organization with what the individuals you’re communicating with are looking for. What is the need they have that you can help fulfill and where’s that overlap point between what your organization wants versus what the individuals who you’re communicating with might need from you. And that’s the place to focus.

Sarah Durham: You know, one of the, one of the interesting conversations I had yesterday with somebody who said, you know, I’m still getting these emails from organizations that talk about how their staff are doing right now or the fact that the staffers are working and working from home. And now three or four weeks into this crisis that feels like it’s too much about the organization, now what people are interested in is what, what’s the work you’re doing? What’s actually happening in the community? We’ve sort of shifted as this crisis has gone on, away from very preliminary messages about how our teams are doing towards more messaging around the impact and the outreach that we’re doing.

Sarah Durham: On the Big Duck website, there is an example. There’s a case study, and it’s on that link I chatted out earlier. The Or actually no, it’s, I think. There’s a case study of this for a community foundation called CF Leads and the work that they did actually, strategically, translating their strategic plan into a communications plan. That’s one of the first things your communications team should do whenever you go through a strategic planning process is help make sure that it’s really clear every quarter, every year. What are the communications objectives that are essential to advancing that strategic plan?

Sarah Durham: And one of the things we regularly do with the organizations that we work with to help them build their communications teams is we try to work on a strategic framework for communications and a mission for the department of communications. So one of our clients is a terrific organization based in Austin, Texas called Bat Conservation International. And when we work with them, one of the things they came up with that we loved was the mission of their communications department is to explode our base of support and make those people love us.

Sarah Durham: And we loved this mission statement because it’s so charismatic, but you can also see that it’s useful. You can tape this up on, on the wall over your computer and when somebody in another department has a request of this team, then they can ask themselves, is this action going to help us explode our base of support and make people love us? If the answer to that question is yes, then it might be something they should be doing. But if it’s no, maybe it’s something they should push back on and try to keep their resources focused in the right places.

Sarah Durham: Okay, let’s spend a few minutes talking about your team and then I’m going to move very quickly through the other four areas so that we can get into Q&A pretty quickly. So what does it mean to have the right communications team to power your nonprofits communications engine? It means you’ve got the right people directing, managing and implementing your communications and that the structure of their role works well for the organization. In most of the organizations that I have worked with that is not about having a big in-house team. If anything, it’s about being really, really smart and strategic about what you have in-house and what you outsource and measuring the results.

Sarah Durham: I actually recorded a podcast, I’m trying to remember when this aired. It would have aired in 2019 but with Christina from the Burke Neurological Institute where she talked about building a communications team that’s actually mostly volunteers and freelancers, very, very few people in-house. And really just identifying the skills that she needed and finding people who had the ability to either donate those skills or she could access those skills on a lower cost basis.

Sarah Durham: And one of the places I think organizations often go wrong is that they hired too many people in-house with skills that they don’t necessarily need to have every day. So right now in particular as you’re looking at your team, there are a couple of things about your communications team that I want to emphasize, I think are most most important. Your in-house team first and foremost. And this is based on my 25 years of experience working with nonprofits, but it’s also based on some research I did as I was writing this book.

Sarah Durham: The most important skills your in-house communications people need to have is great project management and they must be great collaborators and team players. And that may surprise some of you because I often hear from organizations that the person in communications is a great writer or maybe a great designer or they’re really terrific at managing social media and all those things are great. All those skills are helpful. But if the people in your small communications team aren’t liked and respected and good at collaborating with their partners in other, you know, aspects of your organization, it’s going to be really hard for them to do great work because they’re not going to get information from other departments which they need to support.

Sarah Durham: You know, I often think of the communications team in your organization as being kind of like the shellac over the puzzle pieces that is your organization. In other words, development is a puzzle piece and programs, that’s another puzzle piece. Communications in and of itself is a function that works to support those other departments. It’s not necessarily something that exists entirely on its own. It’s got to work very collaboratively.

Sarah Durham: And it’s really critical that your communications team have excellent project management skills because oftentimes the work of producing an email or a direct mail piece or an annual report or any number of materials or elements that they might produce involves multiple people getting multiple levels of approval. So if they don’t have great project management skills, it can be a real liability.

Sarah Durham: Your external team should ideally have supplemental skills that you don’t necessarily need to access day by day. So in most organizations you can outsource to freelancers to maybe volunteers to pro bono resources you have or to agencies, writing, design, video and other creative skills.

Sarah Durham: I wrote typically on this slide because there are definitely some exceptions. The places where having these things in-house that I see most typically are either when your mission requires an exceptionally, high level of subject matter expertise. So for instance, one of Big Duck’s clients is the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice. And in that organization, having in-house communicators who are bilingual, who understand reproductive justice and who also understand the issues affecting the Latin X community in America is critical. And those aren’t easy to find in freelancers. So maintaining people who can produce content with subject matter expertise is one place where you might want to hire people in-house as opposed to outsource. But for many, many of you actually using freelance writers, designers, videographers, audio people etc is a much less expensive way to work than maintaining full time staff in those areas.

Sarah Durham: The other place you should outsource is when you’re doing something that is, that has, it requires a very long shelf life or big implications in terms of outcomes. So for instance, if you are doing capital campaign communication, somebody who is really, really clear about donor communications and has a lot of depth of expertise in that will be important. Same thing with branding. There are a lot of best practices in these areas that are going to be important to get right.

Sarah Durham: Definitely, we hear from a lot of our clients they’re able to access pro bono resources, maybe board members who have an in-house departments they can access or volunteers. And I think it’s a great use of those pro bono resources to have them help you produce the stuff that your in-house people keep on track. So your in-house people project manage, make sure it’s the right stuff and make sure that the right people are reviewing. And approving as you go.

Sarah Durham: I think I touched on this earlier, but in my book Brandraising, I talked about this quite a bit, that, you know, fundraising programs and advocacy, these are usually the main areas that drive the mission forward. And so communications has to support all of these areas in many organizations. In a lot of organizations, communications is tasked with focusing on one or the other. Oftentimes fundraising, we see a lot of times the communications people are either in the fundraising team or they’re merged with it in a department called advancement.

Sarah Durham: These days I think in times, you know, tighter times, it’s quite likely we will see more and more communications teams reconsolidating into fundraising teams or programs teams, too. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing because it makes it very clear what the priorities for those people are. That first and foremost, they’re there to help increase revenue or recruit people into programs or maybe help drive, legislative action.

Sarah Durham: In Big Duck’s work we often talk about the ladder of engagement, how we go from moving people who are unaware of our organization towards becoming advocates and down at the bottom of the ladder of engagement. That’s often where the people on the marketing and communications team have oversight. Their job is to through social media, through email, through, you know, maybe geo-targeting, different kinds of communications that are push mechanisms to get people to become aware of your organization and aware of your programs and start to build that mindshare and hopefully grow the mindshare to a point where people start to visit the website, take action, sign a pledge, convert to subscribers in different ways.

Sarah Durham: But the more people move into the ladder of engagement, the more likely it is that other departments have to be involved too. Because at the top of the ladder of engagement, let’s say in development, those fundraisers really need to build relationships, particularly personal relationships with major donors or the programs people are going to get to know those clients in more intimate ways. So this is one of the reasons that your marketing and communications people being good collaborators is so important. If they don’t work well with their peers in other departments, then the handoff from what the marketing and communications people do to what the other people do is going to be murky or challenging. And you’re actually going to lose mindshare and lose support in this, in the gap between the two.

Sarah Durham: So, just to time check, I’m going to spend a few more minutes talking about the other areas of the book briefly. I’m going to share a couple of resources and then we’ll pivot over into Q&A. So, the next area of the book, and again I’m going to go a bit lighter here is culture. And I think one of the challenges we are going to see right now in this area is that the culture of communications in many organizations is shifting pretty dramatically because people are having to work online in ways they never have.

Sarah Durham: So establishing the etiquette, even organization-wide, for how do you use Zoom, do you have to be on video? All these kinds of things. There’s a lot of stuff to work out here, but in many organizations, the communication staff people play an important role in shaping the culture of internal communications and also the way those people are treated or respected can have a really big impact on their ability to produce content. If people in your organization value communications and see it strategically, they are more likely to keep the communications people team abreast of changes that are happening, give them what they need from a content point of view to blog or to engage in social media.

Sarah Durham: We have produced over the last few weeks a lot of free content at And a couple of the things we’ve done have been about facilitating better internal communications online. We’ve got a couple of video recordings and other things too on that topic.

Sarah Durham: Tools are the brand elements, the content, the media, the campaigns, the software, and the other resources that your organization needs to communicate effectively. Bloomerang might be one of those tools. In many organizations, big ones or small ones, what you have access to varies enormously. And I have seen organizations that are tiny with, you know, two volunteers who work in it who do a great job with very few tools still communicating.

Sarah Durham: With that said, if you’re an executive director and you’re hearing from your communications people that it’s a struggle to communicate because they don’t have clear messaging or the logo is embarrassing or there’s no software that is integrated across departments. So different departments are sending out different messages in ways that can’t be tracked or measured. Those are real liabilities to you reaching and engaging the people you want to reach.

Sarah Durham: So taking stock of your tools is critical. And in the book I map out the most essential tools that communications teams typically need. And it’s not to say they have to be fancy, it’s just to say that you should be honest with yourself about what you’re working with and where you have strength and perhaps where you have liabilities that might get in your comms teams way.

Sarah Durham: Processes are arguably the most overlooked area in the research I uncovered. And what I mean by that is that in most organizations there are few formal processes around communications particularly in smaller and mid-size organizations. So let’s take for instance an organization that is right now sending out a weekly email to its community to talk about what’s going on or maybe produces regular digital newsletters. Well, every time you send that email, there’s a series of steps that have to be executed correctly and accurately to ensure that that email goes out and reaches the right people.

Sarah Durham: It might be how you proofread, it might be how you upload into your email service provider. In most organizations, those steps are understood by one or two people. Sometimes they’re figured out every time you do it, but that lack of writing it down and checklisting, it actually can be a liability as your organization grows. And it’s certainly a liability in terms of your ability to maximize the limited time you’ve got. Because if you can create some checklists for the processes that need to be repeated in your organization, you ensure that the next time you do that thing, you can do it faster. And more efficiently and more effectively.

Sarah Durham: So take stock of your processes and score yourself. Are you satisfied? Are you dissatisfied? This is essentially low hanging fruit that will help you do more work faster by creating some institutional memory and some systems that will allow you to reduce your dependency on that one person who is the only person who knows how to do it.

Sarah Durham: And finally, let’s talk reflection. This is another area that I think people in the nonprofit sector are very familiar with. Conceptually, nobody ever pushes back on this idea when I talk about it, but very few actually invest in it. And you know, what reflection is really about is at the beginning of a project when you set forth the strategy, you might set a goal. You might say, our goal is to reach and engage, you know, a certain number of new donors. Or our goal is to increase our engagement online to a certain extent or to beat a certain number, like a donation number, click through number. But how many of you actually go back at the end of the project to assess if you got there? That’s what reflection is all about is debriefing or doing what the army calls an after action review to see if the results you got matched up to the goals you set.

Sarah Durham: And if they did or they didn’t, what can you learn? What did you, you know, what did you do really well? What was the strength that you want to make sure you bring in to or maintain two other projects that you do and what could have been done better or what slipped through the cracks that you can learn from. So that next time you can refine your processes or you can engage your team differently to achieve a better outcome.

Sarah Durham: So those are the six areas, strategy, team, culture, tools, processes, and reflection. And you know, if you haven’t done so already, please take a minute and think about your strengths. Think about what could be improved as we go through, and if we have time, I’ll be curious to see what you chat in about that.

Sarah Durham: I also want to remind you in case anybody logged in a little bit late, there is a communications self-assessment PDF that you can download to go through. It’s got all the three outcomes and all the six areas and some questions you can use to self assess. And some of the people that we’ve shared this with have been using it to have multiple people in their organization complete it and then talk about it and it’ll help you identify your strengths and your opportunities for growth.

Sarah Durham: All of this is in my book and starting in May I’m going to be doing a four part lunch and learn online workshop. These are going to be four webinars. They’re each going to be 90 minutes long with a lot of interactivity and we’re going to be doing them very much through the lens of COVID. So there’ll be one that’s all about engagement. One that’s all about voice, one that’s all about sustainable momentum.

Sarah Durham: And all of this you can find at and we are an agency that is around to help too. So if you are feeling like you need help with your communications engine right now, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line because I’d be happy to talk to you and also happy to see if we’re a fit for what you need.

Sarah Durham: And I host a podcast called the Smart Communications Podcast, which is another place you can get a lot of free tips and tools. So I think that that might be it on my deck. I’m going to stop the share and turn on my camera. I’m going to take a look at some of your questions. There’s my pal Steven. Maybe we can dig in. It looks like, but Steven, maybe you can….

Steven: Yeah, we’ve got some good ones. And we, we kind of designed this to have an extended Q&A because when we scheduled this webinar or a few months ago and did not anticipate to be in the situation we’re in. So we wanted to leave a lot of time for questions because I know there’s some timely things going on.

Steven: Sarah, one thing that jumped out at me, a couple of people asked a variation of this question is we’ve got a lot of small shops and in our community, a lot of people that maybe it’s one person or half of a person or a third of a person responsible for all of this. What would you have, what advice would you have for maybe those folks who are they’re, they don’t have a team, I guess is the question. And they got to do it all alone.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, you know, one of the things I have seen is that who is responsible for communications? Yeah, I mean to some extent it’s about the size of your organization, but more so it’s sometimes about the life cycle moment you’re in that typically in a lot of small organizations, the executive director is the person who’s responsible for communications and who’s holding it all together. And they might be doing it with some light, additional support.

Sarah Durham: But if it’s not the executive director, it’s often the director of development. Oftentimes the person who is in charge of fundraising is the person who is best suited to help navigate communications and support the ED if need be. You really don’t have to have, you know, an MBA in marketing to be a communications person. I think one of the key ingredients we see besides great project management, great collaborative skills is the ability to put yourself in the shoes of the target audience. If you can understand who they are and what they want from you, odds are good, you’re going to be a pretty useful communicator.

Steven: Cool. You know, as I was listening to this, Sarah, it occurred to me that people should go through this process, if they’ve never gone through this process, but you know, they may be in a crisis situation now. What would you say to those people who maybe want to sit down and take the time and do this right, but they also want to start communicating as soon as possible and you know, every moment that goes by, maybe is a moment lost. What about in those situations?

Sarah Durham: I do think it’s useful, no matter how big your organization is to agree internally who is responsible for communications, like to just name it, you know, who’s accountable. I mean there is, I see, there’s a question here from Mandy where she says, you know, we have no communication staff, just under $1 million budget. We have two development staff and, and the development staff is also responsible for communications. That’s a really common situation. But the question is if you’ve got an executive director and two development who ultimately says, okay, we’re doing X newsletters or okay, you’re in charge of social media, right? This is the strategy for how we, you know, turn the strategic plan into day to day action. Somebody’s got to take ownership for that. And in my experience, if there’s no dedicated communications person, odds are good, it’s the senior fundraiser.

Steven: Yeah, that makes sense. And one here from Amy and I think I can remember the point when she asked this question. You talked about an organization that was talking a lot about what they were doing but maybe not pivoting quickly enough to the services side. And Amy is wondering how do you balance that? Because there may be things about you that you want to get out the door, but also seeing the value in talking about what’s happening on the services side. Is there maybe a good threshold or kind of rule of thumb for balancing those two things you think?

Sarah Durham: Yeah, I mean, you know, I think if you have to decide between communicating generally if you have limited communications, let’s say you’re going to send, you know, two messages this month, right? You have to decide are they going be organization-centric messages or are they going to be audience-centric messages? I would always counsel you to try to make them audience-centric, first and foremost. If you’re going to put something in my inbox, especially right now, it needs to be relevant for me just as much as it’s relevant for you as an organization. So again, think about the experience of the people that you are messaging and oftentimes those messages about how your organization is doing and how your staff is doing and whether or not your programs are open.

Sarah Durham: Those are great messages to send to your core constituents. People who identify as advocates, your board members, your major donors are key supporters, are key program partners. They want to know that. So if you have the ability to segment your list, definitely send those more organization-centric messages to the people who are your insiders, the people who feel like your family. But if I’m just on your email list because I happened to sign up for something last year, it may not be as relevant for me to know all the nuts and bolts about how you’re doing and if you’re going to message to me in that situation, make it more relevant for me. Tell me about the programs and services that I can come in and benefit from right now. Or tell me how, I’ve seen some great examples in the past month and we’ve blogged about a bunch of these at Big Duck and at Advomatic, which is a web company, I have too, about how organizations are using their websites now to communicate in ways that they never used to communicate.

Sarah Durham: How programs that used to happen in person are now happening online. One example of this I love is Big Duck has a client that’s a summer camp called Camp Havaya. It’s like an art based Jewish summer camp and they are doing a Seder tonight. It’s the first night of Passover, online Seder. And they, you know, I mean there’s summer camp, but came up with this really creative way to do this thing online. So, them saying not just, hey, we’re around and we’re thinking about the summer and we’re all good and we’re wishing you well. But them saying, we’ve created this thing that you can participate in that’s, you know, new and it’s a way you can stay in touch with us that’s giving their audience something meaningful to do right now. And not just organization centric messaging.

Steven: I love it. Whenever someone says segmentation, I’m just like, Oh, tell me more. That’s my favorite favorite ever. I talked to a customer this morning who was, they’ve been raising a ton of money over the past few weeks and she said it’s the segmentation alone, because they were saying different things to the major donors. If they were the monthly donors to the lapsed donors to, they sent out an appeal and they took out people who would give it in the last couple of days or so because they didn’t want it. They didn’t want those people getting an appeal, you know, right after they gave. So I think that knowing your audience, so, so critical to delivering the right amount of content. So I love that advice

Steven: And I’m seeing some questions like, you know, there’s some questions about, you know, how often should I be pushing content on social channels? And I think that depends so much on your mission. You know, Steven and I were talking about this before we got started today, that you know, there are a lot of organizations who were saying, should I be fundraising right now? Should I be communicating? I’m not necessarily, you know, it’s not necessarily what I do isn’t necessarily directly relevant in this COVID centric environment. So I think you have to adjust the volume of your communications to the mission, but still you’ve got to continue to build mindshare. If you feel you are less relevant than perhaps some other organizations right now, that doesn’t mean you go silent. It means you adjust the content of what you’re doing to be appropriate from a tone point of view.

Sarah Durham: It would be really inappropriate for you right now to perhaps use humor. Humor is, you know, not good in a crisis and it would be inappropriate for you to try to make a claim that you have an urgent need if you really don’t have an urgent need or if you’re doing something that’s kind of tangential. But for many organizations there are important conversations happening in social media that you should be a part of. So I would encourage you to lean into that and to not abandon, and this goes to another question I see here, don’t abandon your organization’s key messages, key brand and key values. You know, if you have something that makes you, your unique voice, you don’t want to lose that right now. If anything you want to elevate that you want to reinforce for your donors that they are still, that you’re still who you are and that you’re going to weather this storm and hopefully come out stronger for it. Not that you’ve pivoted and become something that they no longer recognize. So yeah.

Steven: I love it. A couple of folks here are asking, they came from bigger teams where there is a dedicated communications person, there’s a fundraising person and they have subordinates on each team. You’ve worked with big teams, you’ve been on big teams. How can you kind of break down those silos and have a productive, I guess relationship with with another department that it also needs to communicate to certain constituencies and make sure all those things are aligned up?

Sarah Durham: Yeah. Well, you know, again, I think this comes down a lot to the personality of the people in your communications team. You know, you really want team players, you want great collaborators. You don’t necessarily want to have people who are antagonistic or challenging personalities and to some extent, whether you’re a big shop or a small shop, it’s almost inconsequential. It does come down I think to collaboration and to culture. In some of the larger organizations that I’ve worked with, communications is sometimes treated as like an internal agency. Like they’re almost like the hub and all these departments are spokes that, you know, communicate with each other through communications as an internal resource.

Sarah Durham: But the minute you have a cultural challenge around communications where people don’t like or respect the people on the comms team, you’ve got a problem. And it doesn’t matter whether you’ve got, you know, a two person department or a 20 person department. So that’s why I think those personalities become particularly critical with communications.

Steven: Absolutely. What about buy in, some people in here are asking about how to get buy in from their boss. The board. One person has a board member who is a consultant, which, wow, that sounds really fun. So there’s, you have what, you know, folks maybe listen to this and be like, I’m ready. Let’s do it. But they got to get the permission or you know, the,okay from whoever. Any advice there for the buy-in piece?

Sarah Durham: Yes, buy-in is one of the variables that is most critical in nonprofit communications that people who come from the for profit communications world don’t see coming. I’ve seen a lot of people who get hired in nonprofit communications jobs like a director of communications jobs because they were the director of communications at a big, you know, a Fortune 500 company or other, other big business. And they come to that job with great skills and knowhow, but they are often unprepared for the variables.

Sarah Durham: Like, you know, how the board needs to be brought into the conversation, how leadership gets brought into the conversation. So buy-in is definitely critical. And it’s one of the things I think when you work with volunteers or you work with external agencies, it’s one of the reasons why understanding nonprofit culture is so important because it is arguably one of the biggest differences. The other, and arguably maybe the biggest difference is the complexity of stakeholders that most nonprofits have multiple stakeholders, they are all key to moving engagement and you have to navigate all of that. Yep. Phone ringing. Sorry about that.

Steven: Yeah, I can’t ignore that. That’s perfect. We were talking before Sarah, about folks that are maybe in, or were in the midst of another major campaign before mid-March maybe like a capital campaign. We had someone chat in before we started that they were, they had just suffered a natural disaster in their area. And we’re actively communicating to that. What should those folks do? I mean, obviously the world has changed. Should they, you know, keep the core steady, maybe address the elephant in the room. What have you seen from, from folks that are maybe in the midst of something that now might need to pivot?

Sarah Durham: Yeah. Well there, there’s two things about that that I’ve been thinking about a lot and writing a bit about, one thing that I think is really important right now in particular is that you lean in to your organization’s values and your organization’s personality and hopefully your communications, and you know, intrinsic to your values and personality, is authenticity. Right now I can’t, you know, if I got a message from an organization that said everything’s great, nothing’s wrong, everything’s good. That would feel inauthentic. I mean even if your organization is actually doing okay, the world is in crisis right now and not acknowledging that feels kind of inappropriate. So, generally we are seeing a lot of examples of organizations who are acknowledging not only how challenging a time this is generally, but how specifically it’s affecting them.

Sarah Durham: Because this is not just you. This is all of us. We’re all in it. And I don’t think that there is anything wrong. And in fact, I think there’s a lot of integrity and being candid about how this crisis might be might be damaging your organization or impacting your organization. So I definitely think that it’s important to be real about what you’re experiencing. At the same time, one of the challenges of crisis communications is that they become very all consuming. And right now if we get so caught up in communicating what’s happening just right now and working on what’s happening just right now, we lose sight of the potential for this to actually be a moment where you’re building towards a stronger tomorrow.

Sarah Durham: So I wrote a blog earlier this week, which you can find, you can find on about the idea that this is a great moment. If you have a big enough team to think about having a now team and a tomorrow team. What I mean by that is multidisciplinary teams in a larger organization or maybe one or two people in a smaller, some of whom are tasked with navigating the crisis of today and some of whom are tasked with building for stronger tomorrow. You might have the opportunity while your employees are, you know, at home, you know, with orangutans on the bed next to them, to actually do some creative thinking about who you want to be as an organization when we emerge from this period of time or how you’re going to navigate this impending recession.

Sarah Durham: So, I mean, it’s been interesting at Big Duck. We do a lot of branding work and we’ve seen organizations contacting us in the last couple of weeks who’ve said, we want to strengthen our brand now because when the dust settles, we want to emerge stronger, clearer with better messaging, with better visuals, et cetera. That’s a very far sighted approach and not every organization will have the ability to do that. But thinking about now and tomorrow and not losing sight of both, I think is critical right now.

Steven: So it may be a good time to take the time to go through your, you know, circle rubric and go through all those steps. Speaking of looking to tomorrow, a question in here about plan giving, which I think is really intriguing. And I know neither of us are really big into planned giving, but obviously you’re, you’re incredibly strong communicator. Is that, can you see a way to maybe continue doing that in an effective and tactical way? Because I know how powerful it is for fundraising, especially for like sustained support. The gifts tend to be big and it seems like something you wouldn’t want to pause if you were doing it. That’s just kind of my gut. But what do you think?

Sarah Durham: Yeah, I mean, you know, I think it is important to display, I am not a planned giving expert like my gut on this is that if you are already engaged with people about planned giving and in those conversations with people you should continue them. But I would not talk about COVID in that. I think, you know, I think it would feel very inappropriate to say, you know, hey, older person, you may be high risk and we want to make sure you’ve considered that planning. I’d definitely not do that.

Sarah Durham: But with that said, you know what often what we see a lot with organizations we work with is oftentimes some of the most profound planned gifts are ones you did not see coming that they are from people who you know, Googled your mission and found you and you know, and left you a gift in their will without you even knowing they were doing it. That’s actually one of the reasons why maintaining mindshare is so important. It’s one of the reasons why you should keep up in social media, keep up in email, keep producing content and your website so that when people search for things they find you because you want to make sure that you are, you know, above the fold in those Google searches for whomever the planned gift or anybody who might benefit from your programs and services.

Steven: I love it. We’re getting close to three o’clock Eastern here. I want to be respectful of everyone’s time. I’ll give you the last word. Sarah, what do you think folks should, should do maybe this afternoon to get kind of this process started?

Sarah Durham: You know, my advice to you is in whatever way is most realistic for your team. Take a moment to just pause and reflect on your organization’s communications. How are you doing with engagement? Are you doing a good job reaching, engaging the people who help advance your mission? How is your organization’s voice? Is it clear and strong and compelling and consistent? And how much momentum do you have? If the people who manage your communications may not, you know, continue to manage your communications tomorrow, it’s a really good moment to just take stock of those things.

Sarah Durham: Celebrate the things your organization is doing well, and identify the areas that when you have the resources you may want to shore up so that you can emerge from this crisis a bit stronger. And there there’s a lot of free content on the Big Duck site to help you do that, but you can just do it with a notepad and it might be a good time to kind of benchmark where you are. So that six months from now, a year from now, you can give yourself that same test or get, you know, have that same conversation and see, hopefully a year from now you’ll find you’re in a stronger place.

Steven: I love it. Sarah, you’re awesome. Thanks for doing this. I know. Well, I had the easy job. I just got to sit here and listen to it and learn. But I know you’re super busy. You’re a New Yorker so we’re thinking about you. I know you were able to get away, but we’re just, we’re thinking about everyone out there and your team. And they still love you for hanging out for an hour or so today. I know you’re super busy, so weird time.

Steven: And if you are free tomorrow we’ve got another webinar. Nice dovetail from this one. I think Sarah laid the foundation really well for us and my buddies up in Ontario, Jen and John, they’re going to talk about their real strong and direct response. So if you’re sending out mail, I would definitely say listen to this session.

Steven: I’m going to talk about vulnerability. And awkwardness. Two things I know very much about especially for my high school days. But check that one out tomorrow. Same time, same place, 2:00 PM Eastern, totally free. You’re going be a good one. We got I think three or four webinars happening next week also. So check out our webinar page cause there’s some good things coming up. But we’ll call it a day there just to look for an email from me with the side to recording.

Steven: Check out There’s so much good stuff on there. The podcast, check out Sarah’s books. Obviously there’s some good stuff and reach out to her. I know we didn’t get to all the questions, but she’s on Twitter. She’s pretty easy to find, I think. I’m sure she’d be, she’d be happy to chat with you. There you go. I put you on the spot.

Steven: So thanks for saying yes. Great. So thanks to all of you. Stay healthy. We’re all thinking about you. If you’re celebrating Passover starting tonight. I, you know, best wishes to all of you all. I know we’ve got webinars, but we’re going to record everything. So if you can’t make tomorrow’s webinar, you’ll get the recording for sure. But have a good rest of your Wednesday and a safe week and we will talk to you again soon. Bye now. Thanks everybody.

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