Photo by Greyson Joralemon on Unsplash
April 29, 2020

Why should your Executive Director prioritize communications?

Communications can have a big impact on many aspects of your nonprofit’s mission, from mobilizing activists to attracting donors and other supporters who are critical to your work. Farra Trompeter and Sarah Durham talk about the importance of communications, how to get your executive director to think differently about it, and a few of the principles in Sarah’s new book.


Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. Today we’re flipping the script and I’m going to interview our normal host. So this is Farra Trompeter, Chief Growth Officer here at Big Duck. And today I’m interviewing Sarah Durham, our lovely Chief Executive Officer. And we’re going to talk all about why your executive director should care about communications. Sarah, welcome to the podcast.

Sarah Durham: Thanks, Farra. It’s fun to sit in a different seat today and I’m delighted to be interviewed by you.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, yeah, well here we go. So first and foremost, you’ve got an exciting new book out, The Nonprofit Communications Engine and I’d love to just start by hearing, why did you write this book?

Sarah Durham: We have had conversations for years, you and I, and other people here at Big Duck about how communications is this word that’s kind of like this very big tent. And if you interview 10 different nonprofit people and you say, what is communications in your organization? You get probably even more than 10 answers. You get many, many answers. It’s this very amorphous and kind of murky thing. So about three years ago I embarked on this journey to try to pin down what that word really means. And the more I dug into the research and the thinking about this, the more I realized that there really is no clear framework for communications that nonprofits can sort of universally adopt and use. And it felt to me like it was a worthy endeavor to try to do that, to try to pin down something that would be relevant for a small organization, for a big organization. And that you could use as a framework to not only set up a communications function in a new organization, but maybe, you know, assess an existing department and think about how to optimize your team. So that was the backdrop and, here we are today. Great.

Farra Trompeter: One of the things I thought was really interesting in your research that I know was a deleted scene when you were editing the final book was really kind of the evolution of communications within an organization. And we talk a lot about life cycles of organizations when we’re doing branding work and we’re seeing kind of how the brand has changed over time with the organization and how much the organization invests in branding, that was a big thread in Brandraising, sort of moving from accidental to intentional branding. With communications, I know one of the things that I thought was really interesting in your research was seeing the evolution of communications through an organization’s life cycle and I was wondering if you could take us through what you found as you were doing that research.

Sarah Durham: Sure. You know, in most organizations the first few years are really shaped entirely by a founder. Somebody who’s got a big vision for some change they want to see in the world and they, usually on a voluntary basis, hopefully over time on a paid basis, create this organization and the communications almost entirely flow out of that person and are directed by that person, especially if they’re a one person band. But then as it becomes a real organization with real employees, communications as a function often in its first iteration kind of gets distributed through few people. Maybe it’s the founder and a first hire or two and all those people are so close to the founder that it’s kind of easy for them to just keep repeating what they’re hearing the founder talk about. But then as the organization gets bigger and starts to hire more people who don’t literally sit next to the founder every day, communications is a function sometimes moves into another department. Oftentimes it’s development, it’s the chief fundraiser, maybe it’s a programs person, it’s usually somebody who’s not necessarily a trained marketing or communications person, but they are really able to talk about the organization in some way. And so they kind of take over that function and then the organization keeps growing and all of a sudden the communication starts to feel a little siloed or a little stuck in one department or team. And so at that point, and many times, this is years and years down the road, organizations often start to think about hiring dedicated communications people, maybe even making a separate department. And that’s when communications as a separate function almost sort of becomes a conscious thing up until that point it’s very often just something that’s kind of snuck in around the edges with other functional tasks. So that’s not universally true. And I’ve arrived at that conclusion mostly just by hearing a lot of people talk about it, but it does seem to be this sort of organic evolution. And what we’re really talking about here is the moment where you as an executive director or you as a director of communications sort of consciously say, wait, let’s stop just letting communications happen to us and let’s start directing. Communications as a deliberate thing.

Farra Trompeter: That’s great. And I think what’s interesting is you think about the organic way communications grows in an organization and it is not the first thing often on most people’s minds, right? The first they’re trying to think about, first of all, what’s the point of our existence? What are we trying to do? How are we going to do that? How are we going to create those programs and implement them? How are we going to fund it so we can make sure we do it? This question of how we’re going to communicate about it is often the last asked and I think related to that, we’ve certainly seen from a funding perspective, foundations, donors, others are less interested necessarily in funding communications directly. It’s often something that I know from speaking with a lot of folks in development and other positions, they have to figure out how to word to get funding for it. And relatedly, I know this is something we saw during the recession in 2008 communications is often the first thing cut, right? If you’ve got to make decision about serving that meal your organization is trying to do and put food on the table literally for your programs work or getting the newsletter out, certainly that decision often goes toward serving that meal. Why do you think that is that communications, even as organizations grow and evolve, is often seen as kind of a lesser important thing to invest in and spend time on and often not a priority?

Sarah Durham: I think it’s easy to conflate or confuse the difference between the programmatic content and the way the programmatic content gets communicated. And in some organizations those can be one or the same. So for instance, if you are a Big Duck’s client, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, communicating about reproductive justice and reproductive health issues is actually programmatic. It goes to the core of the advocacy work that organization does and the education work that organization does. So in that way, the programmatic work and the communications work are one in the same, and if you cut communications, you actually are cutting a core functional area that’s essential to advance the mission of that organization. And that’s true for many organizations that have a strong advocacy component. But in other organizations, like the example you just use maybe a food pantry, the delivery of services, direct services, yes, there’s an important communications function, which is recruiting people to come in and get those meals or maybe communicating the donors so that they support the programs. But communications is often viewed as supportive as secondary or even tertiary to the actual putting food on the table, direct service work. And I think those are the organizations who probably feel they have to cut it when things get tight. I think what’s unfortunate in your comment about foundations, not necessarily funding communications, is that I think that does reflect maybe a misunderstanding or a missed prioritization about the type of communications that really are strategic and that really become essential to bring the strategic plan to life in ways that are beyond just like sending out a newsletter.

Farra Trompeter: Well, so let’s paint a picture. What does it look like when an organization actually prioritizes communications? I mean it’s a two part question, let’s see how it goes. So first it’s what does it look like when an organization really prioritizes communications and then within that, what does that executive director or CEO looks like? Who’s really driving that?

Sarah Durham: Yeah. When an organization is really prioritizing communications, there are six elements, and I talk about this in the book specifically that are typically in place. There’s a communication strategy. There is a strong communications team that might be in house, people might be freelancers, might be volunteers, but there’s actual people who do communications work. There’s a culture in the organization that supports it, so those people who do communications are given the tools they need by their peers to advance their work. There are processes and systems that are clear and well developed and organized. They’re tools they can use to communicate and then there’s some kind of moment where they learn where they are at the end of a project debrief or they think about what worked and what didn’t work and they get better. So a very high functioning communications team or organization would probably have a mix of those six elements and I’ve actually seen that in very tiny organizations. I once gave a workshop in Florida where a woman came to the workshop, she was an executive director of a small local community organization. It was her and one other person and she actually had all those things between her and the person and some volunteers. So it can be done on a very small scale. It can also be done on a very big scale. You and I have talked about this a few times. There are executive directors that we see and have the privilege to work with who come in oftentimes after strategic planning or through strategic planning, kind of ready to take communications to the next level. They’re sort of tired of feeling like they don’t have the tools they need and the people they need to communicate in an exciting way. One example of this is Vince Warren at the Center for Constitutional Rights, who’s been a guest on this podcast, where Vince literally said to us, “It’s time to blow the roof off of our communications,” and I love that line. You know, it sort of says everything about what communications can be when an executive director gets excited and Vince spent years building a senior leadership team that wasn’t just communications people, but includes a great communications person and where other people support and enable that person and they have the right tools and elements to do that, so it can certainly be done, but it’s multidimensional and often multi-year effort that has to be led from the top.

Farra Trompeter: What advice could you give to a communications staff person who works for an executive director who perhaps doesn’t quite think that communications should literally have a seat at the leadership team table or doesn’t prioritize communications or just doesn’t seem to think of it as a necessity to achieving the mission?

Sarah Durham: Yeah, I think often if an executive director doesn’t feel persuaded about the power or efficacy of strategic communications, the best way to start to open their eyes is to show them examples, to give them things to read or look at that are great examples of the power of great communications. I hope my book is one of those things. The book does have a lot of examples, real world examples and it’s a pretty quick read. It’s kind of thing an ED could probably skim through pretty fast, but I also think there are case studies out there. Sometimes I think the best way to open up that conversation with your executive director is to sit them down and look at the website of a peer or a partner organization that they admire. You know, if your executive director is often saying, gee, why can’t we be like Charity Water? You know, we’ll take a few minutes with them to poke around the charity water website and look at how many people they have in communications. Maybe even reach out to somebody there and ask them how they integrate communications because oftentimes the executive director might admire what they see externally as the output but hasn’t really thought about what it takes internally to achieve that outcome.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah. Another thing I often suggest to you and looking at examples is examples of peers based on your audiences. So if you are trying to get more donors to give you or hold onto your donors to get more activists to take action and more people to participate with your programs, who else are those people you’re trying to reach looking at and communicating with and how do those groups communicate? Getting on the email list, following them on getting on mailing lists and then collecting that and sharing that and say, look at what these people are doing cause the audience we reach, this is who else they’re hearing from or even looking at Googling who else comes up because in this day and age there is so much more competition for people’s mindshare, which is a concept I know you talk a lot about and I think getting on people’s radar and staying there is hard and showing how other people do it might spring an executive director into action. I think that you know the fear of keeping up for the Joneses I think often can do that.

Sarah Durham: Absolutely. I think keeping up with the Joneses is exactly the impulse you want you want to take advantage of in this conversation. Let’s just unpack for a second also what we mean by mindshare because I think that mindshare is something that people feel intuitively but maybe don’t label or talk about enough when they talk about communications. I think of mindshare, as sort of the level of awareness or consciousness that somebody might have about your organization. So when you think about some of the blue chip nonprofits, nonprofits that have been around for a long time, that might be national or international that have spent probably a lot of money on media and communications or maybe just gotten a lot of press along the way. They occupy mindshare, if I say Greenpeace or Red Cross or Make-A-Wish, these are organizations that have been proven, literally, to have very high name recognition and if somebody stops you on the street and says, would you like to make a donation to Greenpeace because they have some mindshare, even if you don’t understand exactly what they do, the door is like open a little bit. It cracks open a little bit and that’s the first opportunity you have maybe as a fundraiser or programs person to walk through it. But mindshare also has the shelf life. If I learn all about your organization, maybe I come to your event or go to a gala or something, I’m really fired up about it and I just don’t hear from you for weeks or months afterwards I start to forget. And that sense of connection that maybe I felt at your gala over time starts to fade. So part of what communicators have to do is they have to keep building and keep maintaining that momentum, that mindshare, so that we as the audience don’t forget and that door stays cracked open and we’re not sort of starting cold every time we reach out to people.

Farra Trompeter: And I think this is where the overlap of branding and communications happens, right? Because before we are going to be known by people for something, we first have to be clear on what that is. How do we get the right people to know us for the right things. And I think, first and foremost, we have to be clear on what that is and then we have to figure out how we can keep momentum in getting that out there.

Sarah Durham: Totally. We talk a lot in our branding work at Big Duck about positioning and there’s a lot of content on our website about positioning. Positioning is that big idea you want people to think of when they think of your organization and if you partner that with mindshare, which is kind of the maintaining a level of awareness, that’s the magic. That’s the ideal scenario. Many organizations have one or the other, you’ve heard of them, but you don’t really know what they do. Or maybe you understand what they do, but you of forget about them. Those two things need to go together.

Farra Trompeter: Right. Or what I often find is you’ve heard about what they do, but what you know of them was who they were 20 years ago,

Sarah Durham: Right.

Farra Trompeter: Or 10 years ago, and not who they are now, who their strategic plan is propelling them to be in the next five years. And that’s where that shift, and then reiterating that through constant communications comes into play. Well, I want to wrap up and sort of give our listeners some advice or some tips. First and foremost, I will say reading the book is great and we will soon be having lots of webinars and other content on our website about it, but you can pick up the book on Amazon and other places online. What other things can somebody do to get started on this to make the case for their executive director to really care about communications?

Sarah Durham: First of all, if you don’t already subscribe to the Big Duck newsletter, we will be sending out a lot of content about this. You can go to and go to the bottom of the page. Sign up all over the website for that. I think if you have the ability to find an article on our website maybe, or pick up the book and find a piece that you think might resonate with your executive director, that’s one thing we’ve already talked about. But another really simple tool you can use is on the website, if you go to and you click on Insights, we actually created a self assessment tool that you can download and you can use to assess your own communications capacity. So it gives you a series of questions and you basically give yourself a score and if you print out that self-assessment tool and you complete it and maybe you ask the executive director to complete it too, and you use that as jumping off point for a conversation. When I think it’s going to do is it’s going to surface where you’re on the same page. It might help you see that there are some obvious gaps that you can get behind making changes around or it may change your mind. You might find actually you’re in a stronger position than possible, but that’s an exercise that’s probably going to take you about 10 minutes to do. It’s very easy and hopefully will at least jumpstart a conversation.

Farra Trompeter: Great. Well, Sarah, thanks for joining us on the Smart Communications Podcast. If you do read Sarah’s book, please let us know. Leave a review on or send us a note at [email protected], that’s The Nonprofit Communications Engine and Sarah, thanks again for being here today.

Sarah Durham: Well, thanks a lot for having me as a guest, Farra. You’re an excellent host.

Farra Trompeter: Thank you, thank you. All right, everyone, have a great day.