3 Ways to Hire and Retain the Best Nonprofit Communicators
Savvy communications directors with deep expertise and track records of success in larger nonprofits are, in my experience, a bit like the Painted Bunting who unexpectedly took up residence here in Brooklyn recently; rare birds that can be difficult to attract, spot, and head south for the winter too soon. When the right person applies to work for you and stays, spearheading game-changing communications projects year after year, you’ve hit the jackpot.
Here are three ways you can hire and retain the best nonprofit communicators:
Want a pro? Hire a pro.
It sounds funny to say, but if you want an expert communications director, you need to actually hire one. That often means resisting the urge to promote that programs person who you think is a good communicator just because they’ve worked at your org for awhile and “get it.” Try to avoid hiring that great person from the corporate world who comes without nonprofit experience too. Instead, recruit people with solid backgrounds working in nonprofit communications already so they can bring their knowledge of the sector, strategy, and skills with them.
Kivi Leroux-Miller and I recently collaborated on a study of successful in-house communications teams that revealed that hiring expert nonprofit communications professionals was a critical factor. (Download our ebook “What it Takes to Be Great: The top five factors of successful nonprofit communications teams” here).
Big team? Invest in a strong second-in-command.
I recently invited a handful of senior communicators at nonprofit organizations with operating budgets of 100 million dollars or more to meet each other over breakfast at Big Duck and share how their teams are structured. While each nonprofit’s communications team varied in size (from 1.5 to 14 full-time employees!) the directors in the room who seemed the happiest (and calmest) all had one thing in common: a strong second-in-command.
Senior-level communications pros don’t want want to do it all themselves, and they know it’s not a good use of donor dollars if they do. A strong Number Two gives your communications director the ability to step out of the weeds of managing every project, focus on setting priorities, and work more on the high-value projects. This generates greater value for the nonprofit, who’s likely paying that director a six-figure salary, and pushes down the day-to-day communications work to people who are less expensive, just starting their careers, and need to build these skills. It also provides your organization with a working succession plan if your director leaves.
These Number Two spots are great opportunities to develop rising stars—and a more appropriate place for someone who’s entering your organization from the corporate sector or another department. They can be mentored by the Director while getting hands-on experience assuming management responsibilities.
Lots to do? Set priorities and be ruthless.
Communications teams have important strategic work to do: raising awareness, changing hearts and minds, engaging donors or members, recruiting participants to programs, strengthening the brand experience, and more. This work can take years to do successfully and well; it requires planning, budgeting, buy-in,methodical oversight, and execution.
At the same time, many communications teams also function as an internal agency. They are asked to create flyers for events at the last minute, help a department finesse and send an email out, and more to accommodate projects on short notice. This work is important too, but it’s often reactive and more tactical. It’s the sort of urgent (but not always important) work that eats up time from the important (but not always urgent) work of proactive, strategic communications.
That seasoned director you hope will build a nest for years to come will fly away fast if she’s burdened with an unreasonably long list of tasks, murky priorities, no resources for managing more production-based assignments, and left without time to advance the projects where she and her team might add the most value.
In our ebook, “What it Takes to Be Great: The top five factors of successful nonprofit communications teams,” we confirmed that successful communications teams rely not only on a clear set of priorities, but also the support of leadership who empowers them to be able to say no. At my roundtable of communications pros at large nonprofits there was consensus about this, too.
If priorities aren’t clear, consider labeling every project your department works on in one of these three ways:
Fire-extinguishing: these projects and tasks are typically urgent, time-sensitive, and often crisis-driven. They tend to be tactical and often have little or no long-term ROI. For example, fixing your board chair’s misspelled name on that big mailing you’re about to do.
Optimizing: these projects and tasks usually involve making processes, systems, and tools better. For instance, upgrading Constant Contact to something more state-of-the-art and powerful like Salesforce, or building a better website.
Seed-planting: these projects and tasks are the essence of important/not urgent work. They won’t bear fruit for some time, but when they do, you’ll feel great. For instance, researching and preparing a 3-year plan for your communications team that builds off of your organization’s strategic plan, includes a budget, and culminates by tackling a big project (such as a rebranding you know you should do but can’t happen soon).
Labeling these projects and tracking them in a project management system like Basecamp (or even on post-its on your wall) will help you get a clearer sense where your team’s time actually goes. Better yet, consider reviewing how many and what sort of fire-extinguishing, optimizing, and seed-planting projects you’re working on regularly with your boss so you can make sure you’re aligned.
Looking for more? Just reach out.
If you’re a CEO searching for your own Painted Bunting at a mid-size or larger organization, contact us. We might be able to help.