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February 1, 2023

How can development and communications teams work better together?

Sunil Oommen

Clear communication and shared strategy internally are essential to strong external communications. Farra Trompeter, co-director, chats with Sunil Oommen, President of Oomen Consulting LLC, about why collaboration between your teams is so important.


Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and member-owner of Big Duck. Today, we’re going to ask the question, “How can development and communications teams work better together?” As someone who started their work in the nonprofit world almost 30 years ago doing fundraising and then got into branding and communications, I’m often thinking about this intersection of fundraising and communications. And of course, it comes up a lot in the work we do here at Big Duck.

Farra Trompeter: Today, I have the pleasure of talking with Sunil Oommen, who uses he/him pronouns. Sunil is the president of Oommen Consulting LLC, a boutique practice focused on fundraising, events, and project management. Sunil founded Oommen Consulting after spending 20 years developing a broad base of skills and expertise in fundraising, communications, and community relations. Most recently, Sunil served as the senior director of development for Human Rights First, an international human rights organization. And before that, he worked in several different fundraising and leadership roles at Amnesty International USA, A Better Chance, South Asian Youth Action, GLAAD, and the New York Blood Center. He currently serves as a board member of the New York City Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, or NYCAFP, and that, I believe, is actually how we met. I’ve been helping coordinate different content for the AFP-NYC Fundraising Day and have spoken there. Sunil, welcome to the show.

Sunil Oommen: Thank you, Farra. Yes, that’s how we met, and it’s a pleasure to be here.

Farra Trompeter: Well, it is a pleasure to have you. Sunil, I want to start off by talking a little bit about you. Across your various social media platforms, I really appreciate the sentence you have where you say that your “life mission is to ensure equality, dignity, and respect for all human beings everywhere,” and I really would love to just hear a little bit more about that mission, how that came to be, and how that really shows up for you in your work.

Sunil Oommen: Totally. And Farra, I’m sure as a communications professional, you can appreciate that it actually starts with a story. So, picture it. I am 10 years old, I am the son of Indian immigrants, and this is New York, circa 1980s. It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon, I do remember that, and I’m sitting in a barbershop in the chair getting my hair did. And I have my mother waiting for me in the car, parked on the street. All of a sudden my mother comes in being chased by two men who are towering over her. And out of the corner of my eye, I see her cowering, and I see these two men, almost like a cartoon, kind of crouching over her. All I hear are yelling phrases like, “Show me your papers. You don’t belong here.” And everyone in the barbershop, and mind you, it’s a Saturday afternoon, it was busy, was shocked and didn’t do anything. And mind you, I’m sitting there with scissors at my head wondering if anyone was going to do anything, and I’m mad. My mother was being attacked, and I had no one coming to the rescue. So, I was boiling on the inside, and all of a sudden I blurted out to these strangers, “My mother is an American citizen.” That stunned everybody, and the brouhaha eventually ended. And then I decided something that day, Farra, that I need to use my voice to stand up for what I believe in. And ultimately that everyone, regardless of whether you have documents or not, and regardless of what background you are, deserves dignity and respect, and that you belong wherever you find yourself on the planet.

Sunil Oommen: So, I decided to take that mission that got inculcated in me when I was 10 years old, and I manifested it professionally by working for organizations like GLAAD and Amnesty International USA and South Asian Youth Action and continue that in my consulting work to this day where I work to advance immigrant justice, racial justice, mental health awareness, and other things to make sure that everyone everywhere is able to live in dignity and respect.

Farra Trompeter: Wow, I love that. I got chills. Thank you so much for sharing that story, and my love to your family. I’m sorry that your mother experienced that. I grew up in New York in the 80s too, and there definitely were things that were tough about that time here in the state.

Farra Trompeter: So, I want to go back a little further in time, but maybe not all the way back to the 80s. In 2019, I actually co-led several conference sessions and even hosted a webinar and a podcast with Chris Tuttle, another consultant, under the banner of “How can you get your teams to stop fighting like cats and dogs?” In fact, we spoke at Fundraising Day New York on that very topic, and these were discussions that tried to playfully uncover the tensions between communications and development teams using Chris’s love of dogs and my love of cats to represent the two departments as we debated who owned what. And you can in fact listen to the podcast if you’re out there if you haven’t heard that one or watched the webinar we did at, of course, we’ll link to both of those in the show notes.

Farra Trompeter: But today, I want to build on that conversation and bring in your perspective as someone who has worked in development for over 20 years. And so, I’m curious, in your perspective, to your point of view, why are we even having this conversation? What are some of the givens or expected norms or regular practices that tend to show up in nonprofits between development and communications teams? Why is this a problem?

Sunil Oommen: Well, first, I want to thank you for acknowledging my mother’s situation. My family is good now. I feel like I’ve been able to contribute to society by taking the privilege I have had growing up and giving it back to the nonprofit sector. But speaking to your question, I think that we’re still having this conversation about development and communications because the two functions are often separated in two different departments with their own respective goals that are different and are not mutually corresponding or complimentary. As a result, even though it makes perfect sense for the two to coordinate, often organizations are structured in such a way that they are meant to be working in silos in order to achieve separate sets of goals. So, even the topic of collaborating between the two departments comes up as additional work to do outside of what you’re supposed to do to hit your annual performance review measures. So, I feel like it’s structural in many ways.

Sunil Oommen: I love the podcast you had done with Chris and analogizing it against dogs and cats because I feel like if anything, communications development should really be like peanut butter and jelly. I like to eat, so I’m going to use a food metaphor. If people don’t know you, they’re not going to give to you. So I really do feel like they’re ultimately complementary, and I think that leadership starting from the very top, at the ED or CEO level, really needs to get that and coordinate, even if they have to be in two separate departments, and I know we’re going to get to that in terms of structure a little bit later, actually have the opportunity to work with each other to fulfill on goals that they’re supposed to work on together to hit by the end of any given year.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I think we can blame it on those dreaded KPIs and OKRs and all the other things that people have to come up with.

Sunil Oommen: Right.

Farra Trompeter: But no, it is true. I mean, I think what happens is people are given mandates, either funds to raise, people to reach, whatever it may be, and people then are focused on achieving that in their lane. And it’s almost fostered that they should challenge each other and work separately as opposed to working together. And of course, that’s the idea we put forward in the podcast and the conversation I did with Chris and the one where we definitely want to advocate for today. So, let’s just start with that. What does it look like when these teams do work well together, when they are collaborating and they are not fighting like cats and dogs? Have you seen any great examples out there that you can share, either specific organizations or just generally, “I’ve seen an organization who does X?”

Sunil Oommen: Yeah, I’m going to do more of the latter. I have seen in organizations, between the ones I work for full-time or as a consultant, it works well where the communications function, along with advocacy and development so, it was actually structured under an external relations house. They had weekly meetings and they briefed each other on the latest developments on their projects or respective initiatives. So everyone got to hear from one another on what was happening and how they could possibly sink into one of the current projects or realize that another department under the external relations shop could benefit from the work that they’re doing. Case in point, I was working on an annual report for one client and the communications department had a lot of the content and the stories. So that was something that was obviously a natural synergy to work with the communications department on because I was in the development department at the time.

Sunil Oommen: And then also when it comes to staffing events, there’s nothing like being part of an event and part of the event team to have everyone feel like they are part of fundraising. So we had our communications colleagues at various organizations work behind the scenes at our events, and they got to see what the machinery was like, and therefore, got a better appreciation of the fundraising process.

Sunil Oommen: And then for one client in particular, who was very mindful of diversity, equity, and inclusion issues, and really was a gold standard in it, I learned, actually, a lot from their communications department. I was consulting to their development team, and their communications department advised on how we can make our gala website more accessible to people with disabilities, for example. So it was opening a whole new arena of work and formats to me that I didn’t even know. So, those are a couple of examples that I have to share on what I’ve seen that has been good out there.

Farra Trompeter: That’s great. I mean, what I hear in your comments that sounds like you completely embody is what, you know, is often called the growth mindset. Like, an openness, a curiosity, an “I can learn, actually, by collaborating,” not that “this is going to be extra to my job, this is going to make it harder for me to do that work,” and I think that attitude is part of what’s essential to fostering the sense of collaboration.

Farra Trompeter: I want to come back to that thread we were just talking about a few minutes ago about structure, as you noted. And I think I certainly see lots of structures like separate departments or like you said, one department under the banner of external relations or institutional advancement. Sometimes I see the development team managing the communications team, the communications team managing development, the two working side-by-side with both of them reporting to the CEO. I hear frustrations from my communications clients that they are not given a seat at the senior leadership table, others that they are. And the fundraising team, but you know, there’s all different kinds of structures out there, and each organization has their own reasons for, you know, depending on their size and where they are in terms of their formation, I think that helps inform how they’re organized. But I’m curious, in your experience, again, both as a previous staff person and as a consultant, what structure do you think works best in terms of having these two teams work well together so that they can, you know, help make sure a clear and consistent brand is being communicated? That donors and activists and volunteers are getting a full sense of the organization, and folks are kept up to date with what it’s doing so that it ultimately can achieve its mission.

Sunil Oommen: Right. That’s such an important question because you already outlined, Farra, for example, different ways that departments organize themselves and, reiterating what you’re saying, how it depends on the size of the organization and the resources. You know, I work with a lot of small- to medium-sized shops where it’s really a one or two person organization, and they actually have to cover development and communications so it’s not hard for them to coordinate because they just have to balance a very large workload.

Sunil Oommen: Straightforwardly, the best structure I’ve seen in my years is when you have one director responsible for external relations, whether it’s development and communications or development, communications, advocacy, other things that would qualify under external relations, and then having teams underneath and they coordinate among the teams, and you have that one person responsible for ensuring alignment and that person gets to see vistas into how everyone is operating and identify where there are opportunities to collaborate, where there’s content being created in one area, or identifying gaps that another department can fill.

Sunil Oommen: But absent that, because that usually is in the purview of large organizations with resources, I think it does boil down to ensuring that the CEO gets that development and communications at the minimum. You know, forget any of the other external relations functions for a second, but at least development and communications – the topic for today – that the goals that are created for both departments are mutually complementary.

Sunil Oommen: And I’m not a big fan of forcing collaboration through KPIs or any of those metrics that could be burdensome, but I think there’s something to be said when you are looking at what you’re looking to achieve and realizing that, going back to that adage of “If they don’t know you, they won’t give to you,” that development professionals need communications tools in order to help acquire new donors and keep communicating to donors why we’re doing good work and why they should continue giving. And communications professionals obviously need fundraisers, for example, to provide audiences. In fact, a lot of my clients, you know, are often tapped by the communications department to help provide the audiences of donors and whatnot to attend online events and the like. And obviously for the funds that fundraisers can raise for not only mission-driven programming but communications programming to support the overall organization.

Sunil Oommen: So, I do think that it’s a matter of ensuring that the ED or the CEO is on board and helps communicate that, but let’s say that you know, that’s not in the picture, then I think it’s incumbent on both the development head and the communications head to take a moment, whether it’s an actual lunch in person or if you’re still virtual or remote in different parts of the country, having the equivalent of an online watercooler conversation to establish a relationship.

Sunil Oommen: I learned in my career that I could do all the work I needed to and just do the transactions, but if I didn’t have the basis of relationship with my colleagues, then my work was not going to get done as quickly, or, you know, I wouldn’t get my emails returned and therefore it would just make my and my team’s jobs harder. So, taking the time to develop that relationship and demonstrating the mutuality of our respective functions is going to be key in order to getting work done. So, bottom lining here, Farra, that it could be a variety of different structures, but as long as there’s mutual respect and the ability to coordinate with each other on work is, I think, the key to ensuring success for development-communications relationship.

Farra Trompeter: There’s so much you just said that I want to build on. I’m going to try to keep it all in my brain and see if I can refer to it. So first, I want to note your mention about the CEO or the executive director really understanding why this is important, and I want to put a promo or a plug out there for a book, The Nonprofit Communications Engine: A Leader’s Guide to Managing Mission-driven Marketing and Communications by Big Duck’s founder, Sarah Durham. The Nonprofit Communications Engine came out in 2020, and while it’s oriented around how an ED should understand communications so that they can better manage it, certainly there’s overlap with fundraising, and if you’re out there and you are an executive director or someone who’s heading up comms or even fundraising, I would encourage you to check out Sarah’s book. There’s also lots of webinars on our site that we recorded about it that we’ll link to if you’re someone who likes to learn that way.

Farra Trompeter: The other thing that you were just speaking about is the idea of mutual trust and respect. And I just recorded a podcast that we released recently with Josh Riman from Great Believer about how respect and kindness and trust needs to show up in how clients and consultants work together. So I’m sure you would be able to relate to that as a consultant.

Sunil Oommen: Totally. Yeah.

Farra Trompeter: But I think it’s totally applicable to staff, and to your point, you know the only way for us to work well together is for us to treat each other well and really try to build that relationship. So I just want to “plus one-thousand” all the things you’ve said.

Farra Trompeter: Before we wrap up, I do want to provide folks out there with a few more practical tips or insights about how development and communications teams should interact. You mentioned earlier the idea of a weekly conversation. I love that as a chance for folks to learn from each other and share what they’re doing and brainstorm new opportunities. Are there any other recommendations or ideas that come to mind for you as things you’ve seen? Really practical things folks can put into place if they want their development and communications teams to work better together?

Sunil Oommen: Actually, piggybacking off of the weekly meeting idea, what I saw in one organization that I really liked was a meeting with communications, development, and programs. So we got the programs update and then communications and development were hearing it and then having the separate conversation as to how communications and development could coordinate. So I wanted to add that additional color. So, the bottom line is regular communications, right, between the respective core functions of the organization.

Sunil Oommen: The other thing that I wanted to mention is the database, or your email system, because nothing creates togetherness like sharing an email system or a database, right? I was once responsible, for example, for checking out different databases because we were switching out one of ours at the time, and I made it a point to coordinate with my communications colleagues because I know that a lot of the same databases that fundraisers use are now equipped with communications tools that my comms colleagues could use as well. So we actually went in on the RFP for databases and email systems together, and that fostered more of a system of collaboration because we were sharing a lot of the same contacts, and even when we weren’t, we were able to distinguish the ones that development would have a, hold on, for example, for having separate communications outside of the direct mail pool, for example, or outside of the pool that communications would market too. So, that is something that if your organization has a database that you figure out where there are syncs with this comm side, or if there’s an opportunity to create one platform that both functions can use, because it’s probably going to be a cost savings for the two departments if there are two departments, to actually share one database and just segment inside of it accordingly.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I’m going to build on that. I mean, I love the idea of working together if there is an RFP process or an outreach for a big initiative, either for fundraising or communications, just to ask, “Do you have any feedback before we put this out there? Do you have anyone we should reach out to?” But I can imagine that if you’re working on a website, both fundraising and communications should be consulted.

Farra Trompeter: You were talking about a database, you mentioned email. I’ve seen organizations that have several different email systems and then those audiences are all separated, and there might be people on three different lists who are hearing at different times. Nobody knows when the events group send something out versus the fundraising versus the programs versus communications. So the idea of, again, looking at how we can better coordinate not just in our day-to-day conversations, but even in our systems is so, so great to mention.

Farra Trompeter: And I also want to highlight something you said, which is we’re putting a focus on development and communications. Those are the groups, I know at Big Duck, we work most closely through our work that I know, Sunil, you work most closely to. But it’s so important to think also about programs, about advocacy, about the other departments in our organization. Again, to me, I always think it comes back to saying, “What is our mission and who are the most important people we need to reach and engage so we can achieve that mission?” And if we can all agree on that, then we bring our question about how we should collaborate through that lens. Hopefully, it fosters better work and that will only help us and what we’re putting out there across all of our communications channels, including fundraising.

Farra Trompeter: Sunil, thank you so much for being here. If you’re out there and you want to learn more about Sunil’s work, you can visit his website at Oommen Consulting. That’s, You can also connect with Sunil on LinkedIn via his full name or follow him on Twitter, @sunil_oommen. Again, Sunil, I really loved this conversation. I just want to pause and see if there’s any last thoughts you have to share before we wrap up.

Sunil Oommen: It’s been great being here. Thanks so much, Farra, for inviting me. The last thing I want to share is actually something I learned very early in my career. I was actually in public relations very early on, and one of the first things I learned was to focus on your audience and what would move them. And that’s not necessarily something that fundraisers often think about. We think in different ways, but not necessarily in terms of audience. So, I took that concept to my fundraising work so I want to share back to your listeners that if fundraisers also focus on the audience and what would move them and what their behaviors are, and what they’re motivated by, especially from a philanthropic standpoint, then it actually makes collaboration with communications colleagues more natural and actually necessary because our communications colleagues are experts at storytelling. And I think we could do more work in storytelling in fundraising, for example, and it would make the sync between fundraising and communications and the collaboration that much stronger if we really center our audiences first and how we approach them. Regardless of whether it’s a foundation or an individual donor or a corporation, but just thinking about the audience and letting your goals and your strategies emanate from there. That’s one I wanted to leave you with.

Farra Trompeter: I love that. And I’ll just add that back on Episode 96 of the Smart Communications Podcast, I spoke with Mica Bevington about using donor personas to guide your communications, and so that might be, you know, you want to figure out audiences and you’re a fundraiser, I encourage you to listen to that. Sunil, thanks again for being here.

Sunil Oommen: Thank you so much.