November 28, 2018

How can nonprofit communications leaders collaborate more effectively?

Elise Dowell is Vice Chancellor for Communications and External Affairs at The Jewish Theological Seminary. Since joining JTS in 2002, Elise has lead transformational communications efforts, upgraded their recruitment marketing program, and won two Emmy Awards. She sat down with us to share lessons she has learned over her illustrious career, focusing on how to collaborate more effectively and build organizational alignment around the value of communications.


Sarah: This is the Smart Communications podcast. Developing the voices of determined nonprofits. Brought to you by Big Duck.

Sarah: Hey, welcome back to the Smart Communications podcast. I’m Sarah Durham and I’m here with Elise Dowell. Elise is the Vice Chancellor of Communications & External Affairs at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Sarah: Welcome, Elise.

Elise: Thank you.

Sarah: Just to give you a little bit of background about Elise, she guides the institution’s strategic communications, oversees external relations, and serves as an ambassador for JTS to the public. She advises the chancellor and senior administration on all communications related matters as well as on policy and institutional strategy. JTS has a staff of roughly 300 staff and faculty, so that’s a sizeable amount of advising you probably do. Elise joined JTS in 2002, was named Chief Communications Officer in 2008 and more recently, became the Vice Chancellor of Communications & External Affairs. During her tenure, she’s implemented a major rebranding initiative, enhanced JTS’ digital presence, upgraded the recruitment and marketing program, professionalized the communications operation throughout the organization. She oversees a communication staff of about eight people today and the work of her department has been recognized as a recipient of two Emmy awards and as a recipient of a 2015 UCDA design competition for the JTS micro site. Prior to JTS, Elise held positions in both the non-profit and corporate sectors which was one of the key reasons I wanted to invite her to talk with us today.

Sarah: She worked the Environmental Defense Fund and APL Digital, an inter-public group agency. She holds an MBA from Columbia Business School and a BBA from Emory University. As I said earlier, Elise’s background is one of the reasons I wanted to have her on the show and also, she’s been running communications at JTS for 16 years. Often in the work we do, we find that running a communications team involves some very tough lessons learned along the way. It’s rare you find a communications director who’s got both the nonprofit and an agency background and a business degree to boot. Elise and I had a conversation recently and I invited her to come on the podcast so we could talk about this, about lessons learned along the way. Elise, if we could go back in time to 2002 and you could sit down with 2002 Elise who just joined JTS, I want to hear from you what advice you’d give to yourself. We’ll dig into that in a minute. But before we do that, tell us a little bit about JTS for people who may not know about the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Elise: Sure. Well, thank you for having me. Let me tell you a little about JTS to give you some context about the work that we do. JTS is a preeminent institution of Jewish higher education and we train thoughtful and innovative leaders including rabbis, cantors, educators, lay leaders, and scholars. They strengthen our communities with a vision of Judaism that is both grounded in the Jewish past and thoroughly engaged with contemporary society. Our graduates are leading communities throughout North American and the world, running synagogues, day schools, JCCs. They’re the scholars running Judaic Studies programs at top universities. We like to say JTS inspires the Jewish world. I think that kind of sums it up.

Sarah: Elise, you have the benefit of having been deeply in this organization for many years and you’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons and those lessons have led to a lot of growth at JTS for the institution and a lot of growth for you personally and professionally.

Sarah: If you were advising somebody who was entering a job about how to approach that job for the first time as director of communications, what would you recommend they do?

Elise: I would recommend that entering a new role, people be highly aware of the culture of the organization and take some time initially to become comfortable and familiar with that culture.

Elise: In my early days at JTS, I think an example that can be cited of relevance is the engagement with faculty members and understanding the culture and the language that most resonated with this particular audience. When I was first starting out at JTS, I came in a newly minted MBA and was using language about marketing and positioning and branding, all words that were seen as very corporate and unfamiliar and uncomfortable in an academic setting. While people were interested in publicizing their work and promoting their work, when I was using language that felt less familiar and less comfortable, there wasn’t the immediate partnership that one would hope would happen. There was a little bit of resistance to the working together.

Sarah: I see that a lot. I mean, I think that it’s one of the tensions as you come in as a communications person with expertise when you’ve got a background working in other nonprofit settings or in agency settings or you’ve got an MBA.

Sarah: You’ve been hired for your expertise. You’ve been hired for your opinions, but you’re also, in many cases, moving into a culture that’s different from the places you’ve worked. There’s a book called “The First 90 Days” that talks about how to ramp up in a new job and that’s one of the big things they talk about is listening to understand what the culture is like so that you can adapt that expertise that you’re bringing to the table to do that. That’s an awesome piece of advice. I think a lot of people are struggling with how do I make change here if I can’t move in this culture.

Sarah: Tell me a little bit about how you have learned to collaborate and what advice you would give to people who are navigating these kinds of interpersonal relationships? Working with people in their organization who don’t really understand what communications is and don’t know how to leverage communications effectively.

Elise: I’ll fast forward that story to where we are now with our faculty and we have a very receptive faculty who’s really open and interested in partnering and being collaborative. The question of how we got from those uncomfortable conversations about branding and positioning and marketing to where we are today is an interesting narrative. I think that the collaborative approach is absolutely critical to achieving success in many different areas, but particularly I can speak to the communications work that we do at JTS. Walking in in 2002, there was that sense of I am here to do this job, let’s figure out what the rules of the game are and let’s communicate those rules and let’s execute. We tried that and we did that to some degree of success. We had this exercise that we did where we put, initially back in 2002, all of the different pieces of marketing material that we had on the table from all of the different departments and programs and schools of JTS and we realized that if you were somebody from the outside, you would never know that all of this material came from the same institution. It was disjointed and it was not branded and all of the issues that many nonprofits have when it comes to this work sometimes.

Sarah: By the way, that’s an exercise I recommend every organization do. I think it’s such a useful way to help people see what the outside audience’s experience of your organization is like. You don’t have to tell them, you just show them.

Elise: Exactly. It was very informative, so we took a look at this and said, “Okay, here are the rules of the game.” This is the brand and this style and the aesthetic and here are the people you are authorized to work with on the outside, designers and printers and all of these rules. We had a lot of rules and we communicated it and we began implementing it. While there was a larger degree of conformity, eventually we realized that it’s not a perfect system in that way. It’s not a one size fits all type of model and in order to be most effective, you need to be somewhat adaptive and you need to appreciate that there is nuance to the conversation.

Sarah: If you’re working with one department and that department has staff in it that really get it and they’re great writers and they’re smart and responsive and they understand the sort of communication strategy and how it relates, maybe you give them more flexibility because they’re able to take more ownership, right?

Elise: Exactly. If there is a trusted outside agency that you’ve worked with before and you have an internal team that really understands it and the organization as a whole is familiar with the direction in which you’re heading, sometimes you’re able to back off. Providing that flexibility and autonomy to individuals within the organization actually can accomplish more because obviously people take ownership of their work in a different way. They take pride in their work in a different way when they’re really running their projects. When you’re able to pull back a little bit and allow for that ownership within the larger framework obviously, it winds up accomplishing a greater outcome and a more impactful outcome.

Sarah: There’s a human service organization called Good Shepherd Services and they, like many human service organizations, have very small communications capacity. It’s usually just not something that’s funded through city and state contracts. One of the decisions they made that I think is a great example of this and we thought was very smart was they built relationships with printers, I think one printer in particular, where they gave that printer a number of templates and guidelines and felt really good about the printer’s ability to produce collateral that was on broad for Good Shepherd.

Sarah: Then, they effectively empowered all of the department heads or managers to work directly with that printer. As much as I think they probably would love to have all those materials running through the comms team, the reality is they just don’t have the bandwidth to manage everything.
Sarah: But by setting up this trusted external relationship and empowering managers through training, they’re able to achieve a solid outcome.

Elise: That’s exactly right. Even with a sizable communications team, which we’re fortunate to have at JTS, there’s only so much you can do.

Elise: Each year that you try and extend the reach of your brand and the impact of all of your messaging and marketing work, if you are able to empower other members within the organization to pull that thread even further, it really allows you to have have maximum impact.

Sarah: Both of these pieces you’ve talked about, really listening and adapting to the culture and being collaborative and not having a one size fits all solution, really involve a lot of flexibility. They involve you as the communications leader to be a listener, to be adaptive, to work in nuanced ways with different people. But let’s say you have something you feel really strongly about. You have a particular project or a goal that you wanna achieve. I know for you, one of them was paring down your website, for instance, a few years ago. How do you move the needle on something like that? How do you get a lot of people with strong opinions to start to move into the position you might want for a particular project?

Elise: That’s a good example to cite because our website, as is the case with many large institutions at a certain point, became too much. It was too much information. It was too many owners of content. It was not strategic in the way that we needed it to be and we recognized this and we partnered with Big Duck and we’re fortunate to go through this amazing process of really honing in on what the core content would be for our new site.

Elise: That said, the challenge of course was that there were many people, as is the case in many communications projects, that had strong opinions even if this was outside their professional expertise.
They had strong opinions on aesthetics and colors and fonts and you name it. Any element of the larger visual brand image that we were conveying, even as far as audiences that we were targeting and strategies that we’re trying to implement. There were lots of people with lots of different opinions and ultimately, we went from a 6,000 page website to a 500 page website with some resistance along the way. It was a significant effort and we had to pull some people, push some people, partner with some people within the institution and ultimately, we achieved this target goal.

Elise: We had a couple of target audiences that we wanted to communicate with primarily and we reached our goal. But the way that we really brought people to come to our line of thinking and come to the strategy that the communications team, with our trusted partners, were recommending was through data. Sometimes, it’s really important to let the data drive the conversation. Two years later, two years at this point from the launch of the site, we’re able to continually go back and say, look, this is what we were trying to do, this is what we’ve accomplished. We have thousands more people who are coming to our website each month because they’re actually able to find the content that they’re looking for. We have hundreds of new applicants to our schools because they’re able to access the content that really informs their thinking and decision making about applying to one of JTS’ schools. We have greater visibility for our library, which is a world renowned library because we provide the content.

Elise: When you’re able to show through data and through numbers and through analysis that your strategy is working and actually meets the needs of all the players at the table, I think it really can have an impactful outcome and a) advance your credibility, b) support your strategy and c) sometimes bring some of the stragglers on board.

Sarah: On the journey.

Elise: Exactly.

Sarah: Yeah, so first, I mean on a big project like that or with any project where you’re gonna have data, you can be aligned around the goals, right?

Sarah: In an education institution, there are clear goals around recruitment and admissions. There might be development related goals. There are a lot of specific metrics you can set as targets and then you can track it and see and that gives you the fire power. It also gives you the opportunity, I suppose, to pivot if you’ve gone in a direction that’s not working.

Elise: Absolutely. This sort of goes back to the being adaptive element of the conversation that we were having before. Obviously, you put strategies in place, you set your goals, you assess your success and whether you’re meeting the goals as you have set them out from the onset. But sometimes, not everything’s working exactly as you need to and when your partners at the table or your clients as we like to call them, the department heads or deans or what have you at JTS …

Elise: You say okay, let’s tweak this, let’s try something else so that it doesn’t feel like you’re being bulldozed into a strategy or an outcome with no thinking and no adaptability. You say, let’s look at this. Let’s make sure it’s working the way we want it to and let’s adjust if we need to and I think that really sort of creates that partnership and that partnership’s important.

Sarah: Yeah, and that role as a trusted advisor. It’s interesting to see also your progression because the role that you’re in now, Vice Chancellor for Communications & External Affairs is a new role. That role didn’t exist at JTS a few years ago. I think in many ways that’s sort of a testament to the fact that when you’re adaptive and flexible and you’re focused on a shared goal of advancing the mission of the organization, not just having your way with whatever particular project is important to you, you get real results and that earns trust in the organization.

Sarah: All right, well, thank you, Elise for joining me. This has been a meaty conversation and I look forward to having you back soon.

Elise: Thank you for having me.

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Speaker 3: This is the Smart Communications Podcast. Developing the voices of determined nonprofits, brought to you by Big Duck.

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