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January 27, 2021

How do we communicate without communications staff?

Wayne Ho

Staff cuts and running an organization on a skeleton crew have become an unfortunate effect of the difficult times we have been facing. Here’s an inspirational boost and re-air of one of our most popular podcasts from the Spring of 2018 with Wayne Ho, President and CEO of the Chinese-American Planning Council, about how he manages he manages without a communications staff.


Sarah Durham: I’m Sarah Durham. One of the really fun things about hosting a podcast is getting a chance to spend time with nonprofit leaders and ask them questions and learn from them. I’m always inspired by the vision and the innovation that the people I interview bring to their work. And it’s honestly really fun to just get a chance to talk to them. One of those inspiring leaders is Wayne Ho, the President and CEO of the Chinese-American Planning Council. Wayne leads a very large organization with very few communications resources, but he never lets that stop him. And in this podcast, which was originally recorded in the spring of 2018, Wayne talks with me about how he manages without communication staff. It’s one of our most popular podcasts downloaded and shared by thousands of people. A lot of organizations are facing staff cuts right now. So we thought we’d re-air it in the hopes that it can provide you with a little inspiration and perspective during these challenging times. I hope you enjoy it.

Sarah Durham: I’m here with Wayne Ho. Who is the president and CEO of the Chinese-American Planning Council or CPC. Hi Wayne.

Wayne Ho: Hi, how are you doing, Sarah?

Sarah Durham: So for people who don’t know CPC, why don’t you just start by telling us a little bit about who you are as an organization and what you do.

Wayne Ho: CPC was founded in 1965 during the war on poverty, immigration reform, and the civil rights movement. And we’ve grown now from a grassroots Chinatown organization to the nation’s largest Asian American social services, nonprofit. So we serve over 60,000 New Yorkers per year. We provide services from childcare to senior care and all the other social services in between. And while two-thirds of our clients are Asian-American or Chinese-American. The other third represents the diversity of the neighborhoods that we’re in. So Black, Latino, Jewish, and others. So we provide over 50 social services programs in 33 locations throughout New York City.

Sarah Durham: And with a scope that large, you have a very large staff, you have 4,000 people on staff?

Wayne Ho: That is correct. We have 4,000 employees.

Sarah Durham: So of those 4,000 employees. How many of them have the word communications in their job title?

Wayne Ho: None, have communications.

Sarah Durham: I mean, that’s a really common challenge in our experience for human service organizations of all types. And it usually has to do with the funding that you receive. Is that the case for you?

Wayne Ho: That’s definitely correct. We’re mostly government-funded. And as a nonprofit is mostly government-funded where most government contracts don’t pay you enough administrative overhead, or they require you to raise private funding for matching dollars. We just don’t have the resources in order to have a communications staff member.

Sarah Durham: So without a communication staff person and, you know, running this really huge ship, how do you manage communications? How do you know, how do you think of communications externally? And how do you keep things on track?

Wayne Ho: So, several years ago, I heard a saying, which is, it’s not who, you know, it’s, who knows you. And when I heard that saying, it really resonated with me about what does communications and branding and positioning mean for a nonprofit organization to be an effective nonprofit organization. It’s not just about the services you provide, but it’s about being at the table. When either government policy decisions are being made or philanthropic decisions are being made, or when neighborhood decisions are being made that you need to be at the table. But instead of you trying to edge your way onto the table, you want those decision-makers to invite you to be at the table.

Sarah Durham: So I would call that like in the marketing world, we call that top of mind awareness, right? When a city official in New York, for instance, is making a decision about something that affects the constituents you serve. You want them to have top of mind awareness about CPC so that they call you and they bring you to the table.

Wayne Ho: Exactly. And that’s why external communications becomes important. We need to communicate our values and mission. We need to communicate the scope of our work. We need to communicate our expertise as a social services, nonprofit organization. We need to communicate to the individuals that are part of CPC. That’s from the board to all our staff. And that’s why external communications becomes important. It really frames for us, the board, and the senior staff, our program staff are really ambassadors for the organization.

Sarah Durham: So who’s doing it are all your line staff, all your programs, people are, they are brand ambassadors?

Wayne Ho: We want them to be our brand ambassadors. And that’s why we look forward to working with Big Duck. So we can clarify our branding better and have the right tools and training to support all our staff and our board members to be these brand ambassadors. But for right now, in terms of actual roles and responsibilities around external communications, it’s really our senior leadership team. So there are 17 individuals who make up our leadership team. Some of them on the program side, some of them are the administrative and management side, but we’re the ones who are responsible for making sure that we communicate externally. A lot of it feeds through me in making sure that our brand identity is solid and consistent. And in what I feel from my experience resonating with the different stakeholders that we engage.

Sarah Durham: And that makes a lot of sense. I mean, we often talk about how for a nonprofit, the word branding can feel a little uncomfortable. It feels a little corporate, but if you think of it as your organization’s voice, that can feel a little bit more comfortable. And somebody in a leadership role like the CEO is uniquely a voice for the organization.

Wayne Ho: And as the CEO, we know that we’re the face of the organization so that when we talk to government officials or other nonprofit organizations or potential funders, that we are the face of the organization, but I think you hit the nail on the head that we need a consistent voice. And it shouldn’t just be the CEO that has that voice. So whether it’s our chief program, officer, our board chair, our chief financial officer to the director of our workforce programs, we all need to have a consistent voice when we’re engaging with external parties.

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Sarah Durham: Yeah. We worked with another organization. That’s a human service organization here in New York City, also very large and also very under-resourced with communications a few years ago. And they do have a couple of people on an internal communications team. Although I have to say it’s quite disproportionate. I mean, in a lot of organizations, once you had 20, 30 staff people, somebody would have a communications job title in this organization. They like you have thousands of employees and just a couple of people, but their communications team’s primary mandate is initially internal communications, which you and I are going to talk about in another podcast. But the other mandate that the communications team has is empowering those people you talked about, the other leaders, the managers’, program staff to be effective ambassadors and to be the kind of central hub that all those people can turn to for resources on the brand. So they become almost like a hub at the middle who facilitate out to all the spokes, the visuals, the messaging, all the elements that they need to communicate effectively. And that’s a big job.

Wayne Ho: It’s definitely a big job. Our chief development officer, our chief public affairs officer, our chief program officer, our chief strategy officer, or chief of staff, I’m going through my C suite level. I apologize. Our C suite folks are the ones who are engaging so much with external parties, as well as with internal parties. And they’re the ones that are really getting together to make sure that the brand is consistent. The voice is clear and also that we’re inspiring and motivating, not just decision-makers, but also our staff and also our constituents and clients. And they’ve all raised that we need a communication staff member because of how much we get invited now to the table for not just local neighborhood press or Asian, ethnic press. But because of our strategic direction that we’ve been moving in, in the last year, that mainstream press are starting to reach out. And the moment that happens, we as an organization, do need a position as better as a thought leader and an influencer in New York City.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. It is a challenge without a person who’s kind of dedicated to coordinating and managing those issues. There are some good resources for this too. One of the resources that I often recommend people look at as they’re thinking about building in a communications capacity in a more formal sense as a department are the resources of the, which is a great resource headed up by Kivi Leroux Miller and Kivi and Big Duck have done some collaborations in this area where we’ve looked at team structures and Kivi’s done some terrific research and an annual survey that she and her colleagues there do where every year they look at the operating budget of nonprofits, how many communications people they have in what roles, and also whether those departments are merged or integrated with other teams or standalone. So oftentimes what we see most common is a comms team that’s integrated with the development team, and that might be a first step for a lot of organizations.

Wayne Ho: And that’s exactly what we’re thinking about is my chief development officers and pushing for communications staff to be under her. And for right now, that’s what it seems to make the most sense for our organization.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, it can. And, and we have an area of our work called teams where we help some organizations deal with this structurally. And so we’re constantly looking at how different organizations do this, a different model that some organizations use, but typically not human services is to integrate the comms team into the programs team. And what’s interesting about that. And I’ll link in the show notes to a blog that we published from an organization called the American Friend Service Committee, which is the sort of social justice arm of the Quaker movement. They’ve done that. And they actually have people in the communications team who are sociologists and researchers, and they’re doing research that then informs the programmatic work. So what’s interesting about that model is that the comms team can provide some really robust sort of research and testing data that the programs team can really use. And that builds trust between the teams. And that’s pretty powerful.

Wayne Ho: And I think that sounds interesting to consider too because as we know, communications is not just about fundraising, which is how most people think about development departments. If it aligns with the program department, that’s what communications should be about is you’re not talking about just funding or you’re just talking about the organization, the abstract, you really need to talk about the programs and the human impacts that you’re making as a social services nonprofit.

Sarah Durham: Absolutely. I like to draw a Venn diagram of three interlocking circles and to explain why communications need to communicate fundraising is definitely one of those circles programs is another circle. That’s the kind of mission delivery piece. And the third circle is advocacy, which, you know, for an organization like yours is a really central piece of your work and has a big overlap with programs for some other organizations, it’s not always necessarily legislative. It can just be being a voice in the community or for the community in different circles. But nonprofits often have to communicate across all those levels and communicate about the organization. Overall, it’s pretty complicated. Each of those circles has its own audiences. I actually think nonprofit communications is much more complicated than for-profit communications for that reason.

Wayne Ho: Yeah. And it feels that way too because as part of the strategic direction at CPC is to build out our policy and advocacy work. So that’s where it becomes important for us to not just do communications to funders or communications to clients, but we do need to communicate to elected officials and other decision-makers. So you are correct. I think it’s very complicated in terms of how do we best communicate as a social services nonprofit because we have so many different audiences who have very different interests and priorities.

Sarah Durham: Yup. Well, in the show notes, we’re going to link to the Chinese-American Planning Council’s website and to Wayne’s bio. Thank you for being here. And we’ll link to some of the resources we talked about too, for those of you who are looking to build out your communications team and get stronger as external communicators. Thanks, Wayne.

Wayne Ho: Thank you very much, Sarah.

This podcast has been sponsored by Bloomerang