April 11, 2018

How do we communicate without communications staff?

Having a dedicated communications team is out of reach for many nonprofits, but the need to communicate effectively to external audiences is still there. This episode of the Smart Communications Podcast features a conversation with Wayne Ho, President and CEO of CPC, a large social services organization located in NYC. Out of CPC’s 4,000 employees, none have “communications” in their job title. Listen in to find out how Wayne encourages all staff to be effective brand ambassadors.


Sarah Durham: Hey, everybody. Welcome to The Smart Communications Podcast. I’m Sara Durham and I’m here with Wayne Ho, who’s the President and CEO of The Chinese American Planning Council, or CPC. Hi, Wayne.

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

Sarah Durham: 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 Civil Rights Movement. We’ve grown now from a grassroots Chinatown organization to the nation’s largest Asian American social services nonprofit. We serve over 60,000 New Yorkers per year and we provide services from childcare to senior care and all of the other social services in between. And while two-thirds of our clients are Asian American or Chinese American, the other third represent the diversity of the neighborhoods that we’re in, so black Latino, Jewish and others. We provide over 50 social services programs in 33 locations throughout New York City.

Sarah Durham: With the scope that is that large you have very large staff. You have 4,000 people on staff?

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

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

Wayne Ho: None have communications in their title.

Sarah Durham: I mean, that’s a really common challenge, in our experience, for human services 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 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: Without a communications staff person, and running this really huge ship, how do you manage communications? How do you think of communications externally and how do you keep things on track?

Wayne Ho: 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: In the marketing world we call that top of mind awareness. 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 the individuals that are part of CPC. That’s from the board to all our staff. And that’s why external communications becomes important and it really frames for us the board and the senior staff, our program staff are really ambassadors for the organization.

Sarah Durham: Who’s doing it? Are all of your line staff, all your programs people, are they your 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. There’s 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 what I feel from my experience, resonating with the different stakeholders that we engage with.

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 a 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. 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.

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 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. 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 of those people can turn to for resources on the brand. They become almost like the hub at the middle who facilitate out to all the spokes. The visuals, the messaging, all the elements that they need to communicate effectively. That’s a bit 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, our 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. 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 to position us better as a thought leader and an influencer in New York City.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, it is a challenge without a person whose 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. 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 in 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. 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 officer has been pushing for communications staff to be under her, and for right now that’s what seems to make the most sense for our organization.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, it can. 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. 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 Friends 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 teams who are sociologists and researchers, and they’re doing research that then informs the programmatic work. What’s interesting about that model is that they comms team can provide some really robust research and testing data that the programs team can really use, and that builds trust between the teams. And that’s pretty powerful, too.

Wayne Ho: 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 a 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 in 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 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 for an organization like yours is a really central piece of your work and has a big overlap of 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 level 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, as part of our strategic direction at CPC is to build out our policy and advocacy work. 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 official 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: Yeah. 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.

The Smart Communications Podcast is hosted by Sarah Durham, CEO of Big Duck and produced by Marcus dePaula. Our music is by Broke for Free.