Photo by Andhika Soreng on Unsplash
August 19, 2020

How do you build sustainable momentum into your communications?

Sarah Durham discusses how nonprofits generate sustainable momentum in their communications. She identifies common challenges, including bottlenecks created by leadership micromanagement and a lack of staff accountability, and offers ways to address them. Tune in to hear about the six key elements that can help your organization create sustainable momentum in its communications.


Sarah Durham: This is The Smart Communications Podcast, and I am Sarah Durham. And I’m alone today in the studio to talk to you about momentum in your nonprofit communications engine. This is a not so glamorous topic, but a really important one, I think. And in the spring of 2020, I gave a webinar series and one of the webinars I gave was focused on this. So I am going to talk you through some of the big lessons about this topic. And if you would like to watch the webinar to get a little bit more depth in the conversation, or to see slides, you can check it out at There’s a recording with a video and a transcript. But let’s dig in. Momentum is one of three critical outcomes that I wrote about in my book, The Nonprofit Communications Engine, which came out in January of 2020.

Sarah Durham: And the reason I arrived at this is that it occurred to me after doing a lot of research and working with nonprofits for 25 years or so that people don’t talk about this a lot. But some of the most successful communications functions in nonprofits seem to be successful not because they have a great person or a great brand or they do a great job at engaging alone, but because all of those things are underpinned with systems and processes and people who generate momentum that transcends an individual and makes it kind of bigger and more sustainable than just that one person. So in the webinar I gave, and I think as a good place to start, I talked a bit about why sustainable momentum is perhaps a challenge, or how do you know if you have a sustainable momentum problem? Well, one of the ways you know is if you have challenges with leadership. And by that I mean, your organization is synonymous with its leader or its founder.

Sarah Durham: Maybe your executive director or founder is kind of the face of the organization, the name of the organization, and what they say is associated with the organization and what the organization says or does is associated with them. And in that situation, you often find that the leader is the only person who can really speak publicly about the organization. They’re the only person who seems to be on message. And we also see in those organizations, and sometimes in organizations where that’s not the case, that the leader must approve every external communication. There are still organizations that I speak with who have, for instance, executive directors who want to read tweets before they are sent and edit them and approve them. And that creates a real bottleneck. It makes it very hard for communicators to do their job effectively when everything they do has to be reviewed or vetted or goes through that leader in the organization. The other type of sustainable momentum challenge resides with staff.

Sarah Durham: So maybe there is that one person in communications or that one person in development who knows how to do everything. They’ve got all the passwords, they know how to use the email service provider, they know how to log into Google Analytics. And without them, nobody could really move forward. It would just be almost impossible to get something done. That’s one kind of staff challenge. Another kind of staff challenge is sort of the reverse, it’s where lots of people know how to do different things, but there’s nobody who’s actually accountable and pulling it all together. So maybe this one person over there does some things, another person over there does something else, but there’s no common thread. And the minute in either of those situations that people start leaving, there is a real challenge. There’s no easy way to pick up the pieces. And that’s often because there is no documentation and no backups for communications.

Sarah Durham: So, sustainable momentum is key to building mindshare and engagement. If you are going to build mindshare and build engagement, and those are topics that I’ve talked about a lot in other podcasts or you can read about or watch about a lot at, you’ve got to create systems and processes to get you there. So let’s talk a little bit about why things go wrong. Why do we end up in these situations with challenging leadership or staff dynamics? One of the things we hear a lot is, “Oh, well, I would love to build more momentum in my organization, but I just don’t have the time to write it down. I’m one person, I’m doing everything, and it’s just not realistic.” That’s absolutely true, but that’s a short-term excuse that can mask a big long-term or create a big long-term problem. Having the time to write it down is about time management and perhaps taking things off your plate elsewhere.

Sarah Durham: It’s important to remember that as a communicator your job is not just the creation of content, but the administration of the system that helps keep the trains moving. It’s a little bit like getting your teeth cleaned. It’s never really fun, but when you do that good maintenance, when you stay on top of it, you’re happy you did it afterwards. Another common refrain is, “Well, I would do my part, but I can’t get my peers to play along.” And that is a culture problem. How can you show your team that they play a critical role? Can you celebrate wins with folks who do things? Celebrate their achievements in staff meetings or other meetings so that they feel good for the way they are collaborating and the way they are helping you administer the communications engine. And can you open up frank conversations with the folks who don’t help about why not and what the implications are?

Sarah Durham: So, rather than just sort of giving up, how can you tackle that head on through celebrating positives and perhaps addressing in above-the-line ways what’s not working. We also hear communicators sometimes say that they are wary to let other people on their team get too involved. This comes up a lot in organizations that are a bit siloed, where maybe communications and development have some tension or communications and program have some tension. And frankly, this is very much about silo culture and maybe some turf dynamics. Occasionally we have seen that there can be a reticence in some communications teams to distribute the work because there’s a fear of losing control or losing their job even. So some people might be inclined to protect their area by holding all the cards. But actually, what we have seen over and over again is that your job becomes more secure and more successful if others are involved and they’re able to see and appreciate everything you do.

Sarah Durham: This is sort of the, “if you love something, set it free” philosophy of communications. So, in the book The Nonprofit Communications Engine, I break down the ingredients that are required to create sustainable momentum. And if you have read the book these might be familiar, but if you haven’t, those six elements are strategy, team, culture, tools, processes, and reflection. And everything always begins with strategy. So, what’s the strategy for building sustainable momentum? Well, the number one piece is actually just the strategy of building buy-in and support, getting your culture and your colleagues to embrace the processes and the agreed upon tools that help you create sustainable momentum. Communications strategy advances every department’s work in the organization. Communications work helps build mindshare, it helps build engagement. So having a strategy that does all those things is going to be critical for every organization’s multifunctional departments, and getting everybody to embrace that and to say, “Okay, part of my job is to help the comms team do their job and to be accountable to do that.”

Sarah Durham: So let’s talk about what your team needs to do in order to build sustainable momentum. Well, in the webinar I gave, I showed a picture of a team of people juggling. One of those images where people are throwing batons back and forth to each other, across the room. And in an ideal world, that’s what communications looks like when you have real sustainable momentum — everybody’s keeping everything moving, everybody’s keeping their eye on both their projects but kind of peripherally on other people’s projects. And the goal is that your team will establish clear accountabilities and backups. So who’s responsible for moving things forward and who is responsible, not necessarily for moving things forward, but for making sure that there is a backup or a central resource where things are written down? So, it might be that in your organization there is somebody who’s clearly accountable for earned media, that’s media relations, and somebody else who’s clearly accountable for owned media, those are things like your social channels or your website.

Sarah Durham: But if it’s not clear, getting clear about those accountabilities is a great place to start. So, who does what in communications? Well, there are a lot of different tasks that can happen to move your communications engine forward. Some of them might be done by full-time communications people if your organization’s a little bigger. In other organizations, they might be distributed into other departments like development or programs. And in some organizations they’re even outsourced. But I think one of the things that is really critical is that however you do it, whether it’s a volunteer, somebody on the fundraising team, somebody in comms team, somebody’s got to be clearly accountable. Somebody’s got to be owning, moving forward communications, and building in systems and processes so that it’s not just in that one person’s head or 12 people’s head.

Sarah Durham: And generally when it comes to day to day communications and tactics, there are a couple of roles that are critical. There is an editor role often, an author role, people who are creating things, and a coordinator role — the coordinator is the person who’s making sure the right people get things done on time, the right people approve things on time. So who’s accountable to be your editor, your authors, your coordinators for the different things you do. Another key component to developing sustainable momentum is having the right tools. And there are lots of different kinds of tools that can help you do that. Although I would argue that at the end of the day, it’s less about the sophistication of the tools you use and more just having clarity about the tools you’ve got to work with. I’ve seen some amazing organizations with two people on staff or one person on staff or even all volunteers who don’t have great tools, but they have great accountability and great creativity.

Sarah Durham: And that in some ways is the most important thing. One of the most important tools for creating sustainable momentum is a brand guide. Making sure you have brand assets, but also that they’re codified, that your messaging, your visuals, the way you use photography, that all that stuff is written down in a place that people can easily reference. Another critical tool for sustainable momentum is some kind of project management software, some kind of system or tool or software that you use to keep track of the projects you’re moving forward. With a great project management system, you are able to assign accountabilities, to attach files, to follow the thread of a project. Whether it’s something really simple, like getting out an email, or something really complicated, like building a new website, you can actually see who’s doing what, where they are, what’s going on. And you lose that kind of maze of multiple CCs and confusion about what’s going on.

Sarah Durham: I touched on this earlier, but I think one of the keys to sustainable momentum has got to be addressed through your organization’s culture. Your organization’s expectations for staff collaboration and behavior have to encourage healthy internal and external communications if you’re going to build sustainable momentum. And you can foster a culture of shared responsibility to keep things moving. We at Big Duck are very big fans of frameworks like DARCI or RACI. DARCI is an acronym. The “D” stands for decision makers, who are the decision makers on a project. The “A” is who’s accountable on the project. The “R” is who’s responsible. “C” is who’s consulted. And “I” is who’s informed. When you take a project, whether it’s big or small, and you try to break it down using the DARCI framework and you talk to people upfront about their role, and you make sure the consulted people understand what that means or the accountable people understand what that means, you have a much stronger chance that people are going to collaborate effectively and you’re going to get buy-in from the right people at the right stages without stepping on toes.

Sarah Durham: Finally, I think one of the most critical tools you can use to create sustainable momentum in your organization is having checklists and templates. So these are basically process-driven tools that help you make sure that the right things happen in the right order of operations. At Big Duck and at Advomatic, too, we’re big fans of Asana. Asana is a project management tool that’s extremely flexible and it has a free version you can use very successfully. In the paid versions, you can actually set up pretty sophisticated templates where you can create tasks and subtasks, you can have time-based dependencies in those tasks. But in the free version, you can do a lot of that too, you just have to copy and paste a little bit more.

Sarah Durham: And having a checklist or a template system set up and a project management tool goes a long way, because when it’s time to do that thing again, let’s say it’s time to get out your monthly or bi-monthly e-news, when you’ve got a template and all the tasks are clearly spelled out, it gets much, much easier to make sure you’re not forgetting anything, nothing’s slipping through the cracks, and you can use everybody’s time as efficiently as possible. So the administrative time that it takes you to set up that template is going to be a few hours out of your day, but you’re going to recover those few hours 10 times over if you maintain that system because you’re going to have such an increase in productivity and efficiency. So just to wrap up, I want to share some other tips for creating sustainable momentum in your nonprofit.

Sarah Durham: First, be sure to share your communications engine with your colleagues — don’t hold it close to your vest. Use opportunities like staff meetings or internal correspondence to share work that you’re doing, work that other people are doing, and help people feel a part of the creation and sustaining of that machine. Collaborate on plans and report back transparently. So as you are changing how you do things, talk to your colleagues that it affects, talk to your colleagues and programs about the changes you’re making to help reach and engage new clients, or your colleagues in development about the changes you’re making in some of your donor facing communications. Collaborating with them will help them feel bought in to what you’re doing and make sure that it aligns with their needs, and it’ll help you get a better sense of what their needs really are and make sure that you’re doing things that offer your organization the most bang for the buck. Be your organization’s greatest communications cheerleader and coach.

Sarah Durham: I have seen over the years, communication staff, people who do this, and it’s really motivating. When you celebrate wins, when you cheer for victories on your team, everybody feels great and really lifts them up. And that’s a very different approach to take than the more old fashioned sort of, you know, brand police idea, which is kind of punitive, it’s coming after people and punishing them. We want to be cheerleaders and coaches because we want people to feel great and we want to motivate them through success, not through failure. Tailor involvement where you can and where you must to get folks onboard. I haven’t spoken about this much today, but I think it’s an important tip. It’s basically the idea that you have to acknowledge that some people on your team, maybe your executive director or department heads or that incredible person in the programs team who really has enormous insight, they might not follow the template or follow the process and help you get things done exactly the way you want.

Sarah Durham: And that’s okay. Sometimes you do have to tailor their involvement in order to get the most out of them. That’s just a kind of an adaptive necessity for communications people. So don’t fight it, just embrace it and life will get a lot easier. And lastly, I just want to reiterate, celebrate wins. Whether they are wins that your colleagues have or your own wins, making sure people feel good, see the great work your team is doing, and feel that their great work is seen and celebrated will go a long way. There’s a lot more on this topic in my book, The Nonprofit Communications Engine, that’s available on Amazon. You can watch the webinar version of this, which is longer and goes into a bit more detail on Just click over to Insights and poke around in the videos. And don’t hesitate to drop us a line at [email protected] and tell us how you built sustainable momentum in your organization.

Sarah Durham: Thanks for listening.