Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash
October 8, 2021

How nonprofit communications have changed over the years

Nonprofit staff have become more sophisticated in prioritizing the goals,  audiences, strategies, and tactics to guide their communications. Listen in as Sarah Durham and Farra Trompeter talk about the changes in communication approaches and activities and the importance of communications in the nonprofit sector.


Sarah Durham: Hello. Hello. Welcome back to the Smart Communications Podcast. I’m Sarah Durham, and if you’ve been listening to this podcast, while you have many times heard me celebrate, and in conversation with my guest today, the inimitable and irreplaceable Farra Trompeter. Welcome back, Farra.

Farra Trompeter: Thanks, Sarah. What an intro.

Sarah Durham: So Farra and I love to geek out on nonprofit communications, as you no doubt know already. And today our topic is a little bit big picture. It’s about how nonprofit communications has changed in the many, many years that Farra and I have both been in the sector. And I want to qualify this by saying that we are talking today very much about our experiences as individuals who have worked in this field for a long time.

Sarah Durham: And we’re going to try to reference some of the data that is out there too, but this is really an opportunity I think, for us together to take a step back and think about what’s happening in the sector as we go, and hopefully you’ll be able to use some of our conversation today to think a little bit differently as you plan or navigate day-to-day communications in your life and world. Okay, Farra. So let’s get started by traveling back in time to the 1990s when you and I were eager nonprofit communications newbies. Where were you and how would you describe how folks were approaching nonprofit communications at that time?

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, it’s funny. I feel lucky in some ways that I got my first email address back in the early 90s when I was in college and I started really getting into the wonderful world of communications through the experience of just being a student. And then while I was in college, I had a part-time job doing telemarketing and tele-fundraising for nonprofits, which kind of got me into the world of fundraising initially. And my first few jobs out of college were in development, in-house, in nonprofit organizations. And at the time the fundraising focus was really on individual donor support, direct mail, telemarketing, how we were calling people. I was also the development and comms associate. I remember going through newspaper articles and photocopying them and passing them around to the staff. That’s how we would share what information was going on. And at the time really we weren’t using communications yet to build deep relationships. We were sharing information out there. We were telling people what we were doing through these mass communications efforts.

Farra Trompeter: And while we started getting things like email and websites were coming up, first websites, I believe were again in the sort of mid-90s, there were mostly information going out into the world. They were sort of letting people know how we were. And so we were taking those traditional approaches of creating a brochure and now putting them on the web. So as the early days of the communication channels, now we take for granted and we use all the time were happening. It was really just a moment where people were trying to figure out how do we get people to come to our programs? How do we get people to give? How do we get people to know about our mission? All of that was still happening, but happening through very different methods, comms teams were non-existent, and many of the places I worked for, or they were really fully part of the development team, or maybe they were just focusing on doing public relations. They weren’t really thinking about some of the bigger picture topics we are focusing on today.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. Back in the 90s, when I was starting out, I had been working in the for-profit sector in the agency world and in the corporate marketing and corporate branding world. And when I started Big Duck in the mid-1990s, I would definitely say that all the things you’re talking about were in evidence. The nonprofits that Big Duck was working with in the 90s, were thinking about communications in a very broadcast-y way, external communications. It was, you had a message, you had talking points, you had ideas, you did PR, you pushed out your message. It was not a conversation or a dialogue, even though some nonprofits were starting to build websites, were starting to think about communications in a slightly more digital way. That wasn’t the norm. For sure. So, over the past couple of decades, I think we’ve seen a lot of change in nonprofit communications. Tell us a little bit about what you think has changed over the past 20 years?

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, it’s a lot of what you were just saying. I think communications for, I don’t know, centuries was very much one-to-many. The printing press came out in the 1400s. People were excited to now start using newspapers and eventually flyers and other forums where we were communicating out to the world. What we saw with the advent of people starting to use websites and social media in new and different ways was that it moved from that monologue to, as you were saying, dialogue, and went from broadcast to conversation. People were starting to look at communications tools as a way to connect with audiences in deeper ways. And also audiences, your nonprofit volunteers, staff, donors, activists were connecting with each other. So I think particularly over time, we’ve seen, you know, every day it feels like there’s a new communications channel or app coming out. But one thing that’s really held for particularly the past 15 or 20 years has been that it is about community. And I think where you can host and engage with folks, that’s now the job of communications. It’s no longer just, yes, there were things we’re pushing out, but we’re also thinking about how do we pull people in and how do we become almost conveners of conversation and not just the starters of it.

Sarah Durham: You know, Farra, as you were talking, I had a kind of a light bulb moment about one of the tensions that might exist. One of the reasons there might be a particular tension that we observe a lot based on what you just talked about, about the shift from broadcasting to more dialogue or conversation. And the light bulb moment for me was, you know, a lot of the communications people we talk to struggle with, maybe the difference between their vision for strategic communications and their executive director’s vision for strategic communications.

Sarah Durham: And I wonder if part of the tension actually, and this is a little bit of a detour, so bear with me here. But I wonder if part of the tension is that as a founder of a nonprofit or even the CEO of a nonprofit that’s been around for a while, a lot of your job is to bring vision. And part of that vision can feel like directing the voice of the organization, directing how it communicates. And I think in an increasingly digital world that shift towards dialogue towards more like the role of the communications team as a facilitation of communications or facilitator versus director or megaphone for communications is maybe somewhat intention with the executive directors desire to try to control or direct as much as possible. What is being said about the organization and where and how? But that’s a different topic. Maybe we’ll come back to that in a minute.

Sarah Durham: Listening to you, talk about how things have changed from broadcast to conversation. It also brings to mind, for me, some of the things that I was learning about as I was doing some research for my last book, The Nonprofit Communications Engine. Because as I was digging into some of the research for that book, I was reading about how the nonprofit sector itself is a relatively young sector. I mean, there are certainly nonprofits, and we’ve worked with many of them, that have been around for 100 years, maybe 150 years. But those organizations that have been around for over a century are relatively far and few between. The majority of nonprofits were started in the last, maybe 50, 60, or 70 years. So the sector as a sector is relatively young. It’s not a sector that’s been around for hundreds and hundreds of years and communications within the sector is relatively new. If you’ve been working in this area for 20 or 30 years, what we’ve actually seen is the emergence of a discipline, communications, and marketing, in a sector that’s relatively young. Which is pretty different, and I think the incredible thing it’s actually, for me, one of the things that has made my career in nonprofit communications really interesting is that it keeps changing. You’re a part of something that’s to some extent, you know, in its adolescence as opposed to highly developed.

Sarah Durham: So I think that that shift from broadcast to conversation, but also just the evolution of the sector broadly, or the maturing of the sector more broadly is definitely an exciting thing that we are still very much on the cusp of, but we lose perspective. I think in the day-to-day.

Sarah Durham: As we think about the way the last couple of decades have gone, we’ve seen the rise of digital media in the early two thousands and websites going from more like online brochureware to more interactive. We’ve seen the rise of online fundraising and advocacy. I remember what 13, 14 years ago, when you and I started working together, the big case study was Convio’s for the ASPCA.

Farra Trompeter: Cats and dogs.

Sarah Durham: If you were a dog person, you got a dog email. If you were a cat person, you got a cat email and we thought that kind of personalization or segmentation was just incredible. Now that’s kind of taken for granted, I think, in the fundraising world. And of course, social media. Talk a little bit more about the trends you’ve seen in the past 10 years, Farra.

Farra Trompeter: Particularly with social media, a lot of these platforms, you take LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook… I was joking around with friends this weekend and was remembering Friendster and MySpace. I mean, we’ve seen lots of networks come and go, but a lot of the networks we’ve come to use were all created initially for individual relationships, right? Facebook grew out of folks using it at Harvard. Then as they released the platform more publicly, it was still meant for us to connect one-to-one eventually, maybe LinkedIn obviously was also a one-to-one, but in a more professional sense, but all of these now have created opportunities for organizations.

Farra Trompeter: How can organizations and businesses use these tools to also build relationships? So that while that wasn’t their intention, it then became something that was layered on. Though I am still frustrated that I can’t add an active link to an Instagram post. It is very exciting to think about how do we get folks to give through an Instagram story, or learn about us? And I think we’ve seen with all of these tools that are coming out, you know, your Tik Toks, your Clubhouse, all of these newer forms that are coming out every day, it is really about bringing people together. So again, not to sound like a broken record, but I think organizations who have been able to figure out how to host conversations, listened to conversations, learn from folks as they’re using these tools, whether it’s comments on a GuideStar or Yelp or whatever profile, the ones who are able to listen and respond, are there ones that are being the most successful.

Farra Trompeter: So, I think groups that have understood how to evolve into your point, they are constantly changing, figuring out how to respond and engage in those mediums are the ones who’ve been the most successful. And while there are new channels every day, I think the other piece that we always come back to, and I think we’ve been probably saying this for the past 25 years plus, is to center your decisions on goals and audiences. What is it you’re ultimately trying to do? And who were the people you’re trying to engage with? And in particular, what do those people want from you? Again, in this move from broadcast to conversation so much has always been, “What does our organization want from folks?” We want people to give, we want people to sign our petition, we want people to show up at our walk-a-thon. Whatever it was, but now the question really has to be and has been for a while, and I think needs to continue to be, “What does our community want from us? How can we be there for them? How can we respond to what they’re telling us and use whatever the communication channel du jour is to engage with them?” So while there have been trends in the different channels we use and how we use them, I do think the shift to being focused on our community and what they want has come through technology. But I think really has ripple effects into all the ways we communicate from our brand, to our campaign, to who we hire.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. And if you haven’t been there yet, I recommend poking around the Big Duck website under the Insights section, you’ll see a number of ebooks, and one of the really terrific ebooks that the strategy team at Big Duck put together a few years ago is about strategic communications. It’s about how do you define the goals, the objectives, and the audiences for your communications. So if you’re newer to communications, and this is kind of a muscle you’re trying to develop within your organization, I highly recommend that ebook in particular, and we’ll link to it in the show notes.

Sarah Durham: Another trend Farra that we talk about a bit these days is marketing and retargeting, and the way nonprofits are starting to use their CRMs or constituent relationship management systems in more robust ways. And we actually have a podcast that we recorded with Steven Shattuck about his book Robots Make Bad Fundraisers, where he talks a lot about that too, about the tension between organizations trying to use email and predictive content on their websites and things like that. But also the fact that we are communicating to humans and that community-centered thing, how do we produce content that feels appropriate and relevant and reflects that we understand who people are and what they’re looking for from the organization.

Sarah Durham: His book really talks about that, about the need for personal communications. And I would say that that is perhaps the next wave of what I think a lot of organizations are grappling with. You know, the first way of, as you talked about was like, wow, we have all these tools. Let’s figure out how to use them. But the second way is really how do we use them? Well, how do we use them in ways that are thoughtful and personal, and appropriate? Take advantage of the ease and customization that they provide without treating everybody as if they are exactly the same and being kind of inappropriate in our communications because of them.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah. I think it’s about how do we not lose our humanity and authenticity. And I think that idea of being authentic, especially in the past five years where there’s been just an increase in conversation around diversity, equity, inclusion, and antiracism, and people really looking to know what’s under the hood and who’s doing what, I think that’s also been kind of a shift we’ve seen.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. Great point.

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Sarah Durham: At Big Duck, we do a lot of things. We do a lot of branding work, campaigns work, and teams capacity-building work for nonprofits. But branding has always been very central to what we do. And we have been doing it for a long time. We have a process that we developed that we call Brandraising, and branding has certainly evolved a lot over these 20 something years. And one of the things that I think about a lot is that in the nineties doing communications work for nonprofits, I never used the word branding. Branding was kind of a dirty word in the 90s, in the nonprofit sector. It was perceived as something that, you know, was corporate. That meant you had sold out in some way. There are still organizations where I think that idea is somewhat in the culture, but it’s much more common these days to see nonprofits understand that they should market and understand that they do have a brand, whether or not they think about it that way, et cetera. But Farra, How do you think branding has evolved in the sector?

Farra Trompeter: I worked closely on my first nonprofit brand about 20 years ago. It’s how I met my wife. So, you know, to me, branding is a beautiful word. It is magical.

Sarah Durham: It brings people together.

Farra Trompeter: It brings people together. I think one of the ways we’ve seen branding evolve, you know, and I think I really appreciate about the Brandraising model first and foremost is your brand is not just your logo or your name or your website. Your brand really has to come through and be centered in who your organization is, where it is going, who it’s trying to connect with, and what we want those audiences to think and feel about us. That’s the heart of the Brandraising model. I think where we have seen it evolve most recently is a lot of conversations about not just about what we’re putting out in the world, but how we’re thinking about and engaging with branding internally.

Farra Trompeter: I think increasingly organizations are realizing that their staff is the most important audience when they’re doing a branding process. If your staff doesn’t understand how to speak about your organization or what it’s trying to put out in the world or who you really are, how is anyone on the outside ever going to understand that? We’ve also seen a move from people thinking about other organizations as competitors, to partners and peers, right? And thinking about who we are in an ecosystem of other organizations, embracing that more abundance framework and not scarcity mindset. We talk also a lot on the blog and the podcast. So I think branding has evolved from something we think is just superficial or something we’re putting out in the world to who we are internally. How we’re working with others and also how we’re using communications to build relationships with people, both in our community, but also maybe in broader communities in movements. So I think branding has become a lot more nuanced and a lot more interesting in my perspective.

Sarah Durham: I think what you’re talking about branding becoming more nuanced is also reflective of part of what you were saying earlier about communications getting more strategic. That’s also something that I talked a lot with Kivi Leroux Miller about in episode 88 of the podcast, where we talked about the Nonprofit Trends Report, that over the past 10 or so years, the annual survey that Kivi Leroux Miller and her team at the Nonprofit Marketing Guide have been doing has really shown that communications is getting more strategic or at least communicators think it’s getting more strategic. And I actually recorded another podcast with Kivi. We’ll be airing soon about communications teams, but before we get into the formal information that Kivi’s got on teams, let’s talk about staffing, just you and me, and how you perceive that organizations has shifted the roles and the people that they hire in the past couple of decades?

Farra Trompeter: One of the most interesting things, you know, I think back to when I first started at Big Duck almost 15 years ago, there were some organizations for whom we were basically their comms team. We were, I remember editing PowerPoints for things that were going to be displayed at conferences. You know, we were kind of extra hands. What we have seen as more organizations have been hiring writers, designers, folks internally in the organization, and they’re coming now less likely to be working with agencies on a retainer basis, but more likely on big projects, because they’re building that capacity in-house. We’ve seen some organizations almost become like an internal agency inside the organization where you submit requests to them. You know, you’re in the development team or the membership team or the program or advocacy organization. And you’re coming to this internal comms team to produce the thing you need.

Farra Trompeter: So we’ve seen comms, I think, gain a level of respect. I still see many organizations for whom there is no comms team on the leadership team. Comms is still seen as a luxury item and not a necessity. I think that has moved a little bit, but we still have a lot of room to go. But I think people are seeing the importance of staffing for communications more deeply. In fact, I think one of the things that I love about Kivi’s report is she talks about how some comms teams have grown. And in fact, I think she says three is the magic number, which I just remember because it’s also De La Soul song, right? The teams that now when they have invested in comms, they’ve got three or more staff. They are able to be more strategic. They are able to do more than one or two things more deeply and with more strategy guiding what they’re doing.

Farra Trompeter: But Sarah, I know you talked a lot about how organizations have shifted their staffing and particularly put out some good thinking in The Nonprofit Communications Engine. Maybe you can talk about that?

Sarah Durham: Yeah. It’s interesting because as you cited in the Nonprofit Trends Report, the 2021 Trends Report talks specifically about the sort of sweet spot of about three people in communications. One of the things that I have been very interested in for a long time that I wrote about in The Nonprofit Communications Engine, is who are those people? What kind of jobs should they have? Should they be writers? Should they be designers? Should they be strategists? Even in an organization with an operating budget of three, four, or $five million a year, which is bigger than the vast majority of nonprofits out there, but it’s still not enormous. These are kind of mid-sized businesses by comparison to the for-profit sector, having two or three people on your communications team is relatively small.

Sarah Durham: If you were in a $5,000,000/ year corporate business, you definitely have more than three people in marketing and communications. You’d have a whole marketing department that would be staffed with all kinds of people. But if you’re in a nonprofit with one person, half a person, two people, three people doing communications work, who are they? What should they be doing? And one of the things I’ve found in my research is that generally the most effective communications departments are staffed by people who are first and foremost, exceptional project managers and exceptionally good interpersonal communicators. In other words, if you have to hire one person and you were debating between that super talented copywriter or designer who is sometimes a little bristly to work with, but produces great work or that person that everybody really finds, you know, easy to talk to, easy to collaborate with, who’s very, very organized and great at getting things done.

Sarah Durham: I actually have found that hiring the latter, may be the more effective way to go. Because the person with great project management skills and great interpersonal communication skills is going to be a pleasure for the development team to collaborate with programs team, to collaborate with maybe your government relations team, will feel heard and understood. And they’re going to be able to work with freelancers or maybe other people who can help with design or copywriting to produce the stuff, but they’re going to be the, they are literally the engine that keeps it going. So I’ve really changed my priorities. When I think about what an organization should be looking for or hiring for specifically, what would you add, Farra?

Farra Trompeter: Well, I would also just add on this very subject, that there is a great ebook that comes from The Nonprofit Communications Engine, all about communications teams and these roles. And we will also link to that in the transcript. The only other thing that I know I sometimes rant about and have concerns about is when we’re hiring what people’s experiences are. I think it’s great when someone from the corporate world decides they want to make the world a better place and come to work in-house in a nonprofit, I celebrate the joy. But I think a lot of times when nonprofits get kind of excited about hiring someone, who’s got all this corporate experience and they bring that person in, I’ve often seen that kind of be square peg round hole for most organizations because that person comes in expecting a team of 20, assuming that the culture is top-down, they’re going to say how things go expecting to have huge budgets that just aren’t, you know, the reality of nonprofits, having a personal assistant.

Sarah Durham: Exactly.

Farra Trompeter: Aside from a smaller staff and a smaller budget, if the culture is different and how communications to your point kind of runs through an organization, doesn’t necessarily dictate it. And I think sometimes that’s been a misalignment. So when I’m coaching people who were in the corporate world and they want to do something good for a nonprofit, I really encourage them to volunteer first to really get the experience of what that flavor’s like, whether that’s through a board or a special volunteer project. And when organizations are hiring, I do think there’s something that I would elevate. If I’m evaluating candidates, if they have experience in a nonprofit organization, maybe they haven’t led a comms team yet, but maybe they’re a great collaborator. They have some great ideas. They can make things happen. To me, I’m more likely to want to give that person a chance. So that was really more of a rant than your answer. But hopefully, that was helpful.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, I think it is helpful. We’ve talked about this topic in earlier podcasts, but I want to underscore what you’re saying and add to it by saying that some of the most effective communications leaders we’ve seen in nonprofits, people who are communications directors or vice presidents of external affairs or advancement, they often have one of two things in common. They either have spent a lot of time working in nonprofit communications. They’ve seen this movie over and over again, and by the time they get that director job at your organization, they’ve worked at other nonprofits where they’ve been hands-on doing communications work. Or we’ve also seen some really, really terrific senior communications people who come out of the agency world. people who have worked in branding or marketing or other types of communications agencies, maybe with nonprofits, maybe with for-profits. But what we have seen and Chandra Hayslett is an example of this who is currently at The Center for Constitutional Rights. There are so many people like Chandra who understand that their colleagues in other departments are not just peers. To some extent they are clients. That part of what your job is as an in-house communications person is to facilitate communications for other departments. And so they are like your internal clients.

Sarah Durham: So those people with agency backgrounds also just bring a really interesting, and I think strategic and powerful orientation to the work that they do every day. Farra and I have referenced a lot of ebooks, which are all available at We’ll link to those in the show notes. There’s also my book, The Nonprofit Communications Engine, which you can find on And there’s a lot of other podcasts related to these topics that we’ve recorded. So wherever you listen to podcasts, be sure to poke around, you might find that we recorded something a couple of years ago on a related topic that you might find is still really relevant for your situation today. Farra Trompeter, thanks for joining me again.

Farra Trompeter: Sarah Durham, thanks for having me.

This podcast has been sponsored by Bloomerang