How should new communications directors approach their role?
Farra Trompeter, co-director, and Ally Dommu, director of service development, share insights and strategies for those starting or looking to refresh their approach to leading communications at their nonprofit. Whether you’re onboarding a new communications director or seeking a fresh perspective, this episode offers valuable insights for all.
Farra Trompeter: Welcome to The Smart Communications Podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and worker-owner at Big Duck. Today we’re going to ask the question, “How should new communications directors approach their role?” So this is an ideal podcast if you’ve just started a job, maybe you’re onboarding a new comms director, or maybe you just want to take a fresh take to the job you already have. We hope you’ll find some insights regardless of your situation.
Farra Trompeter: I have the pleasure of talking today with Ally Dommu, she/her, as Director of Service Development. Ally conducts research, facilitates group discussions and creates tailored mission-driven communications and branding strategies for our clients. She also looks for ways to help strengthen and grow our services. And I’ve had the pleasure of working with Ally for almost 10 years. Before Big Duck, Ally worked at Sanctuary for Families in New York City, where she managed communications and fundraising efforts to advance safety and justice for survivors of domestic violence, sex trafficking, and related forms of gender violence. Her experience working in the nonprofit world and passion for progressive causes inspired Ally to pursue her masters in nonprofit management from the new school.
Farra Trompeter: You will likely recognize Ally, if you’re big fans of the podcast. Ally has hosted some episodes, been a guest on some episodes. We’ll be sure to link to at least one or two of those in the show notes. And Ally recently wrote a blog post on the Big Duck blog at bigduck.com/insights called a 90-day plan for new nonprofit communications directors. And that is really the inspiration for today’s conversation. So whether you’ve read that blog post or not, I think again, we’re in for a fun-filled conversation. So Ally, welcome to the show.
Ally Dommu: Thank you for having me, Farra. Nice to be back.
Farra Trompeter: Before we dive into the topic, I thought it would just be interesting to talk a little bit about both of our experiences really in-house. We both have worked in-house and nonprofits having different roles, managing and directing communications. And I’m just wondering if you might start, talk a little bit about your experience and then I can chime in.
Ally Dommu: Yeah, absolutely. Prior to joining Big Duck about 10 years ago, I worked for five years at Sanctuary for Families, as you mentioned in my bio, which is a New York-based nonprofit focused on supporting survivors of domestic violence, sex trafficking, and other forms of gender-based violence with a comprehensive range of services including counseling and legal services, housing, shelter, economic stability, support services. And my role there was as the manager of communications and I worked on a team that combined fundraising and communication. So it was an integrated communications team with a strong focus on fundraising, although we did a lot of other initiatives. And I worked really closely with our fundraising team, our programs team, some of the advocacy work that we were doing. And the role was really to raise awareness about the organization to inspire support, to get people to come out to our fundraising events.
Ally Dommu: And when I first joined the team, I was doing exclusively fundraising. I was the development assistant and then the development associate. And then I started getting more into communications. And I was there, as I mentioned, for five years. But over the last 10 years working at Big Duck, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of communications teams and communications directors as a strategist. And I’ve done a lot of research and have facilitated a lot of one-on-one conversations and group conversations with nonprofit communications staff. So a lot of the insights that we’ll talk about today really come from my experience working at Big Duck, but certainly informed by that in-house experience that I had at Sanctuary back a while ago. So Farra, what about you? What was your in-house communications experience?
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, you know, like you, I had a number of roles within nonprofits, both in fundraising and in communications. I had a job earlier in my career in the 90s when I was living in DC, first at a nonprofit called The Empower Program that did teen gender violence prevention where I was doing both running fundraising and communications. We were a small organization, I did a little bit of everything. Everyone else was focusing on programs. And then I was the director of communications at another smaller nonprofit called LISTEN, which was working on youth leadership development and communities of color where again, we had a small staff. I was the director of communications and also for part of that time, the only one in communications, though we did soon hire someone else to work with me. And so had those roles working again, heading up comms in smaller organizations. And then have been working with a lot of folks running comms as a consultant at different agencies, including Big Duck.
Farra Trompeter: So yeah, my experience is both kind of a mix of in-house and working closely here with clients. And then a few years ago I was on the communications committee for the New York City Anti-Violence Project, where at one point in the organization’s life cycle, the communications committee, which was board members and a few other volunteers, were basically running comms and really supporting the staff–they had no full-time staff in communications at the time. The person who was their grant writer was doing comms, and then eventually that person was promoted and they now have a communications team. But at the time, as the communications committee, we were really helping guiding comms too. So that was another role I played. Yeah, we’ll bring all of those experiences.
Farra Trompeter: So you know, here at Big Duck we’ve been doing an area of work we call Teams, which is really where we’re focusing on building the skills, structures and processes for organizations to strengthen their in-house teams on how they can use communications to advance their missions. And that includes assessments of communications teams and providing coaching for communications staff. And through that work we’ve started really getting some new understanding. And Ally, you’ve done a lot of that work. And I’m just curious, when you’ve worked with organizations in our area of Teams, what have you learned that new nonprofit communication staff, especially directors, need to know or what they’re experiencing when they first start in these roles?
Ally Dommu: Absolutely. Well, I would say that from experience, there’s always a lot of passion when a new communications teammate comes to an organization, especially if they’re new to the organization, both from the candidate or the new employee and from the side of the organization. Not all the time, but often it can be maybe a position that hasn’t been filled for a long time. And we’ve worked with organizations that are hiring for their first-ever director of communications. So the experience can be, oh wow, this organization has sort of like distributed the communications responsibilities across a number of staff and for the first time they’re having someone lead it. Or maybe that role hasn’t been filled for a long time, or maybe they just need a new approach. So there’s always a lot of passion and energy and excitement for maybe like a fresh start for how the organization approaches communications.
Ally Dommu: Often what we see is that new communications directors or staff members don’t necessarily get a whole comprehensive training or like a user manual of how to do the job, right? Maybe that comes because it’s the first time someone’s in the seat, maybe the job description was just written for this hire, And, communications leads can often receive information kind of like piecemeal or on a rolling basis about the organization. That’s natural, I think, in any onboarding experience. But because a lot of communication staff have such a range of responsibilities from marketing to fundraising, website management, social media, advocacy-related communications, there’s not necessarily one comprehensive guide for, okay, this is everything you’re going to need to do in your role. Here’s the definition of your role. Here’s the handbook that goes along with your job description of everything you have to do Monday through Friday, right? There’s a lot of kind of like building the plane as you’re flying it, as the saying goes. And new staff often have to kind of like piece things together in order to set the job and the flow of how things are going to work.
Ally Dommu: And similarly, it could be in the first week of a new communications job at a nonprofit, you might just get thrown right into the work without that kind of training in place or without that comprehensive onboarding, right? Maybe there’s an event that’s going on, maybe there’s a big fundraising event or a big action that your organization’s taking place in and you just need to jump in and offer that communications support. Maybe you’re managing like a rapid response moment and you just have to get thrown right into it. Or perhaps you’re taking over from a project that started before you joined. Maybe a rebranding project was midway or you’re in the middle of a website overhaul. So you might have to just dive right into a specific project as you’re learning and building your understanding of the organization. So those are a few of the things that I’ve experienced and talked to new communications staff about as they get started in their new roles. What else have you observed, Farra?
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I think one of the things that’s tricky is to your point, like ideally you are taking time to understand what’s going on before you have to jump into the deep end, but sometimes you do have to jump into the deep end. And when that happens, I do still think it’s important to make room to listen and to learn and to find out the culture, the vibe, how people do things, who works where, which is the best communications channel to reach which person. If you come in, I think, too hot and just start dictating the way things should be done because it’s the way you do it or the way you like to do it, that can lead to a lot of conflict. And I think it’s important that when you come into a new job and you’re going to be making recommendations for how things should change to first learn a little bit about what’s going on. I think you’ll have a better chance of building trust and earning respect by giving it.
Farra Trompeter: Let’s flip around to a different topic. I’m curious how you think COVID-19 and the Great Resignation or Great Transition has impacted the experience of new communications directors? And I talk to organizations every day. People tell me about the jobs they started in March 2020 or January 2021, and they’ve never met anybody that they worked with in person. But I’m curious what you have seen in the past few years.
Ally Dommu: Well, what you were just saying is the shift to remote and hybrid is pretty incredible. I have some data from the Nonprofit Marketing Guide who produce a great study called the Nonprofit Communications Trends Report. And from 2023, they found that pre-pandemic in March 2020, 67% of nonprofit communications staff worked in an office or work environment with the remaining kind of split between working remotely or hybrid. But as of December, 2022, only 5% work in an office or work environment, and the rest is split between working fully remotely or working hybrid. So from pre-pandemic, 67% in office to 5%. So we have the vast majority of communication staff are working at least some of the time remotely right now. So what does that mean? It means that you’re not necessarily collaborating in person with your employees. It means that information is more distributed, and I think it puts a greater emphasis and need on internal communication and intentional collaboration.
Ally Dommu: So this idea of internal communications is coming up a lot more. Obviously, in order to produce great external communications, you need to have good internal communications because the work of a communications department, it doesn’t just happen in a silo. You can’t just churn out the content, right? Communications team have to work with programs team and the development team and advocacy team. There’s all sorts of different kinds of collaborations that have to happen in order to get the word out about your organization, update your community on the news and happenings and actions that people can take. So this internal collaboration is more important than ever to be intentional because you know, you can’t just necessarily walk down the hall and knock on your teammate’s door to say, Hey, can you share with me? Can we work on this press release together? People are, you know, working remotely and distributed.
Ally Dommu: So I think that’s huge in terms of how the work gets done. And then the other thing is that, you know, you said the great transition, there’s just a lot more turnover of staff. So the nonprofit sector has always suffered from high turnover rates. The Forbes Business Council stated that even before the pandemic, the voluntary annual turnover rate within nonprofits was 19%, which outpaced the all-industry average of 12%. That was before, but then it became exacerbated by the pandemic. In 2021, the Nonprofit HR put out a study called the Nonprofit Talent Retention Practices, and they found that 42% of responding nonprofit leaders expected their employee turnover rates to increase in the coming year. That was projecting 2022. So what does that mean in terms of communications teams and roles? It means there’s more turnover. So there’s a loss of institutional knowledge that happens, right? There’s projects that probably were started and stopped. Maybe there’s a new communications director that’s hired in, but their staff isn’t there anymore, or maybe they’ve lost staff. So we’re talking about, you know, the kind of constant need of bringing new people up to speed. And if you’re a new communications director, you might be working with people that also haven’t been around the organization for a while. So there’s a lot of kind of learning and needing to kind of dig into what’s happened in the past. What’s this organization’s story? You know, what are we really working towards that might be a little bit harder to access if there’s been a lot of turnover in the organization.
Farra Trompeter: And if you’re looking to access that data, Ally referenced, we’ll be sure to link to those studies in the show notes at bigduck.com/insights. I’ll also acknowledge I had the joy of interviewing Kivi Leroux Miller, author of the Nonprofit Marketing Guide’s Nonprofit Communications Trends Report all about the latest nonprofit communications trends earlier this year. So we’ll also link to that too. It’s worth a good listen, but Ally definitely highlighted one of the important findings.
Farra Trompeter: So Ally, in your blog post, and again, if folks haven’t had a chance to read that, that blog post is called the 90-day plan for new nonprofit communications directors. You outlined really kind of four actions you think are the musts for those first three months. And I’m curious if you could just name what those four actions are and speak to why they’re important, why they’re essential.
Ally Dommu: Yep, definitely. So they are first digging into your organizational strategy, then understanding your ecosystem. Third is familiarizing yourself with existing communications. And then the fourth, and you were speaking to this a bit earlier, is starting to build those collaborative, trusting relationships with your colleagues.
Ally Dommu: So the first is digging into the organizational strategy. So this is your time to really kind of nerd out and study, you know, your organization’s mission. So collecting those internal documents like your strategic plan, financial statements, any theory of change, basically the language and strategy that’s in place that kind of defines what your organization is all about. This could also be a good place to plan some in-person time, knowing that most nonprofit communications staff these days are working at least part of the time remotely, if not fully remotely, planning some in-person time, seeing you, those programs in action at the end of 90 days. Really being able to say, I get this mission. I really understand what my organization’s all about, what we’re working on, what our goals are for this year and the years ahead if possible. So that would be number one.
Ally Dommu: The second is understanding the ecosystem. So who’s in your peer landscape? What are the issues that your organization is working on that you intersect with? What are the other players in the space that you either collaborate on with or that your audiences or your donors think about when they think of you? This is really about understanding the ecosystem that you exist in so that you, when you’re communicating about your organization, you understand how you’re different. You’re able to communicate clearly about your organization’s value add in a way that’s complementary to other organizations in your space.
Ally Dommu: Then third, I would say, and this might be the most time intensive, it’s about getting to know your existing approach to communications. So this is where you’re going to want to pull together as much information as possible about what’s already been done. You know, what’s the annual cadence of communications at your nonprofit that’s already been done maybe last year, right? What’s the status of your website and the status of your social media accounts? Do you produce an annual report? What events have you held? Are you doing any marketing and advertising? What systems and tools are you using to communicate? So getting a sense of what’s already been done and how the communications that your organization has worked on in the past have been effective or not effective. This is kind of a taking stock of what’s been done so that rather than dive into, oh, our organization’s not on Instagram, we have to be there, or we need a website overhaul, or we need to start doing digital advertising because we’re not reaching enough people. You’re really kind of doing an assessment of what’s already been in place. And this could be helpful to do, you know, in a team, this is work that oftentimes you could work with an outside partner to kind of do this research, but really familiarizing yourself with the existing approach before you start any new activities.
Ally Dommu: And then finally, and perhaps most importantly, this should go first on the list. It’s starting to build those collaborative relationships. Communications work is not done in a silo, right? There’s not one communication staff member that is just churning out all the website content, churning out all the press releases, overhauling the website. You might lead all of that, but you need the collaboration and the input of your colleagues in programs, in development, in advocacy, in education, whatever the departments are that you work with across your organization. So starting to build some strong internal communications practices. It could be good in the first 90 days to host some listening sessions with different departments across the organization. Including with any staff that you manage or that are on your team to learn about the structure of communications at your organization, to learn about past challenges, past successes, what the workflows are. You really want to be in that listening and learning mindset, as Farra said in the jump. So those four actions in the first 90 days, I think would really, really help nonprofit communications leaders start with a solid strategic foundation to approach the work going forward.
Farra Trompeter: Great. I really love those actions. And again, I think that those are the kind of things that sometimes is a good reset moment. Maybe you’ve worked at an organization for years, maybe worth just pausing and being like, “What is our organizational strategy? What’s the latest thing? Our theory of change strategic plan says, what’s happening with our peers? When am I following? What’s been going on? How’s the communications we’ve been doing? Just because we’ve always been using certain channels in certain ways doesn’t mean we should still be doing them. And is there a way that I should have stronger relationships with other departments?” We did another podcast all around how development and communications teams can better collaborate with Sunil Oommen, which I think is worth people listening to. And that’s certainly one place. But of course, if there’s a separate marketing team or programs team or whoever it may be is important.
Ally Dommu: Absolutely.
Farra Trompeter: Ally, before we wrap up, I’m wondering if you’ve got any other hot tips for folks who are new in that communications director role?
Ally Dommu: Yeah, definitely. So I would say that proactively holding time for non-urgent, but strategically valuable work. So all of these things sound good, right? Understanding that your peer landscape, familiarizing yourself with what’s been done, digging into the strategic plan. But unless you’re proactively holding time, that’s going to just get knocked down on your priority list. So if you can block your calendar off or you know, just take a Friday afternoon and let your team know, “I’m going offline to do some reading,” that would be something I would say to consider.
Ally Dommu: I would also say challenge any needs around perfectionism. Early on, there’s going to be mistakes that are made in terms of, you know, maybe you are going to use the wrong term as you’re communicating about your new organization, or maybe you’re trying to get everything perfectly aligned in terms of your communications plan. Give yourself grace as you’re getting started. There’s going to be a lot to learn in time to kind of wrap your head around everything. And I would say open up those lines of communications and feedback loops because of the distribution of communications teams and nonprofit staff and the need for communicators to work collaboratively across teams. Really thinking about how can you create trust and collaborative relationships. So what are the spaces in which you’re collaborating with your colleagues? Maybe you need to initiate a new meeting, or maybe you could create a new Slack channel to get people collaborating. Or maybe you invite people to an input session where you say, “Oh, I’m working on this. I’d really like the team to come and respond, you know, how can I make this stronger?” So you’re really from the get-go, kind of creating systems in which people can share openly and candidly, and you’re building those trusting relationships with their colleagues.
Farra Trompeter: Great. And I would just add, you know, I think to one of the points you were sharing about holding time for that non-urgent work that’s important to do, but is not on fire, that in part of that time, to make time for reflection. There’s a whole blog post on our website we’ll link to by Sarah Durham, our founder, who also wrote a book called “The Nonprofit Communications Engine,” where reflection is one of the really important points in that book. And just really making sure if you’re spending your first three months learning and setting the direction for what you’re doing, make sure to put an event on your calendar now for three months, six months, nine months, a year, two years, whatever it may be, to pause and really take a step back and ask, “What’s going on with what we’re doing? Are we reaching the right audiences? Should we be shifting anything we’re doing? Should we stop anything? Should we test anything?” So I just encourage folks to also make space and think about how they can do that.
Farra Trompeter: Well, Ally, thank you. It was lovely to speak with you as always. And again, if you are not familiar with Ally’s great thinking and work, encourage you to check out the posts she’s written on our website and different podcasts she’s both hosted and guest-starred on. If you are out there listening and you’re thinking about your own communications team, maybe you’re in the process of setting up a hire and wondering what role you should be hiring for, you’re thinking about how to structure your internal team or develop an internal communications plan, we’re here for you. Just let us know. Feel free to reach out at bigduck.com. You can always find us. We’re here to talk with you. You can even talk with me or Ally, and we’re happy to get into it on that.
Farra Trompeter: And before we sign off, I just want to mention, there’s another blog post we wrote right after this. Elizabeth Ricca, my co-director, wrote a post, 4 questions to guide your next nonprofit communications hires. This conversation was all about, once you’re a new communications hire, how do you approach your job? If you’re an organization that is about to work on hiring, that’s a great post. And again, you can get that at bigduck.com/insights. Ally, thanks again for being on the show.
Ally Dommu: My pleasure. Thanks Farra.