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6 min Read
August 20, 2019

How to get nonprofit leadership to value smart communications

Is the value of communications clear to you, but not your executive director?

It happens! Though there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to getting nonprofit leadership to see communications as a strategy that can advance the mission, we hope these tips will help you develop and present your case.

Define the connection between communications and the mission.

Start with your strategic plan to help you identify the goals and objectives for communications at your nonprofit.

Where does your organization see itself in the next three to five years? What strategies will it undertake to get there? What objectives will you measure to track progress? How will this affect the work of each department?

As you review the big-picture goals and strategies in your nonprofit’s strategic plan, think about communications’ role in powering them. 

Some may have a clear connection to communications. For example, if your nonprofit aims to raise its national visibility, it will need to reach the right people and give them tangible ways to get involved and to spread your message. Some may be less obvious. For instance, if your organization wants to help its partners build capacity, communications may play a more supportive, internal role.

Begin to define the goals and objectives for communications specifically. By building clear communications objectives out of the goals outlined in your nonprofit’s strategic plan, it will be easier to show your executive director that communications is intrinsic to the mission—and a practice worth investing in.

Consider their perspective.

Schedule a short meeting with your executive director to make your case, answer questions, and ease concerns. Write an agenda to keep your conversation focused and make the most of both of your time.

As you prepare your talking points, try to put yourself in your executive director’s shoes. What do they think of communications? What’s their vision for the organization? How are they leveraging communications well—or overlooking its potential? 

Getting into the mindset of your nonprofit leader will help you personalize your reasoning and make the conversation more productive. Also, by trying to understand and speak to their point of view, you’ll demonstrate that you’re serious about the role of communications and what it can do for your organization. Plus, they’ll be more likely to hear you out.

Speak to what leadership cares about.

Nonprofit leaders are busy people. If you have a small window of time, make the most of it by honing in on points that speak to your executive director’s bottom line.

Fundraising? Growing programs? Recruiting great board members? Building staff capacity?

It may be helpful to ask staff about the challenges they perceive around communicating internally and externally. But rather than reporting those challenges back outright, try framing them as opportunities tied to specific objectives your executive director cares about. 

For example, a nonprofit could be doing great work, but may lose out on grants because staff members tasked to apply for them don’t have specific and compelling messaging about the results. One could frame this as an opportunity to win more grants by investing in organizational messaging the development department can use to write grants, appeals, and other donor communications.

Get on the same page.

It’s always a good idea to establish a shared definition of communications and branding up front—and link to the organization’s larger goals and objectives that they can help advance. Before getting into the substance of the conversation, align with your nonprofit’s executive director on what exactly you’ll be discussing.

Communications is the practice of building relationships and sharing information. Communications play a role in supporting critical parts of the mission—programs, development, advocacy, and more. For example, staff can communicate with each other across departments, to program clients, and to a community of supporters or donors. Strong internal communications often leads to strong external communications.

Big Duck defines a nonprofit’s brand as an organization’s voice. It’s what audiences hear, see, think, and feel—
and the impression that is formed as a result of their experiences with you. 

Everyone at a nonprofit plays a role in its brand—not just the communications or development departments. From program staff to board members, everyone speaks on behalf of the organization. We find that strong brands start with internal clarity about the big ideas and goals guiding your organization, as well as your intentions for how you want to be perceived.

Outline the benefits of smart communications.

Have a good answer to the question, “Why?” Using what you know about your nonprofit’s leader, challenges staff are facing, and your nonprofit’s strategic plan, explain what your organization stands to benefit from a renewed focus on communications. 

Here are some of the most common benefits of branding and clearer communications we hear from our clients:

  • The board and everyone on staff tells a more consistent story about what the nonprofit does, why it matters, and how to get involved
  • Development finds it easier to raise money, retain donors, and reach key audiences
  • Audiences understand and authentically believe in the nonprofit and its mission
  • Staff have greater internal capacity and can produce materials more quickly and efficiently
  • The organization has made progress on goals outlined in the strategic plan

Our ebook, The Rebrand Effect, has more measurable results of nonprofit rebranding. We’ll also be publishing a new book about nonprofit communications by Big Duck’s CEO, Sarah Durham, soon—stay tuned.

Show them how your nonprofit stacks up.

Your executive director is already aware of other organizations in your sector, but showing them how your nonprofit looks, feels, and communicates compared to others could help make your case.

Choose three to four peers, sign up for their email lists, review their websites, recent annual reports, and other materials. You may want to throw in one for-profit that you know your audiences interact with as well. (If you’re not sure who your nonprofit’s audiences are, bring it up during your conversation!)

While looking at your peers, ask yourself questions like, How are they using messaging (headlines, email, body copy, etc.) and visuals (colors, photography, illustration, etc.)? Do they stand out in our space? Is what they do, why it matters, and the impact of their work clear?

Look for correlations between how your peers are using communications and their position in your landscape. Think about if they are more well-known than your nonprofit, how well they fundraise, and other markers of success that your executive director may find compelling.

Visuals are powerful. You could try showing your executive director your peers’ materials alongside your organization’s, so they can see the value of communications.

You can use your executive director’s top priorities as an entryway to a more holistic understanding of communications. We believe smart communications and strong brands present a larger opportunity to make a powerful, unified impression—one that gives the people core to your mission a reason to remember and choose you.

We hope these tips help you facilitate productive conversations with your nonprofit leadership about the value of communications. For more on shifting your organization’s culture around branding, flip to page 12 of our free ebook on Brand Stickiness. No doubt, changing someone’s mind is a challenge—but a worthy one when it comes to advancing the mission.