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8 min Read
June 29, 2022

It’s time for your nonprofit to prioritize internal communications

A few months ago I posted a simple question on LinkedIn, “Does your communications team include one or more people focused on internal communications? Any thoughts about the pros/cons of this approach in nonprofit organizations?”

I was excited to see the comments and conversion this question sparked both on my post and in the weeks that followed in my inbox. As a company that focuses on helping nonprofits use communications to achieve its mission, people are often calling us with questions about how to staff for communications. And over the past few weeks as staff shuffle from one organization to another, I’m left wondering – is internal communications the key to employee retention and better culture?

Whether you are trying to make the case for internal communications in your organization or looking for new ways to think about it, here is a collection of advice from 11 communications experts.

Good internal communications are the key to strong organizations and strong brands.

“Internal communications are critical for people, operations, and organizational strategy! A skilled internal communications manager brings expertise in campaign rollouts, engages staff in two-way conversations about program evaluation, enhances the organization’s brand and benefits among the team, and so much more. As nonprofits continue to hire staff remotely and globally, internal communications should be part of the business plan.”

Leili Khalessi, Director of Communications and Events, Midtown Association

“Having someone assigned to internal comms, either full-time or as part of their responsibilities, is essential for any strategic communications function. Employees, trustees, and retirees (and volunteers if you have them) should be one of your named audiences. They can all be strategic brand ambassadors for your organization, and they should understand the why behind internal and external messages. It’s also best when folks internally know what’s being shared externally by the organization in advance. This happens most effectively when you have someone managing the flow of information to them as early as you can. That person should also be connected with HR and DEI efforts, so that they facilitate two-communication among employees and the organization’s leaders.”

Rebecca Noricks, Communications Officer, W.K. Kellogg Foundation

Consistent brand voice needs to happen both internally and externally. An internal communications strategy is as important as the external one. The cornerstone of that strategy is creating a space for listening. How else would you learn if your organization’s voice is authentically reflecting your internal stakeholders’ voice?”

Frank Liu, Founder, Brand Justice 

Define what the role of internal communications will do and how it will work with other departments.

Previously, it wound up becoming part of my job as the org grew and evolved. I think because it was never formalized (as I believe it should be) it was sort of nebulous as to when I was brought into things, and when I wasn’t with senior leadership at times crafting internal comms without me and sometimes turning to me for advice. Even if it’s just part of one person’s job, as long as it’s official and everyone is aware that it is part of that person’s job and it’s viewed as a specialized skill. This can change to an FTE once an organization gets to a tipping point of maybe…50 people?

James Porter, Head of Communications & Marketing, VOW for Girls

In general, I think it’s a good idea for nonprofit organizations to have dedicated staffing for internal comms (because it’s a lot of work), but I think it’s essential to specify up front that the position(s) is well-resourced and needs strong collaboration with executive, HR, and DEI teams (if those teams exist).

Minna Jung, writer and consultant

Whether it’s a role or department, focus on the function of engaging internal stakeholders meaningfully.

While dedicated internal communications staff bring tremendous value to any organization, the reality of small to mid-sized nonprofits prioritizing that position is challenging. More importantly, I think a departmental-wide commitment to internal transparency, two-way communication, and processes that gather input and perspectives from folks across the organization is critical. 

It’s one thing to have the extra capacity to, say, roll out a new campaign or inform staff of updated messaging – and that will always be important to any organization, but it’s another to create the space to work with internal stakeholders to get input on a campaign or help shape messaging. There is so much to gain from focusing on not just the quantity, but the quality of internal communications that will help strengthen organizational alignment, bring more diverse voices and perspectives to communications materials, foster more transformational relationships, and help bridge the gap across departments.  

As you work to center racial equity and uplift BIPOC voices, I think the way you approach internal communication, actively working to dismantle the White Supremacy Culture Values that infuse so many aspects of organizational culture and practices, is essential.

Debbie DePoala, Senior Director of Communications, WhyHunger

Putting your staff first builds trust and yields positive results.

I believe the first target audience of any organization is the employees. I typically send out every media announcement or marketing campaign to all staff at the same time or a hair’s breadth before I send it to external audiences like press or ticket buyers. From an emotional perspective, I think it’s a good idea to allow people on the inside to hear about news first before it is forwarded to them by a friend or they read it online or in the media. It also builds trust.

I do think that having a person dedicated to internal communications is ideal, however, if the organization is not able to dedicate a whole position then I think it’s a good idea to have at least one or two people who understand and VALUES information sharing. Ideally. it would be cool to have one point person in each department who focuses on this in some way, both for sharing OUT to other departments but also for pulling IN information.

Fatima Jones, Senior Director of Marketing and Communications, Apollo Theater

I’m surprised that for many, internal comms is still an afterthought. Internal Comms, specifically employee comms, very much translate into real results. It may be a longer-term investment because you need to set the foundation, make it intentional, cultivate relationships, fine-tune your strategy to find what’s most relevant to employees, and build trust, but it pays off. It’s not just repurposing your external comms for your employees, it’s an entirely separate approach. If you give employees timely, relevant information and programs that they want, you can then engage them with what you need them to know. Awareness improves, trust improves, morale improves, and even tangible metrics like productivity, safety, absenteeism, service, and others ultimately improve. Not only for nonprofits but for government agencies, too. We’ve seen it done well and we’ve seen it go horribly wrong – even in the same organization 🙂

Mira Sleilati, Director, Internal Communications, State of NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority

Internal communications can boost your team’s morale and motivation.

Employees are your first customers. Take care of the caretakers, etc. I usually have this role focused on board members, employees, and volunteers. Three levels of need in the same function.

Christina Frantom, Head Of Marketing, Fledging

External comms will always win over internal comms; so if you hire a person to do both, be aware that launching a public campaign for a program or fundraiser is always going to take precedence over getting out the company newsletter or organizing an all-hands meeting. If your organization reaches, say, 300-500 people, you are at a point where you need a dedicated internal comms person whose job is to serve the organization’s workforce. At that scale and beyond, the company is likely to offer a host of benefits, perks, and programming for employees. 

Even with the leanest nonprofit mindset, hybrid workforces need a communications focus. With people working out of their homes at least part of the time, nonprofits who want to retain and motivate staff need to double down on sharing culture and relevance, getting people inspired about the work they do—the heart and soul of internal comms.

Kirsten Major, Internal Communications Consultant, The Estée Lauder Companies Inc. 

Spend the time to hire and onboard an internal communications role thoughtfully.

Too often, internal communications is an ‘orphan function’ in organizations, partially because it sits at the intersection of so many roles and functions: executive leadership, HR, inclusion, legal, strategy, board governance, and external communications or brand…to name a few!

Adding a dedicated role, or even just naming a lead amongst existing staff, seems like a no-brainer. But it can be challenging to find someone who has the trust of all these different stakeholders and understands their work. This is not a ‘junior’ role, and sometimes organizations can have a hard time valuing it enough to invest in the sort of experience and expertise it requires. You are looking for someone with the breadth of an executive leader, the inventiveness of a Creative Director, and the situational awareness and empathy of a mediator!

So, sure, you should hire an internal communications manager. But they’re not going to succeed unless the entire executive team is crystal clear on your organization’s values and the criteria you use to make decisions, and you are willing to be painfully honest about why you’re doing what you’re doing–especially when it comes time to make the hard calls. Do that work first, find someone you trust to help you express what you know you believe, and then your internal communications person will be able to help you make sure it’s communicated well.

Charlotte Levitt, Director of Marketing & Digital Communications, New York City Campaign Finance Board

Does your organization invest enough in internal communications? Are you wondering if you have all the roles you need on your team? We can help you define the purpose of communications for your organization and assess the skills, structure, and people on your communications team and recommend any changes. Contact us if you’d like to explore how we can help you build an even stronger communications team.