3 min Read
August 24, 2015

Why your Executive Director doesn’t need formal messaging (and your staff desperately does)

Executive Directors are often the last people in a nonprofit to use, or even want, more standardized organizational messaging (key messages, boilerplate, elevator pitch, etc).  And when staff people want everyone to communicate in clearer, more consistent ways, this can be deeply frustrating. Personally, though, I’ve made peace with the fact that most EDs will ignore their own institutional messaging. Here’s why. 

Executive Directors (or CEOs, if your nonprofit uses c-suite language) often come in two flavors: fundraising and programs. Executives with fundraising backgrounds are able to see and describe their organization’s work in donor-centric terms intuitively. They’ve learned how to listen for what’s interesting to an outsider and to shape stories that resonate with their audience’s values, interests, and personality. They inspire with tales of emotion and impact that make most people want to get out their checkbooks after they dry their wet eyes.

Executives of the programs variety are equally as effective, but the fire that burns within them is stoked by brilliant program design. Their eyes light up with passion as they engage in storytelling too, and soon their audiences want to meet the great staff or tour the programs themselves. Like experienced field guides, they do a great job inviting the outsider on a journey that starts with a problem and ends with results.

Most Executive Directors/CEOs I know have developed sophisticated skills when messaging about their organization. They’ve learned how to listen carefully and respond in audience-centric ways. They intuit how much information is enough, which stories or programs to highlight, and what the best call-to-action will be. It comes with practice; their years in the field have helped them build professional-level communications skills.

An Executive Director’s resistance to adopting organization-wide messaging is often directly related to the ease with which they employ this unique writing and speaking ability. After all, they’re great at messaging about the organization, so why get stuck with a more one-size-fits-all framework that’s less sophisticated than what they are already doing themselves?

On the other end of the spectrum, staff people within most nonprofits are desperate for simple, clear, organization-wide messaging frameworks that will help them advance their communications skills. Programs staff, for instance, need help speaking or writing about other parts of the organization’s work beyond their own areas of expertise. Development staff want help articulating how everything ties together after that compelling success story is told. And just about everyone needs a clear call-to-action that helps suggest how the person they’re addressing can get more involved. In truth, even the communications experts on staff have less experience telling the nonprofit’s story than a typical ED has. 

Executive Directors sometimes forget that their staff people are still learning how to speak and write effectively on behalf of the organization. Messaging helps staff people by creating scaffolding for writing and speaking they can rely on when things get scary or go beyond their area of expertise.

Staff people can forget that Executive Directors are experienced pros that are often entrepreneurial and adaptive people. It’s okay for them to bend the rules—as long as they aren’t describing a totally different animal.

Even when Executive Directors virtually ignore the messaging their colleagues have been creating, it still proves very useful, particularly for staff and board members who struggled to talk about the organization with confidence before. In fact, we recently surveyed clients we’d completed organizational messaging for over the past few years and found that most use their messaging on a daily basis.

So while I’ve made peace with the Executive Directors who ignore their organization’s messaging, I’ve also gotten increasingly convinced of the value of that same messaging for the staff people who are less expert at telling organizational stories.

PS- If your organization is struggling to tell a consistent, compelling story, Big Duck can help. Check out our brandraising area of work for more details. And yes, we can stage an intervention if your Executive Director or staff really needs one.