4 min Read
June 26, 2018

Lift your communications team from a fog with Blue Skies conversations

Danielle Freni

If you’ve been leading nonprofit communications teams for any amount of time, you’re likely familiar with the dreaded look of burnout. Maybe you’ve noticed the half-hearted smiles and tired eyes showing up on more faces in more meetings and on more elevator rides. Maybe workplace laughter has died down or there’s an uptick in absences. Maybe your reliable rock stars are suddenly “under-performing.”

These are all symptoms of a team in pain. It hurts all around, from morale to productivity.

As members of the marketing team at the national office for one of the country’s largest nonprofit organizations, my colleagues and I are well acquainted with the struggles of doing good on a budget. It seems no matter the size of the nonprofit, there are never enough resources to address the endless deliverables required to save the world. Nonprofit leaders may find their team cycling through back-to-back seasons of competing priorities that only serve to create silos and ultimately, kill creativity and productivity across the organization’s talent pool.

Communicators are often the greatest cheerleaders for any organization. But sometimes, they need a break. Teams that are worn out or beaten down simply can’t produce quality work.

Enter Blue Skies — a designated space to do some collective self-care and stay optimistic while tackling major scopes of work.

To help each other stay energized and inspired, a small group of us made a pact to intentionally shifting our language in collaborations and brainstorms. We started to have more conversations that began with “What if …” rather than “This won’t work because …”

We quickly realized this new approach was helping us uncover creative solutions and move ideas forward. So, we decided to expand our Blue Skies conversations to include the entire team once a quarter. Inviting everyone on the team to rally around “the team” instead of “the project” has helped to shift some stale dynamics and build stronger trust.

Here are a few guidelines we established for Blue Skies conversations:

  1. It’s not a meeting. We have a topic for discussion and a designated end time but there is no agenda and no action items. To help participants embrace a non-meeting mindset, we set the stage to more closely resemble a lunchroom hang out (even when a conference room is our only venue option). We play loud music from the room where the meeting is about to begin and serve low-budget snacks like microwave popcorn. We intentionally reserve a smaller room than our headcount to create a more intimate, campfire vibe. We push the table away and discourage multitasking because the only work we’re there to do is talk with each other.
  2. Our first topic was inspired by Big Duck’s eBook, What it Takes to be Great: The Top Five Factors of Successful Nonprofit Communications Teams. We wanted to know what ingredients each of us felt were most critical for a healthy, high-functioning team. From there, we created more conversations that examined each of the ingredients we’d sourced (innovation, accountability, clear priorities) one at a time.
  3. There is no hierarchy. This is easier said than done for some, yet simply stating it off the bat can truly help everyone in the room feel empowered to contribute in a new way. It can be refreshing to hear from more introverted members of the team and to consider new perspectives. It was helpful that our conversations began organically, and the invite came from a peer rather than a boss.
  4. Everyone is an expert. When we work with the same team for a while, we tend to assess each other’s strengths and weaknesses and apply imaginary labels alongside job titles. We can be so focused on our current output that we forget the depth and breadth of experience that each member of the team brings. A project manager who is deadline-oriented may also have a creative side. A graphic designer could be planning a family reunion on the side and recently discovered a great tool for project management. The point is, everyone on your team is more dynamic and experienced than their current title or role may let on. We are all experts in our own right.
  5. It’s a perfect world. Blue Skies conversations are all about grand visions and optimism. As a leader, you likely know how exceedingly difficult it can be to problem-solve or dream big when there’s an “if only” interrupter in the room. “If only” voices are quick to point out the barriers that would prevent a big idea from taking shape. These voices have an important role to play when it comes to practical matters such as budgeting and strategy execution, but they’ll only taint the energy of a “What if” conversation. When you establish your ground rules, make sure to underscore this one: We all have magic wands today. We are brainstorming “in a perfect world.” In addition to quashing the naysayers, this guideline should help divert your Blue Skies train from pulling into Tangent Town.
  6. Participation is not required. While we invite everyone on the team to join us, we don’t require attendance, nor active participation in the room. Blue Skies is intended for free-flowing, authentic conversation about a specific topic. Eliminating the pressure to contribute ensures that everyone in the room is in a positive mindset.

If you’re a nonprofit communications leader struggling with stagnant energy, setting the stage for Blue Skies conversations could give your team a much-needed boost – and keep burnout at bay.