What are the latest nonprofit communications trends?
A nonprofit’s approach to communications should strategically advance its mission. Farra Trompeter, co-director, chats with Kivi Leroux Miller, founder and CEO of Nonprofit Marketing Guide, about ways to refine your team’s communications initiatives.
Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and member-owner at Big Duck. Today we’re going to talk about the latest trends in nonprofit communications with the person who I believe I associate the most with nonprofit communications trends, and that’s Kivi Leroux Miller. Kivi’s actually been on the podcast before. In fact, back in late 2021, she was interviewed by our founder, Sarah Durham, on episode 99 asking all about “Who should be on your communications team?”
Farra Trompeter: If you are not familiar with Kivi, let me tell you a little bit about her. Kivi Leroux Miller, she/her, is the founder and CEO of Nonprofit Marketing Guide, where she is the lead trainer for hundreds of nonprofit communicators. She’s also the award-winning author of three books on nonprofit marketing and communications that are often used in college and certificate programs. And because she can’t get enough of nonprofits and entrepreneurship for good, Kivi also serves as the president of the Lexington Farmers Market Association that’s in North Carolina, and she co-founded a baking business with her teenage daughter called Rabble & Rise Baking Company. You’re going to have to tell me later how I can place some orders from here in New York, but Kivi, welcome back to the show.
Kivi Leroux Miller: Thank you, Farra, and we can totally hook you up with the fresh bread.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I know I followed you before, you know, selling Girl Scout Cookies, so I’m excited for some fresh bread now.
Kivi Leroux Miller: I’m done with that, but yeah!
Farra Trompeter: So, for the past 13 years, Kivi and her team at the Nonprofit Marketing Guide have been surveying hundreds of nonprofit communications staff every year and publishing the annual Nonprofit Communications Trends Report. I often cite the report in trainings that I lead online and in-person, and I always really appreciate everything you include there, but particularly the findings about staffing, budgeting, and internal collaboration. Kivi’s team recently published the 2023 edition and we’re going to dive into some of that content and other insights that Kivi has gained through all of her work. I encourage you to download that report. We will certainly link to it over in our show notes. But Kivi, for folks who may not have read it yet, for the 2023 report, what would you say was the biggest “aha!” or most surprising finding from your research?
Kivi Leroux Miller: Well, it may seem obvious, but I was really surprised at the percentage of nonprofit communications staff that have not gone back to work full-time in the office. So, obviously, we all went home during the pandemic, but very few people are back in the office full-time. So before the pandemic, 67% of nonprofit communication staff reported that they worked in an office or other kind of designated work site. That is only 5% now. So, you know, most people are obviously doing hybrid, but there’s also a huge portion that is strictly remote, and I just think that’s a really fundamental change in the way communications work gets done in our sector. And I’m not sure everyone has fully adapted to that yet. So I just found those numbers very striking.
Farra Trompeter: Just to contextualize it – so I know the report just came out in early 2023 – when was the survey actually done? What was the time period that people were responding to that question?
Kivi Leroux Miller: Late November and early December of last year.
Farra Trompeter: Okay, so pretty recent, right? So we’re looking at data collected in late 2022. Still with, again, those who’ve responded. And I think you get, what, over 500 nonprofit staff?
Kivi Leroux Miller: Yeah.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah. So that is really interesting. At Big Duck, one of our areas of work is an area we call “Teams,” and one of the things we do under Teams is really to develop communications plans with our clients, and we try to help staff have tools to apply a strategic framework to making decisions, including the ability to stop doing things that no longer work and say no in the future. And you recently blogged about this idea – you have a blog post we’ll link to called “Why Communications Staff Need the Ability to Say No,” and I loved when I saw you share that over on LinkedIn. And I’m just curious about what was behind that post for you, and can you talk a little bit about why this matters? Why do nonprofit communications staff need to say no?
Kivi Leroux Miller: Right. There’s actually a huge section in the Trends Report on this. I really wanted to elaborate on why I feel so strongly about this. So there are multiple pages in the Trends Report too, but what we find is that people who can’t say no can’t be strategic. One of the basic definitions of strategy is the ability to say no to most things and yes to a few and to focus on those things and to do them well. And we’ve known for a long time that communications folks have a very hard time saying no. There are a lot of people pleasers, right, and that data also came out through the report.
Kivi Leroux Miller: But what we really find is that when you treat your comms staff as an internal agency where other people are directing the comms strategy and just making requests for things, it is anything but strategic. We find that people come to the comms staff with really bad ideas like, “Oh, let’s just do a bunch of flyers,” or “I need you to just do one email or put this on Facebook 17 times this week.” You know, they’re really not following best practice. They have no appreciation for the other work that the communications team has on their list for this week or next week. So it’s just really, really rough. People have got to be able to say no on this job and they just don’t very often.
Farra Trompeter: Sounds like from what you’re saying, it’s both a problem from within, from the staff person not feeling like they have the ability of the authority to say no, and then from other departments just not even necessarily thinking in a dimensional way about what they’re giving. I know some organizations will ask other departments to write a mini brief that helps with like, “Why do you need this? Who is the audience for it? What do you want them to take away?” to try to at least bring strategy into the conversation. And one of the things that we often are encouraging our clients to think about is, “What are the things you should start? What are the things you should stop? And where are the places you might experiment?” Right. Sometimes there’s a testing period and that can give us some things, but it is really important to start saying no.
Farra Trompeter: And another thing that I really appreciated in your report is to speak up. And the past three years have been full of lots of challenges for nonprofits. I’d argue in the entire world, but specifically in nonprofits. Managing through the pandemic, there’s been lots of staff transitions, and I think the need for organizations to see themselves as part of a larger ecosystem, less about, “Our mission is more important than your mission,” and more about, “Our mission is part of yours,” so we can create a bigger movement for change. And I think that’s been actually a positive shift I’m seeing happening. Certainly, we see that in the fundraising space with the rise of the Community-Centric Fundraising movement, and I think we’re starting to see it with communications.
Farra Trompeter: And one of the biggest findings in your report this year was the importance of staff finding their voice and their role in the larger community, and I would just love to hear you talk a little more about what you’re seeing and any advice you have for staff out there in terms of that idea.
Kivi Leroux Miller: Right. So, so many nonprofits really want to position themselves as thought leaders or just leaders more generally in the community, which is great, but so many of them are really limiting themselves to just the very specific things they work on. They only really want to speak up if it’s absolutely connected to their work today, and I think that’s a mistake given where we are culturally in the United States right now. There are very, very big issues that we are all struggling with, whether it’s the pandemic, climate change, racial equity, all kinds of issues, and to just sort of sit on the sidelines when things happen that are pretty monumental, whether they’re a regional thing or a national thing, I think is missing an opportunity to, as you said, you know, be a part of that bigger community.
Kivi Leroux Miller: And it doesn’t mean that you should think you have to become an expert on racial equity or climate change or whatever it is, but I would encourage nonprofits to think about how they can use their voice to really elevate the work of others in the nonprofit sector that are working on those things. So instead of ignoring the fact that something happens, you know, maybe you just throw a sentence or two at the top of your newsletter saying, “Here’s another nonprofit that is doing a lot of work. If this is something that’s on your mind, it’s on our mind now,” and then you can get back to whatever you are saying. But I think to just ignore the larger context that people are living in, the people on your mailing list are living in, is a real missed opportunity and a mistake for those of you that are trying to really be leaders in your communities.
Farra Trompeter: I’m curious if you have an opinion. I know I hear from a lot of organizations that are struggling with, like, we have so much work to do internally, particularly on the issues of racial equity, and are nervous about or feeling uncomfortable, frankly, about communicating externally because they haven’t done the work internally and they don’t want to be performative. And I think that’s true, you need to be authentic. What I’ve heard a lot of folks saying is, “Be real in that.” Just say, like, “We’re on the journey. Here’s where we are. Here are some other folks who are much more advanced than us. This is who you should pay attention to. We think this is important, and this is the work we’re doing internally.” But I’m curious where you’re coming out in that conversation.
Kivi Leroux Miller: I agree with you. Absolutely, Farra, one hundred percent. Even if you’re doing the work internally, I think acknowledging that something has happened, that it’s affecting you and your staff, and you expect that it’s something that other people are thinking hard about, “Here’s a resource you may not know about.” A nonprofit in your community, a national leader, whatever it is.
Kivi Leroux Miller: But I realize full well that even just linking to another organization can be a political act within a nonprofit. So I do think there has to be a tremendous amount of internal work. Some of the organizations that we’ve recently had in our communications director mentoring program have gone through that hard process of talking amongst staff about how they respond. Instead of it being the executive director making a judgment call, there’s a staff process now to decide when they will respond and how they will respond, and who that voice will be. So I’m working with the people I’m referring to and some others this year to try to bring some of those best practices to light for folks. I don’t want to name names here now because we’re still really talking about it, but there are some good organizations making some really interesting steps forward in that way, and I hope we can share more of that with folks in the coming year.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, well, consider this an early invitation once you are ready to talk about that or the folks you’re working with already to talk about that, we would love to either host a conversation on the podcast, do a webinar together, or just, you know, have a guest blog. So, we would be happy to share that or just share what you’re doing on our social feeds. So thank you for having those conversations.
Kivi Leroux Miller: Absolutely. I would love to have them with you.
Farra Trompeter: I want to flashback for a minute, actually, and throw some appreciation to the work that you did with Sarah, our founder, back in 2017 where Big Duck and the Nonprofit Marketing Guide co-published an ebook called “What Makes a Nonprofit Communications Team Successful?” If you haven’t read that ebook, you can actually download it at BigDuck.com/insights. But here we are six years later, and I’m curious, what are you finding are the keys or factors to successful nonprofit communications teams?
Kivi Leroux Miller: Well, you know, my conversations with Sarah were actually really formative in me drawing some conclusions that we really base almost all of our work on today, and certainly a lot of the questions that appear in the Trends Report. So, one of the things that Sarah mentioned to me that I always keep in mind that relates back to this issue of saying no is comms should be in service of the organization but not a servant to it. And Sarah and I had a lot of conversations about that. So this goes back to the whole “no” idea that you can say no and be in service. You don’t have to be a servant to other coworkers.
Kivi Leroux Miller: One of the ideas that was born from conversations with Sarah and lots of other folks we put into an acronym because I love acronyms and I love alliteration. So we’ve really developed what we call a CALM framework – collaborative, agile, logical, and methodical. It’s not so much whether you have the best practices on social media or email that make you successful, it’s really how you build collaborative relationships, your ability to be agile and sort of pivot around as much as you need to, to have a real strategy which is logical and makes sense, and then to be methodical with the processes internally to implement that strategy. So we teach a lot of tools. We teach a lot of how to say no, and how to work collaboratively internally to get what you need as a communications director to really bring your comms team up to the next level.
Farra Trompeter: That’s great because what you’re talking about is, you know, there are millions of blog posts and webinars out there of like, “What are the latest things you should be doing on Instagram? How do you make a reel?” or “What’s your video strategy?” or “What are you doing on TikTok?” And those things are important and we need to learn about that, but if we don’t have a way to approach the work and get the work done well and we’re not constantly thinking about, “Is this actually going to reach the people we need to reach, is this going to advance our mission?” then what’s it all for? So I appreciate your framework and recommend folks check out that book, CALM, which we’ll also link to.
Farra Trompeter: You know, I actually recently interviewed Sunil Oommen about how communications and development teams can better collaborate. That’s definitely a topic I like to talk and think about, and before we wrap things up, I know you’ve got lots of thoughts about the different ways to structure a communications team including who reports to who. And I’m just wondering if you have any tips or examples about what models you think are working best these days in organizations?
Kivi Leroux Miller: Absolutely. And a lot of this is really based on previous research from previous Trends Reports from several years ago as well. So, the models we prefer are either Centralized or Integrated. So let me just tell you really quickly what those two are, and then we’ll talk about what you really shouldn’t be doing.
Kivi Leroux Miller: So when you have fundraising that is really built off of the strategic work of the organization, whether – so advocacy organizations, for example. There’s a real connection between the ongoing on-the-ground work and the fundraising strategy. I prefer to recommend what we call an Integrated team in that situation. So, fundraising and comms, and marketing are really working together and very closely with the program side of the house to really develop the communication strategy. It really is truly an integrated kind of all-in-one approach to communications and fundraising.
Kivi Leroux Miller: In other organizations, you know, think of a social service organization that’s maybe running 30 different programs and that is not an exaggeration. A lot of our social service agencies are really doing all kinds of programming. I prefer more of what I call the Centralized model, which is more of the air traffic control model. They’re really paying attention to all the needs that are coming in from the different parts of the organization and they’re making decisions about, basically, who gets to land where and when on the communications channels. Either of those works really well and our research shows that both of those kinds of styles of teams can be very successful.
Kivi Leroux Miller: What’s less successful is what we’ve already talked about a little bit today is the Internal Agency model where people are just barking orders. I refer to it as the drive-through window model for your comms team. And it doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work. Of course, there’s exceptions to every role, and there are times when an Internal Agency Team can work, but it’s usually when the mission of the organization is very communications- and marketing-focused anyway and so the executive C-suite level of the organization is already very well versed in marketing and communication strategy. That is not the majority of nonprofits.
Kivi Leroux Miller: The last one that we talk about, actually the last two, are CEO-led or Fundraising-led, and this is where you’re typically having a very small team, usually just one communications or two communications people reporting directly to a fundraising director or the CEO, or executive director. And in those cases, it’s really just they’re getting jerked around and it’s just constant whack-a-mole. They’re really just sort of glorified assistants to those people in a lot of cases, and again, we just see a complete lack of strategy in those scenarios. Lots of times it’s because it’s a small organization that just hasn’t grown the team up where it needs to be yet. But when you have larger multimillion-dollar organizations that are still functioning in that way, it’s not good.
Farra Trompeter: If somebody wanted to read more about these different structures, is there a blog post or a one-place-reference you can think of that we can send people to?
Kivi Leroux Miller: I’m actually going to be updating our blog posts because I’ve realized that I’ve just got different pieces of this in several of the different Trends Reports. But basically, if you want to look at the 2020 or 2021 Trends Reports, the core of the research is really in those years, but I’m going to be putting together a blog post so we’ll get you that link too, Farra.
Farra Trompeter: That sounds good. Well, if you want to download this year’s report or even previous years, go to N-P-M-G – so that’s Nonprofit Marketing Guide – .us/trends, and that will send you right to this year’s Trends Report to be able to download that. You can also access resources, get training and coaching, and more at NonprofitMarketingGuide.com, or you can check out what those folks are up to on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter at N-P-M-K-T-G-D, that’s N-P-M-K-T-G-D, an acronym for Nonprofit Marketing Guide, or abbreviation.
Farra Trompeter: You can also connect with Kivi via LinkedIn at Kivi Leroux Miller, K-I-V-I-L-E-R-O-U-X M-I-L-L-E-R. Kivi, thank you so much for joining us. Before we sign off, anything else you’d like to share?
Kivi Leroux Miller: Thank you, Farra. And I would just love to have your listeners participate in the Trends Report next year. This is something we do every single year. We open the survey sometime in November and close it sometime in December. So if you download the report and give us your email address, we’ll make sure to invite you to participate as well.
Farra Trompeter: I love it. Well, Kivi, thanks again, and everyone out there, have a great rest of your day.