Photo by Elliot Haney
6 min Read
September 26, 2019

How to make your communications team a catalyst for diversity, equity, and inclusion

Tina Chong and Colleen Flynn

Tina Chong, Vice President of Communications at City Year, and Colleen Flynn, former Senior Director of External Affairs at City Year Boston and now Marketing Manager at Aspen Leadership Group, share their experience in advancing DEI and how other communications teams can get started.

It is well documented that investing in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) enhances creativity, facilitates innovation, and improves the bottom line. It’s easy to assume that DEI conversations will be led by the HR department or that strategies will be pushed down from the CEO—but communications teams shouldn’t underestimate the critical role they can play in these efforts. As communications professionals, we oversee many powerful levers that influence why someone would want to work with an organization (including donors, volunteers, service partners and more), and who wants to work for it as an employee or volunteer.

Through our experiences contributing to and leading communications efforts across a variety of organizations, we’ve learned that one of the most critical levers that communications teams have to advance DEI work in organizations is its messaging and storytelling, and making sure it reflects the organization’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Though this work is ongoing and filled with challenges along the way, we’ve seen that an investment in inclusive communications can help attract committed people to the organization, enhance relationships with partners, and generate support for the work. 

What to consider before jumping in and where to start

Diversity, equity, and inclusion conversations require a great deal of nuance and sensitivity, along with critical self-reflection and courage to begin the work—it’s not easy to admit where you are lacking or where you might actually be causing harm to a community. It also requires buy-in from leadership and from all areas of the organization, along with the commitment to building capacity for this work, which includes hiring and retaining diverse staff members. Improving DEI competency takes time and can quickly fall off the priority list without active participation from leaders and a commitment to developing the people and skills needed to do this work effectively.

The work can also be overwhelming, as it’s an ongoing process. For this reason, we recommend that you pick a starting place: assessing your organization’s messaging is a good first step. And before you start any work, you must be willing to devote significant time and resources — and ideally budget — over a sustained period of time to make real progress.

Ask your team: Does our messaging authentically represent the voice and experience of the people with whom we work?

Your organization may have a well-practiced elevator pitch that everyone can recite with ease (we can dream, right?). Your communications toolkit likely has taglines, values, mission statement, and other culture pieces that define the organizational brand. But what does that messaging really communicate? 

At City Year, an education nonprofit that brings together young adults to serve as AmeriCorps members to support student and school success, we recently overhauled our messaging guide—a process that’s taken almost two years and is still ongoing—based on feedback from our AmeriCorps members, our staff and our stakeholders. During facilitated listening sessions and one-on-one conversations, we heard that the language we were using did not honor our AmeriCorps members’ experiences serving in schools, the strengths and contributions of their students, the schools we were partnering with, or the communities in which we worked. With this feedback in mind, we decided to approach our messaging work differently than we had in the past. 

We brought in  a nonprofit think tank and research firm, the FrameWorks Institute, to help us better understand framing and narratives in general, including how the public understands and responds to education issues. We created our new messaging points in-house using recommendations from FrameWorks and solicited input through focus groups and interviews from a wide range of staff and corps across departments, levels, and locations to ensure that our language was authentically representing our people and the communities with whom we partner as much as possible.

Changing your organization’s messaging can be a long process, especially if certain messages and phrases are so entrenched within the organization that people tend to use it without giving it a second thought. We are just at the starting point in shifting our messaging at City Year, but by seeking out and incorporating feedback from those closest to the work, we are in a position to tell a more inclusive story that better represents our work, the challenges we face, and how we’re making a difference in partnership with our students and schools.

Identify other channels and opportunities for improvement, then build a plan

Reviewing your organization’s messaging is a first step—the communications team also has influence over how messages are being shared throughout your many communications channels—including your digital platforms, events, recruitment materials, fundraising appeals, and more.

At City Year Boston, we saw numerous opportunities to make our events—particularly our fundraising events—more inclusive. Some were changes that we could implement quickly, like improving accessibility and making event spaces more welcoming. We made accessibility assistance explicit in our event invitations, used descriptions in our social media posts, worked with venues to ensure accessible seating and AV, and trained staff to be proactive about creating an inclusive guest experience. We’ve also made it a priority to ensure that event spaces include gender-neutral bathrooms and prayer spaces, and we announce that availability widely to those in attendance. 

From there, we’ve worked closely with our development team to think more broadly about how to increase representation on stage, how to prepare speakers, and how to diversify host committees. When we invest in diversity and inclusion, we create more powerful event experiences, tap into new networks, and exceed our goals.

When assessing your communications vehicles, think critically about who you are including and potentially excluding. Are all members of your community able to participate or engage with your work? Who is represented in your stories? Who gets to tell your stories? How are you requesting feedback to gauge your progress?

This work is really hard and requires a learning mindset

The shifts we have sought to make to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in our organizations have been difficult, and we have faced—and continue to face—challenges as we do this work. As City Year has rolled out its new messaging and as we begin the work of ensuring these messages are reflected throughout our various communications channels, we have been honest with our staff and our stakeholders about how hard this is. We recognize that our language is imperfect—we haven’t figured out a magic phrase to describe our work, our students and our communities that does everything we want it to do. The shifts we seek to make in our storytelling are still new and for a lot of us, it’s untested. We have and will continue to be challenged by some of our stakeholders, including board members and funders.

Our goal, however, whether it’s through this particular project or in other work, is to learn from our staff and our partners who are willing to do this work alongside us, and inspire others to join us. We have the power, through our words and our stories, to showcase the strength and contributions of those we partner with–instead of further reinforcing negative stereotypes and causing harm to the communities that we seek to serve. When DEI is lived out in our communications practices, it will not only strengthen relationships and bring in more champions and supporters, but it will also contribute to changing the public narrative.

Are you just getting started with DEI at your organization? This compilation of DEI resources may help. Have you been weaving DEI into your internal or external communications? We are always looking for more examples to share with other nonprofits. Let us know if you’d like to share your story on our blog.