Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash
May 13, 2020

What are the six elements your communications need to thrive?

Big Duck’s latest book, The Nonprofit Communications Engine, outlines a simple model for nonprofit communicators and leaders that makes it easier for them to leverage communications in order to advance their mission.

Nonprofit CEOs and staff who manage communications can use this book to set clearer goals, guide their planning and activities, identify gaps in their expertise, and discover opportunities to strengthen their communications. In this podcast, Sarah Durham breaks down six key communications elements.


Sarah Durham: In an earlier podcast I introduced my new book, The Nonprofit Communications Engine to you, The Nonprofit Communications Engine: A Leader’s Guide to Managing Mission-driven Marketing and Communications is my attempt to create a model or a framework that any nonprofit, regardless of how old or big or what kind of mission it has, can use to think in more strategic and effective ways about communications. And in the book I lay out a model where there are three outcomes that a communications function that’s successful can be expected to achieve. And in this episode, what I’m going to do is I’m going to talk about the six elements that power those successful communications outcomes. So if you missed that first podcast, I’m gonna link to it in the show notes so that you can go back and listen to it. You can also find the book on just search for “The Nonprofit Communications Engine” or search for me, Sarah Durham, and you can order a copy.

Sarah Durham: But let’s dig in and talk about the six elements that power successful communications outcomes. The first, and arguably the most critical, is strategy. An organization’s goals and objectives should inform its communications strategies and tactics beginning with its strategic plan and department specific objectives. And in the book I spend a lot of time and energy unpacking what communications strategy really means. But suffice it to say that your communications team should not be working in a vacuum. They should be talking to other departments about who they need to engage and how they want to engage them. They should be building off of your strategic plan and they should have a framework that they use to be really clear about how all these pieces come together in some sort of organized way so that the tactics that they’re using in day-to-day communications are specific and deliberate.
Sarah Durham: The second element that’s important to power successful communications is having the right team in place. And that doesn’t necessarily mean staff. It could mean volunteers, freelancers, consultants, and others who power the engine of your nonprofits communications. And in the book I spend a chapter talking about some of the challenges that nonprofits typically find when staffing internally, some of the obvious pitfalls, and what to look for in the right kind of communications team members as you build your in-house capacity.

Sarah Durham: The third element is culture. How collaboration and organizational norms shape the way people work together and treat each other will influence how communications are prioritized. You’ve probably seen this in some places maybe you’ve worked or visited. There are people who are immediately invited to the table and given an important role in the process of communicating and another is it’s sort of an afterthought, a kind of oh go update this person and they’ll push something out. So how you as the executive director set the tone for the culture of your organization generally will have a big impact on communications. We talk a little bit about that in the book too.

Sarah Durham: Next up is the tools that you need to communicate effectively. This chapter unpacks the assets and resources that an organization needs to allocate to make sure that communications can actually do what they need to do. Some of these things are obvious, like maybe the software that your communications team might need, but other of those things are maybe less obvious. Like for instance, I would say the assets of your brand are a tool. Your logo is a tool, your messaging is a tool. So this chapter kind of gives you an inventory of some of the things that an effective communications team might need in order to achieve successful outcomes.

Sarah Durham: Then there are processes, and this is something that I have found over and over again is almost like a third rail in many organizations, which is just how challenging it can be to define methods for how tasks are approached more predictably so that a desired result can be achieved. In some organizations. It takes the form of checklists. In some organizations, software is used, but basically this is just making sure that every time you produce a newsletter or you prepped for a key speaking engagement, that you’re not reinventing the wheel every time. As somebody who used to work at Big Duck likes to say: It’s how you processify.

Sarah Durham: And finally the last chapter is about reflection and this is a chapter that is about how you can review the effectiveness of your communications team’s work so that people understand what worked, what didn’t work, and next time you do it, you can do it even better. So the book starts with an overview of the outcomes and these six elements. It gives you a self assessment tool and then in the end it kind of wraps up with some suggestions on where to begin if you’re just building a communications team or capacity or where to optimize if you already have one. I hope you’ll check out the book on Again, it’s called The Nonprofit Communications Engine: A Leader’s Guide to Managing Mission Driven Marketing and Communications. I’m Sarah Durham.