The Nonprofit Communications Engine online workshop session 1: overview
This session kicked off our four-part series with an overview of the Nonprofit Communications Engine. Starting with a self-assessment, participants learned what a successful nonprofit communications practice should achieve and the basic building blocks necessary to get there. We defined the most important skills for nonprofit communicators (especially on small teams) and how to structure your in-house team for success. We also discussed how your communications priorities and needs may be adapted for short-term and COVID-19 crisis realities.
To watch or listen to this webinar, please complete the form at the bottom of this page.
To learn more about how to leverage communications, join us for the rest of our four-part online workshop series based on The Nonprofit Communications Engine: A Leader’s Guide to Managing Mission-driven Marketing and Communications by Sarah Durham. In these workshops, Sarah will break down the key elements of her book, and how your nonprofit can apply them.
This series is sponsored by Mailchimp and all times are Eastern Daylight Time.
Sarah Durham: Hello everybody and happy Wednesday. I am Sarah Durham and I am delighted that so many people are joining me here today to talk about The Nonprofit Communications Engine.
Sarah Durham: Before we dig into the substance of the day, just a few pieces of housekeeping I want to share with everybody. First, we are recording today’s session and we will send the recording to everybody afterwards. We’ll get you the recording afterwards. You can also chat in questions as we go. The fabulous Farra Trompeter is standing by; she is listening to this webinar; she is monitoring social channels, and she will be helping me with Q and A as we go. We are tweeting today at the hashtag #npcommsengine.
Sarah Durham: For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Sarah Durham. I’m the CEO of Big Duck and of Advomatic. By way of background, Big Duck is a communications firm that works exclusively with nonprofits, particularly during times of significant growth and change. We help nonprofits develop strong brands, strong campaigns, and strong communications teams. We have worked with hundreds of nonprofits over the 20 plus years we’ve been in existence trying to help them become smarter communicators and smarter fundraisers. These days we’re doing a lot of work helping organizations adapt their communications and navigate communications in this COVID-19 environment. We’re going to talk about that a little bit today and in the future sessions we do. Our website, Big Duck.com has all kinds of information about who we are and what we do.
Sarah Durham: I’m also the CEO of a firm called Advomatic, which builds and maintains technically excellent websites for nonprofits using WordPress and Drupal. Advomatic is a top tier technical support agency, so if you need help with your website, drop us a line, check us out at advomatic.com.
Sarah Durham: Perhaps most importantly, I want to give a big shout out to MailChimp. They sponsored this series. We were actually supposed to do a workshop like this for MailChimp in Atlanta and they said with things going on as they are right now, let’s do it online and let’s open it up and try to get as many nonprofits as possible to participate. So check them out at mailchimp.com. They are awesome. We use them at Advomatic and we love them.
Sarah Durham: Today is the first of four workshops and each one is going to be about an hour long. They’re there once a week. Today is an overview and then next week I’ll be talking about engagement. Then session 3 is about the voice of your organization. Session 4 is momentum. Each of them are set up as different GoToWebinars, so you do have to register for each one separately and seats are limited in all of them. So, if you are going to participate live, please try to log in early so you can join in.
Sarah Durham: Today, the goal is to give you a big picture overview of what it takes to build a strong nonprofit communications engine. Today’s session of the four maps most closely to my new book, The Nonprofit Communications Engine. A couple people have asked me if they should they read along as we go through this series. Today’s session is going to map most closely to the first couple of chapters in the book. But generally the webinars follow a slightly different format and you should not need to follow along with the book. It is available on Amazon if you want it. If you’ve got it and you’ve read it and you’re comfortable writing a review, that is great! But this series stands alone and you don’t have to do any of those things.
Sarah Durham: By way of backdrop, I just want to provide a little context. A few years ago, maybe three or four years ago, The Nonprofit Marketing Guide and Big Duck collaborated on a survey. We were trying to figure out some of the ingredients that nonprofits that feel they are very successful at communicating have in common. So we did a survey where we asked people to self report. And as we dug into the results of the survey, we found that there were five key elements that communication teams that felt they were successful all identified. (They’re all here and available in the ebook that we produced on this topic.) What I was struck by when we did the survey was how so many of these things are actually dictated by the organization, not necessarily just the communications person. For instance, it’s really up to the organization’s leadership in many ways, not just the Director of Communications, whether or not the priorities are clear, whether or not they’re strong internal communications, whether or not people feel empowered to experiment and to try different things. So, I got kind of obsessed—as did Kivi Leroux Miller, who I collaborated with on this–about thinking about what it takes to make a communications team strong and what are we really even talking about when we talk about communications?
Sarah Durham: Why is it that communications looks and feels so different in so many different organizations? And we started thinking about this at Big Duck and we noticed that sometimes people call it marketing. Sometimes people call it communications and they’re describing very different things. In human services organizations there’s often no marketing team and the comms team is often focused on more internal communications. In arts and culture organizations, we tend to see separate communications and marketing teams and the communicators tend to be very focused on media relations. Whereas, their colleagues in marketing tend to support earned revenue programs like membership or visitor attendance. In lots of other organizations, communications is a department that supports fundraising or development. And in a lot of organizations we see those teams merged into something called advancement or external affairs. There’s so many different slices for what a communications department might look like in different types of organizations.
Sarah Durham: Add to that, the point of view of different people in those organizations can be dramatically different. If I ask ten different executive directors what communications is about in their organization, I might hear ten different things. Odds are good I’ll hear things like, “the communications department are the people who will help us no longer be a best kept secret.” Or, “they’re the people who help us reach out to donors and clients” or, “they’re the people who help other departments.” Or, “they’re the people who facilitate great internal communications.” Whereas, if I talk to the people on the programs team or the development team, I might hear something like “the comms team are the people who helped me make things” or, “they helped me get my work done.” They see communications as working more directly in service of their department. If you ask the marketing and communications people, they might say, “yep, all those things are true!” But also, “We are the people who are the advocates for the organization’s voice or its brand. We do all these things and we’re a small team and it’s hard to do it all.”
Sarah Durham: So, what does that really mean? I mean, can your comms team do it all? Well, when I was researching this book, I interviewed a lot of terrific people. One of them was Mark Graham, who is the Director of Communications at the American Friends Service Committee. Mark described to me an exercise he had gone through in a staff retreat with his communications team where he had asked his team, if we were a restaurant, what kind restaurant would we be? His comms team identified that in some ways they might be a four-star restaurant—the kind of place that really helps match exactly what you need, makes the experience perfect, and does a lot of strategic work to create an optimal experience. But in other ways, the comms team was more like a fast food truck because there are also times where people basically walk up and say, “Hey, I need this or I need that. I need a flyer for my event, or I need a programs brochure.” And they just have to get it done.
Sarah Durham: So again, what is communications? This is one of the driving questions that I think about a lot and that I think is going to guide this series because I think it’s kind of an obvious, but overlooked starting point where we have to have a shared definition for what communications is before we can optimize it. And before we can actually decide, in a challenging moment, what can be cut and what needs to stay in tact without the organization suffering.
Sarah Durham: So here’s my definition: Nonprofit communications is the practice of creating and sustaining mindshare and engagement that advances the mission. We’re going to talk about these things as we go through the series. I think the word practice is very important because it’s got to be ongoing. Creating and sustaining mindshare and engagement is going to be the focus of our next session. We’re going to dig into those specifically and we’ll talk about them a bit today. But I also think it’s really, really critical that we remember that communications is not a separate thing. It’s all in service of advancing the mission. It’s intrinsic to everything you do in your organization.
Sarah Durham: So, what can a successful communications practice achieve? Let’s say you have one. What is the essence of that? What, what can you expect of your comms team? And what does that really mean people should do? What’s the bare minimum that is acceptable?
Sarah Durham: There is a self assessment tool that we created that you can download on the Big Duck website. It’s a free PDF. If you have the time after this session, I recommend that you download this and print it out and complete it. It’s quite easy, as we talk in theoretical terms, to feel removed from this. But I think one of the benefits of going through this process and these webinars is to really assess where you, as an organization, have strengths that you can build on and where, perhaps, you need to do some work so that you can strengthen your communications engine.
Sarah Durham: Today as I’m talking, or as you go through the self assessment, try using the scale and think about: are you very satisfied or very dissatisfied or somewhere in the middle with all of these things? For starters, let’s talk about the outcomes a successful communications engine should have. There are three outcomes that I think are critical for all organizations, regardless of how big or small they might be. Whether you’re all-volunteer or you’ve got hundreds or thousands of people on staff and whether you’re in any kind of sub-sector.
Sarah Durham: Whatever type of mission you are advancing, the number one focus of your communications team should be making sure that people are engaging with your work. And that means, the right people know, remember, and connect with your organization and your work. And then they take meaningful action on its behalf. It’s not enough for people to just know about you. They should be taking action to support the mission. It’s also important that your organization have a clear voice and your communications team can help make it credible, compelling, and consistent at all points of contact. And thirdly, your communications team should make sure that your communications don’t depend on just one individual, that it’s not just about your executive director or that one person who knows how to do everything. Each of these outcomes is going to serve as the basis for the upcoming workshops in this series. Next week we’re going to dig into engagement, which is really the meat of what this is all about. In fact, if I had to boil it down to the most critical element, I would say it’s engagement. All three of these are important, but if you’re not reaching and engaging the right people, then chances are your communications team is not adding significant value to the work of advancing your mission.
Sarah Durham: Joan Garry hosts an excellent podcast called Nonprofits Are Messy and she had me on as guest guest a few weeks ago talking about this book. When she interviewed me, she used a phrase that I love. She talked about how nonprofits have to build an army of the engaged. That’s the job of your communicators. I totally agree. And building that army is going to take up the majority of your comms team’s efforts. If you have an organization with a stronger communications capacity, they can then get into voice and momentum and consistency in other ways. We’ll talk about those in subsequent sessions.
Sarah Durham: Now, what kind of engagement are we talking about? We’re talking about engagement that drives action in these three areas, engagement that advances your programs. So for instance, maybe communications is supporting—in an arts organization—getting people to come in and attend and join as members. Or maybe in a human human services organization, communications helps recruit clients to come in and participate in programs. It might be that communications is supporting getting donations made—small and large. Or, in an advocacy context, signing a petition, or helping the organization lobby it’s electeds, or trying to change policy. So, communications becomes intrinsic to all the types of activities that are essential to the mission of your work.
Sarah Durham: What does your organization need in order to successfully achieve these outcomes? That’s what we’re going to talk about in the next few minutes and also in subsequent sessions. Going back to that survey that we worked on a few years ago with a Nonprofit Marketing Guide… unfortunately, it’s not just a question of saying to the communications team, “Hey, you know, I want us to do a better job recruiting people into the programs” or “I want us to do a better job cultivating relationships with major donors.” We have to give those people certain elements to make sure they can actually get it done.
Sarah Durham: If you think of those three outcomes, engagement and clear voice and sustainable momentum as a cake that you want your communications team to bake, the question becomes, what are the ingredients that they need in order to be able to bake that cake? For those of you who don’t recognize her, this is Claire Savage. She’s probably the world’s most internet famous pastry chef from Bon Appetit. If you watch Claire’s videos, she’s always unpacking recipes, really trying to figure out like what makes this thing tick. The same thing can be true for your nonprofit communications engine. There are certain elements that have to be in place to make that engine hum.
Sarah Durham: There are six of them, to be more precise. In the book, there is a chapter devoted to each of these six elements. I’m just going to give you a quick overview of them today and as we look at the future topics of engagement and voice and momentum, we’re going to dig into which of these elements is most critical in order to do those things. You can see that the six elements you need to communicate effectively are a mix of tangible things like the people and tools, but also, intangible things like processes and culture that shape how your organization works in other ways, not just communications. So again, as I go through this, jot down on a piece of paper how you think you’re doing. And I would encourage you, if you are dissatisfied in certain areas, start there. That’s the low hanging fruit.
Sarah Durham: Achieving successful communications outcomes always has to start with strategy. That means that your organization is clear who its target audiences are, that you have a strategy to reach and engage them, and that you have solid plans to implement that strategy.
Sarah Durham: You also have to have the right team. We’re actually going to dig into the team in much greater detail today because I think this is one of the most critical elements that’s going to be really important for people to look at right now in the pandemic or, through the lens of the pandemic, if you’re struggling. Do you have the right people directing, managing and implementing your communications? Is the structure of their roles working well for your organization? That’s, the perennial question I think a lot of communications teams struggle with and are often quite under-resourced for.
Sarah Durham: The third element is culture. Do your organization’s expectations for staff collaboration and behavior encourage healthy internal and external communications? In other words, are people doing a good job working with each other and giving the communicators what they need to do their job well? And do the communicators do what they need to do to help others do their job well?
Sarah Durham: Do you have the right tools? That’s the people, the brand elements, the content, the media, the campaign software and other resources that your organization needs to communicate effectively. There are a lot of pieces or elements that the communicator has to work with and a lot of organizations get really, really slowed down by not having the right tools. Actually, one of the things that was great as I researched this book was I did come across a lot of organizations that were teeny, teeny, teeny—like two volunteers or very small grassroots organizations with a mix of staff professionals and volunteers—who were great communicators and did not have fancy tools. So, it’s not necessarily about spending a lot of money for these things, but it is about making sure you’ve got elements that help you work as a team in a more professional way.
Sarah Durham: What are the processes that your team uses in order to make sure that every time you do something, you’re not starting from scratch? Do you have written workflows or checklists that help you achieve outcomes predictably without relying on memory? Processes become increasingly important as your organization grows and scales to make sure that you can do more and more in consistent and effective ways.
Sarah Durham: The sixth element is reflection. Does your organization consistently gather data and use insights to get smarter and to communicate more effectively? You want to be a learning organization, not one that does something and forgets about it and reinvents the wheel next time. Building in some practices of reflection to learn and grow is critical to the success of your nonprofit communications engine.
Sarah Durham: That’s the overview or structure of this framework and what we’re going to do now is dig in to your communications team specifically because your communications team undergirds or strengthens everything you do. You don’t necessarily have to have a huge in-house team or even an in-house team at all, but you do have to think about how the team comes together to make sure that you can do what you need to do. What does that mean? That’s about structuring your team for success and being very clear, not only who’s doing what, but how you’re going to measure the results of what they’re doing to ensure that that it’s working. These days, given the challenges that so many organizations are facing, financially, I think it is a really good time to assess what is most important to keep in-house, if you’re in the unfortunate position of having to make cuts. Or, even if you’re in the situation where you’re growing and you’re trying to think about what skills you should build in-house.
Sarah Durham: Let’s dig into your in-house team. Over the many years I’ve worked in Big Duck and Advomatic and consulted with nonprofits, I’ve seen in-house communications teams that are widely varied—different sizes, different skills, different people in-house and out-of-house. As I was researching the book, I did some analysis of what the most successful ones have in common. What did people find most helpful to have in-house versus what could be outsourced? The common thread, no matter the size of the organization or the mission, was about great project management skills and great collaborators. In many organizations, what we see is that the first people who were hired in communications are hired, oftentimes, because they have tangible skills. They’re great at updating a website maybe, or they’re a terrific writer, or they’re a terrific designer. But actually, that’s less important for an in-house team, at least in the first few roles. What’s critical is that the people on your in-house team are able to get stuff done, that they work well with their colleagues and other departments, that they are trusted and empowered to move things forward, and that they are able to be given a project and execute it from start to finish.
Sarah Durham: It is often the case that almost everything else can be outsourced. So for most organizations—writing, design, video, photography, all kinds of creative skills can actually be outsourced to freelancers at much less cost because you don’t have the overhead of keeping those people busy and employed all the time. There are some exceptions to that. I have found that in very large organizations, creative talents get in-sourced more and more because there’s such a great volume of work to do, especially if you are producing a lot of content or publications. So for instance, a few years ago, I recorded a podcast with Suzanne Shaw who’s the Director of Communications at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She talks about how, as her organization grew, she went from working with a lot of external freelancers and creative people to hiring those people more and more in-house because she had such a great volume of content to produce. And also because the expertise that was increasingly required in their content just actually made it easier for her to hire somebody in-house. Oftentimes in scientific fields we see that that’s true. It’s challenging to get a freelance writer who might know your space as well as you do.
Sarah Durham: Generally in many organizations there just isn’t a volume of work to do a lot of that in-house. It’s also the case that there are once-in-a-while projects where you are going to need particular kinds of expertise, but it’s not going to come up so regularly that it makes sense to hire those people in-house. So, for instance, at Big Duck, we do a lot of branding work and one of the reasons we do branding work as an agency is that most in-house people don’t know how to do branding work. There are particular variables that you have to understand in order to do that. And it can be really challenging if you haven’t seen that movie a hundred times to know how to navigate the issues with it. So generally you outsource things that have a long shelf life and only come up occasionally to people who are experts in those areas.
Sarah Durham: Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, your external team can also pull together pro bono resources. If you have a board member who’s got a corporation with a marketing department and you can access some of the people in that, that’s great. You can take advantage of volunteers for your external team. I recorded another podcast with Christine Hughes from the Burke Neurological Institute. In that, Christine talked about putting together what she called a communications cabinet with a mix of freelancers and some volunteers who all had special expertise. They became like a working committee and she used that working committee with her in-house department of one, who’s also a fundraiser, to give herself a really robust communications team. Sort of, working in a much more collaborative inside/outside way.
Sarah Durham: Let’s talk about what that means in terms of the size of your comms team too. This is a question I get asked a lot. What you see on screen here is some data from a report that was produced by the Nonprofit Communications Trends Report. This is a great resource that comes out, I think every February, where they looked at the size of the organization by operating budget and how many full time staff they had in communications based on the operating budget. Actually in my experience, this is a little lower than what we typically see. I regularly speak to people who work in organizations where the operating budget of the organization might be $10 million or $8 million or $12 million and they still have three, even five people on a communications team. But as you can see, there is a kind of a threshold where until you get over the multi-million mark, odds are good you’ve either got part-time people or maybe one full-time person. It’s very hard to build a robust in-house team on a limited budget for communications. So, think about how you can get creative with the combination of what’s inside and what’s out-of-house with your organization in order to straddle that gap. In particular, bear in mind that, ideally, the one or two people you have on your comms team, if you are a smaller or mid-size organization—they need to be great project managers and great collaborators, first and foremost.
Sarah Durham: So what does that really look like? Let’s dig into a little bit about what this means. Let’s say you’ve only got a couple of people in communications or you’re even trying to structure for the future. What we typically see in smaller organizations is that as they start to hire full-time dedicated communications people, the two roles that they are typically hiring for—first, is a Director of Marketing or Director of Communications (that’s one person). And, maybe somebody who’s in more of a support role. Farra said something recently that I thought was very true. She said, the director level person is often more focused on strategy and the more associate level person is often more focused on tactics. Both of these people, in our experience, are very hands-on. Typically, you don’t see two people in a comms team that’s dedicated until you’ve got an operating budget of, let’s say, $3, $4, maybe $5 million. So, we’re getting into an area here that I would call a mid-size organization. Certainly in a smaller, more grassroots organization or more volunteer-based organization, you wouldn’t see these as dedicated roles. You might see them as functions—part-time functions—that are baked into the development staff’s job or baked into a program staff person’s job.
Sarah Durham: As an organization grows, once you get to that point where you’ve got maybe three, four, or five people in communications, what we often see is some detailing around the digital function. So we start to see that the person who leads that team is moving more into the C-suite. They are somebody who now has a seat at the leadership table, quite often, and they are the peer of the person who heads up the programs team, or the peer of the person who heads up the development team. We still see that Director of Marketing or Communications function and we still see supporting roles. But typically, we also see some digital-specific roles. Somebody who might be a digital coordinator or a digital campaign manager, for instance. And this isn’t a hard and fast rule. This is more what we observe across many organizations. There are some nuances that may be unique to particular sectors.
Sarah Durham: There have been a lot of conversations over the past few years about where that communications team sits, structurally, in nonprofits. One of the helpful resources I’ve seen about this was also produced by the Nonprofit Marketing Guide many years ago. I’ve adapted their work here because I think that this is a useful framework to think about where communication sits in your organization. In smaller organizations and founder-led organizations, communications is often CEO-led or CEO-directed. Essentially what that means is that the CEO is laying out their vision. The executive director has a vision for communications and the communications people (whether they are dedicated people or they are people who exist in other roles too), they’re essentially carrying out that Executive Director’s vision. They become implementers for one person’s concepts or ideas. And they are executors.
Sarah Durham: Another model is that the communications team functions as a kind of internal agency, almost like you have your own ad agency or ad department inside. You see this sometimes at very large organizations and national organizations with chapter branches. When I was researching my book, one of the examples of this I came across was the YMCA’s national. It has a very large, centralized communications team in its headquarters that functions as an internal agency and then provides services and support not only nationally, but at the local level. You also see communications teams exist in merged departments. Merged with the development team is most common. Occasionally, you see them merged with the programs team. The fourth model is an independent communications department or an independent marketing department. Those are departments where we tend to see communications treated with a little bit more strategic emphasis. In other words, they are expected to create their own plans, expected to develop strategies to support other departments, expected to advance the mission in more strategic ways. Whereas the internal agency model and the CEO model are often tacticians. These are people who are implementing the vision of somebody else. So the skills you’d get in those kinds of departments might be a little bit different.
Sarah Durham: I am going to shift gears a little bit for the last few minutes of this before we open it up for Q and A and tease out some of the questions that I regularly get. I was considering, as I started digging into this work, that we can add some depth and breadth to this and, perhaps, bring it a little bit back to the landscape of the pandemic.
Sarah Durham: One of the big questions I get asked a lot is, I’m too small for communications, right? It doesn’t make sense for me to have a dedicated communications professional on staff. So what do I do? How do I build a strong and capable communications engine without a staff? Well, typically organizations with no paid staff or very few do one of the following—either they have somebody on the development team, a fundraiser, or maybe an operation staff person, like an executive assistant, who is also responsible for communications. Sometimes they rely on a volunteer. That might be a board member or somebody else who’s got their own expertise and resources. I’m always a little wary of board member-led communications because it can be very challenging for staff people to say no to a board member in that position. But if you’ve got the right relationship with a volunteer, that can be terrific. I love the model of a working group of volunteers or freelancers that a senior person manages. Again, that example from the Burke Neurological Institute is a great one. Putting together a sort of communications cabinet of people you can call on either as volunteers or as freelancers when you need to. But, I think it is critical no matter how small you are, that you have a conversation, internally, about who’s accountable for communications. Don’t let communications become an accident because communications is actually supporting every other aspect of your organization. We’re going to talk about that really deeply next week in our session about engagement. You don’t want it to become an accidental byproduct or something where every department is doing its own communications and you are speaking with a very fragmented voice, organizationally.
Sarah Durham: What if you’re too big or too specialized to work with external folks? As I said earlier, if you are in an area where you require deep subject matter expertise, it can be hard to work with freelancers in some areas. We’ve seen that happen a few times. I’m thinking, most recently, we were working with the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice and they were in a staff search. In their organization, it was critical to have somebody who was bilingual with English and Spanish, who was an expert in reproductive justice, and who had great media relations skills. That’s going to be very challenging to find a freelancer for. You’re going to want to find those people with deep subject matter expertise and intersectional expertise. Those are the people that are probably going to be most critical for you to bring in-house.
Sarah Durham: As you grow, as you get bigger, you may want to start to think about your team a little bit differently. Last year I led a panel talking about organizational teams at the NTC, which is the NTEN conference. One of the people on my panel shared this when she talked about how her communications team had gone from four or five people to 28 people as the organization grew from, 20 something million to 40 something million. One of the things that she talked about on this panel—and I think this is a good rule of thumb—is that oftentimes the people on your in-house team, if you’re in a larger organization, are either content creators—those are your subject matter expertise people, your writers and designers. They are content creators. Or they’re engagement specialists—people with digital marketing chops, campaign specialists, etc. People who run campaigns, engagement people really have different skills—they’re project managers, they’re strategists, they’re planners. That’s very different than having the ability to write and design. So as your team grows, you might think about splitting out those functions even within one team to make sure that you’ve got got it rounded out.
Sarah Durham: I’m actually giving a webinar for Advomatic in a few weeks where I’m going to be interviewing Joe Coakley who’s the Director of Digital Campaigns at the ACLU. Joe is a great example of that and he’s going to be talking about how the ACLU sets up and run digital marketing campaigns. So the bigger your organization, the more likely you are to find people who are deep subject matter expertise in particular areas. And if you have the budget to bring those people in-house, that’s great. But those are also the kinds of things that often get out-sourced to agencies in most smaller organizations.
Sarah Durham: So what if you are on a team that blends departments. What if the communicators are embedded into the programs team, or embedded into the development team? Well, interestingly, some of the surveys that have been done in the sector have shown that people—communicators who work in merged departments actually seem to have a higher degree of job satisfaction. And that’s because, I believe, their mandate is very clear. They know exactly what their department or their job function works in service of. So if I’m a communications person and I’m working on a blended team with my colleagues in fundraising, I know in my core that communications is there, first and foremost, to support development. And my priority becomes very, very clear and crystallized for me. And that actually can be very, very good. To me, one of the most important takeaways of the research I’ve done and one of my biggest pieces of advice to you is be clear what communications works in service of. Is communications ultimately in service of fundraising? Is it in service of your programs and making sure that the right people sign up for and participate in your programs? Is it in service of advocacy? If you, as a leader of your organization, aren’t clear what communications is for, odds are good colleagues in your organization won’t be clear either. And that can lead to a lot of murkiness downstream.
Sarah Durham: Let’s talk for a second about how you can set priorities while responding to this crisis. Because there are a lot of organizations that we’re talking with—and Big Duck is doing some work right now helping organizations—figure out what in their communications strategy needs to change. And also, what they’re going to do if they have to change the structure of their team or if people are unable to work or leave the organization. No matter how many freelancers or volunteers you work with, there are fundamentally two things you can’t outsource. And that is that project coordination and those people skills. I would encourage you right now to think about the team that you have managing communications in two ways. I wrote a blog about this and Farra and another one of our colleagues recently gave a webinar about crisis communications where we talk about the now team and the tomorrow team. As you think about getting through this pandemic and the, hopefully, short period of time in which there’s a great degree of uncertainty, who’s on your now team? Do you have one person or a small committee of people who are considering what’s happening in the short term and working in weekly iterations or sprints? Ideally, if you do, they’re focused on what’s going on right now, but hopefully not losing sight of the bigger picture.
Sarah Durham: Think about putting together a few people who meet weekly and having them really talk week by week about what’s going on and make recommendations for your organization’s communications based on that. We saw for instance, in the first few weeks of the pandemic, that a lot of organizations were talking about what was happening with their staff or whether or not their programs were open and able to function. But then as time went on, they started shifting into other topics. Like, I did a webinar last week with the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and with BRIC, which were both Brooklyn-based arts and cultural organizations that are closed right now because of the pandemic. They both shifted into a new way of communicating about programs online where they started doing programs through Instagram or videos or posting live streaming on their websites. If you have a now team, they can think creatively in a short-term context, but you also don’t want to lose sight of the big picture. So think in communications about who’s on your tomorrow team, how are they going to help make sure that you are communicating in a way that sets you up to emerge from this crisis stronger and more effective. To some extent, the now team and the tomorrow team should overlap because the tomorrow team needs to learn from the now team. If, for instance, you find that you’re doing some new things online or virtually, like virtual galas, and they’re working well, your tomorrow team needs to integrate that so that you can think about in the long-term maybe using some of those things to shift how you work in the future.
Sarah Durham: The most challenging question that we are getting these days is, what do you do if your budget gets cut? Well, you know, communications unfortunately is often viewed as a separate department or a luxury in some way. It’s not always viewed as intrinsic to advancing the mission. But I would argue it actually is, and we’ll talk about this a lot next week in our session about engagement. Without somebody who is helming the ship of communications, you are quite likely as an organization to backslide into a place where different departments are sending out different messages; there is some confusion or lack of cohesion. People struggle to really be clear who’s communicating what, when, which can really be detrimental to advancing your development agenda or your program’s agenda or your advocacy agenda. So I would strongly encourage you if you need to make cuts to to not lose sight of that Director of Communications job or Communications Manager job who is so essential to weaving together a cohesive strategy to engage for your organization and communicate with a clear voice.
Sarah Durham: We are going to get to questions in one minute and I’m going to ask Farra at that point to unmute herself so we can hear her fabulous voice and she will give me a couple of questions. I just want to remind everybody that next week we will be doing a one-hour webinar focused exclusively on engagement. What is the job of engagement on your communications team? And I want to remind you about that communication self-assessment and the book that is the backbone for all of this is The Nonprofit Communications Engine, which is on Amazon. I also spent a lot of time today talking about building a strong communications team and we have an ebook about that too. So, if you don’t want to buy the book on Amazon, you just want that little piece, his ebook is adapted from the book and it’s free and downloadable on the Big Duck website. So Farra, I’m going to invite you to unmute yourself and we can do a little bit of Q and A.
Farra Trompeter: Great, we’ve got a lot of great questions. So we’ll do our best to get to as many as we can. If we don’t answer your question, you can feel free to email me [email protected] or Sarah ([email protected]) or you can always email [email protected] in case you’re worried about misspelling our names! So the first question, Sarah, comes from Patrick: “Do you think organizational growth is being held back by not hiring dedicated marketing communications people early in an organization’s development?”
Sarah Durham: Well, I have a strong bias towards having in-house communications people because I have seen a lot of organizations who really do grow and achieve their numbers much more effectively when they do. But, of course, this is what I do, so that may be confirmation bias. I guess what I would say, Patrick, is if you’re in an organization that is, resisting hiring in-house people for communications, I would encourage you to look at organizations, businesses in the for-profit sector that are comparable in size. In the for-profit sector, if you were starting a business that had a half million dollar a year budget, you would definitely have a marketing department and that marketing department would have a budget. There is, I think, a notion in the nonprofit sector that communications is kind of secondary or a luxury. But actually having somebody who can empower the programs team and the development team to communicate more effectively is really not secondary. It’s primary. So yeah, I think, I think it is a key to success.
Farra Trompeter: Sarah, this is a kind of a more of a voice type of question, but since you touched on that, if that’d be interesting to answer. This comes from David: “We need to update our language and communications for a 123 year old organization. Any advice on overcoming long history to update language, to be more modern?”
Sarah Durham: We do a lot of messaging work at Big Duck and this comes up a lot with older organizations and it is very often the case that history is useful as a messaging point to underscore your credibility, but it’s not necessarily central. People don’t necessarily support your organization or engage with your programs because of where you’ve been. They support it because of who you are now and where you’re heading. So, oftentimes the history is useful as backdrop, as context and can be woven in. But I would strongly encourage you not to hang your hat too deeply on the past. Farra, let’s throw that over to you too. Do you have anything you would add to that?
Farra Trompeter: I think it’s exactly what you’re saying. I think I would try to do a fresh exercise. When we think about messaging, we’ll often think about what does somebody need to definitely know about your organization? What’s the must versus the could or should? And figure out what those ideas are. Then, take a fresh look at your language. Ideally you go through a branding process, you have brand personality and tone and style. And we’ll talk more about that in a later webinar. But I think trying to think about it fresh then go back to what you have would be my advice.
Sarah Durham: Yeah. And you know, I’ve said this to Farra recently, and other colleagues at Big Duck, but I often think that we need to rebrand words like branding and words like communications because I think to some extent people think they know what they mean and sometimes that works against us as communicators because I think they are more powerful strategies than sometimes people in the nonprofit sector realize, in challenging moments.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah. We have to take on rebranding those words and the word nonprofit, but we’ll put that on our 2021 agenda! We have a lot of questions from folks who work where they are the sole communications person or there is no comms staff. So, I’ll pick this one from Kate as representative of several of those questions. “I’m the only paid staffer for a coalition. How can you build a comms presence when you’re a team of one and comms is just one piece of what you do?” So probably Kate, I’m guessing, is the comms person but also probably the development and the programs and 20 other things and wearing many hats. So what do you prioritize? How do you handle that?
Sarah Durham: Yeah, that is a challenging situation to be a one man band, to start. And then also, to be a solo act in a coalition is further challenging because in any kind of coalition or collaborative endeavor, you have additional project management requirements. Getting a group of stakeholders on the same page and aligned is a lot of work. What I think we tend to overlook is that sometimes the project management of the project takes up way, way more time and way, way more energy than the creation of the stuff, the actual doing of the thing. I would say Kate’s number one priority should be engagement. Getting the people in that coalition on the same page about who you’re trying to reach and what action you want them to take. And then implementing on those plans if time is limited. As much as I hate to de-prioritize other things, I think that a communications person in a small shop has to really prove their worth by showing positive outcomes. And the positive outcomes you can generate in your coalition might be helping raise more money or helping advance advanced programs in other ways.
Farra Trompeter: Sarah, you just mentioned project management. It came up a lot as you were talking about the skills folks need to have in-house. It’s in that other ebook. So, somebody specifically asked a question… Sarah asked (a different Sarah): “Do you have a do you have suggestions about how to support people in developing their project management skills?” So, folks on this line who maybe are that solo shop or they’re the comms manager and they need to spend a lot of time managing projects, where can they start building those skills?
Sarah Durham: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think that project management gets overlooked sometimes, but you can definitely build your project management skills. I suspect there are a lot of great free articles and resources you can read online. There are actually project management trade associations and you can get your staff can get certified in tool, project management tools and systems like scrum in the digital world. And we see this in Advomatic a lot. Project managers often do pursue certification and education and formal training. So I’d look online for project management capacity building resources. I’m trying to remember the name of the trade association for project managers (Project Management Institute?). Your question surfaces for me that maybe the first step towards building your teams project management skills is just to remember that project management skills are a real thing. That some people are really great at details and coordinating and scheduling and making sure that the right people see and review things in the right order and asking people to give their feedback and knowing how to take feedback from 20 people and consolidate it into something that everybody can agree on. I mean, that really actually is a pretty incredible superpower to have. Just because somebody is maybe good at one piece doesn’t mean they’re good at all of it.
Sarah Durham: When you’re hiring for communicators, looking for those kinds of skills is really critical. And in Big Duck’s work, we often help our clients with executive searches for comms people, or work that helps them align their teams, these are the kinds of things we look for. We look for detail orientation, we look for the ability to QC something or to manage a difficult and challenging conversation. We’ve seen a lot of the people who either we’ve been involved in the searches of or our clients have hired independent from us. A lot of the people who’ve been most successful in those jobs turn out to often be people who actually have an agency background. They’ve worked with clients. I’m thinking for instance of Chandra Hayslett at the Center for Constitutional Rights or Ambar Mentor-Truppa at the Shriver Center for Poverty Law. They’re both examples of people who worked, at one point, in an agency. And so they have this kind of client orientation. And now that they’re in-house in nonprofits, when they work with their colleagues and other departments, they bring that client orientation to the work. They understand that inherently, yes, they lead departments and, yes, they bring an equal voice to the conversations. But part of their job is also to listen and to integrate the viewpoints of their colleagues as if they are clients too. And that is a really great skill that I think is like an advanced project management superpower.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah. And I think possibly NTEN, which some of you know I’m on the board for NTEN.org, I think they may have some courses in that too. You can check that out. We have a few questions actually, Sarah, that are related to the current crisis moment. I think we probably have time for one or two more questions, but this one’s really interesting from Glennis: “How would you recommend making a marketing plan when there’s no known day for reopening? We are a community center with thousands of members who want to know more.” I’m not sure if you are calling us from New York, where I am, but I know we are wondering when that day may be coming in New York City. So whether you’re there or in other places, Sarah, any thoughts about how you might handle that when people are asking you, “hey, when are you reopening?” And Glenys shared that they are in San Diego.
Sarah Durham: I think for many organizations there are three stages that we as communicators have to navigate in this crisis. The first stage we’re in now, which is the shelter in place stage in which your programs may be closed, you may not be able to get into the office, and businesses is very dramatically disrupted. We all began managing that kind of crisis communications probably back in March. And it continues for many organizations. It will continue into the summer. So you’re probably in the middle of that. And I think probably the best way to manage that phase is to follow guidelines, to pick some external credible sources and communicate about your organization specifically in a way that builds on them. So it might be following the city or state guidelines. It might be another government resource that you trust that you think is putting out guidelines that you can use to build your plans off of. The second stage is what happens when we move out of this immediate shelter in place moment but into a place where we don’t yet necessarily have a long-term sense of how long this is going to last. There’s a lot of conversations now about how physical distancing might last for quite some time and it is perhaps going to be the case that for many months, if not potentially years, we’re going to be juggling a set of variables that are going to feel unpredictable. And that timeline is going to be a bit unpredictable because that second phase is probably going to last until there is a vaccine or better treatments or some clear end to physical distancing. So I think that’s going to be the second period of time. And now is actually a terrific time, I would say, to invest in a little bit of proactive communications planning around that because we’re entering that phase soon and that phase is quite likely to last at least a year.
Sarah Durham: The third phase is recovery. The third phase will be the period of time when hopefully we have moved away from physical distancing and we are coming back to, a more normal as we remember it, way of working where our programs can be open. We can do things a little bit more the way we used to. And I think the recovery mode is the easiest to imagine because we can go back to some of the things that used to work. We can learn from the things that we’ve adapted that have been persuasive and powerful and we can form a new plan. So if you have the capacity, Glenys, I’d love to see you basically have three separate trains moving in parallel. Right now, that interim period, and the longterm recovery period. And if you form a now and a tomorrow team, those are the people who would start to create those plans.
Sarah Durham: That is by the way, something that we can help with at Big Duck. So if you’re in a situation where you need external support, you could reach out to me or to Farra and we could tell you a little bit more about how we do that. And Farra, before we get to a last question, I just want to say by way of transition, there is a lot of work that Big Duck does in this area. We can help assess your communications engine, we can help you build and structure your in-house team. There are a lot of ways in which we are supporting nonprofits now that are adapted for this environment. So please don’t hesitate to reach out to us. Similarly, Advomatic, Big Duck’s sister agency which builds and maintains Drupal and WordPress sites for nonprofits, does a lot of website technical support and maintenance and has a lot of great webinars coming up. I’m giving a webinar at Advomatic next week on content planning and management. So if you are in an organization where you are now taking over or somebody else is taking over managing, you know, the blog and the this and the that and you need help figuring out how to do that, you can sign up at advomatic.com. That’s a free webinar and there’s a bunch of other ones coming up like that one I mentioned with Joe at the ACLU. I’ve also referenced a few times our podcast, The Smart Communications Podcast. So you can check that out on on our website, on iTunes, on Spotify, wherever you listen to podcasts. It’s about the top of the hour. Farra, is there one last question we should take or should we wrap up?
Farra Trompeter: Well, we have a few on this topic, so I’m going to sneak one in for Hera, for Alison, for Girlene who, back-to-back ask questions about priorities. So I’ll use this here as a question: “What if your comms team wants to service all three priorities: advocacy, fundraising and engagement, and programs. Is it necessary to define one priority amongst them, and is that spreading ourselves too thin? We have a small team.” We have a few people asking about can you have multiple priorities? How do you do it all?
Sarah Durham: Yeah, you absolutely can have multiple priorities. You can have multiple priorities. The challenge there is going to be that you don’t have unlimited time. So if you are going to try to tackle multiple areas of work with limited people and limited time, one of the exercises I would encourage you to do is with your leadership, with the people who are asking you to support these different areas. Do the math around how many hours in a typical week the people doing communications are available to work. Think of those hours as a pie and then have a conversation about how you want to slice up that pie. So, in other words, if you have two full time people in communications and they work roughly a 40 hour work week, that’s 80 hours. In your communications pie, should 20 of those hours go to development and 60 of them go to programs? Or should the pie be evenly sliced among multiple departments? Starting to chunk it down into hours will start to then give you the ability to have a conversation about what can be reasonably achieved in those hours. Which is really the name of the game because what we don’t want you to do, nobody I think wants the communications team to have an unrealistic mountain of commitments and responsibilities and not have the ability to execute it well. So, breaking it down into time and thinking about time allocation will help you see if all those things are equally as important. And it will also, I think, help you start to get clear on which tactics are going to be most realistic to implement in the limited hours you have. Okay, so we should probably wrap up, right, Farra?
Farra Trompeter: I think so. The one other thing I’ll say is that we have an ebook all about achieving strategy that really gets into setting priorities and that might be really helpful. So again, we’ll send out lots of links along with the video tomorrow, but thanks for joining us and be sure to sign up for the other webinars if you have not at Big Duck.com/events.
Sarah Durham: Thanks everybody and thank you, Farra, for for being my fearless partner in crime on this webinar. I hope you will all join us next week. It’s going to be a really meaty webinar. Keep those questions coming and hang in there. Bye everybody.