Photo by Anton Nazaretian on Unsplash
September 30, 2020

What are the barriers to effective communications?

In this episode of the Smart Communications Podcast, Sarah Durham examines some of the common barriers that make it hard for nonprofits to establish successful communications. What are the common pitfalls? Tune in and find out.


Sarah Durham: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. I’m Sarah Durham. And today we’re going to talk about some of the barriers to successful communications. And this is actually a little bit of an excerpt from my book, The Nonprofit Communications Engine, a Leader’s Guide to Managing Mission Driven Marketing and Communications. This book came out in January of 2020, and one of the first sections in the book is called “Barriers to Successful Communications”. And I wrote it because I find that sometimes people kind of stumble over the same things. And after years and years of working with nonprofit communicators, I started to observe some of those patterns. So we’re going to unpack them a little bit together in this podcast.

Sarah Durham: So what are the barriers to successful communications? Well, there are a few. The first is a scarcity of skilled professionals. Many nonprofit organizations struggle to find experienced pros with the kinds of expertise that are really critical in today’s nonprofit environment. That means nonprofit expertise, communication, strategy, expertise, and digital expertise. Nonprofit communications used to be largely driven by media relations. The people who were in communications might have written press releases, help journalists develop stories. They got coverage in major news outlets, but the digital revolution really changed all that. And cause seismic shifts in how we all live and work. I don’t think that in every case though, the nonprofit communications job description caught up the channels and tools we use to communicate as individuals and institutions now have so many more options and being a communications professional in any industry has required understanding that. And oftentimes for nonprofits, pioneering and innovating in the wilderness. So, you know, figuring out this year, if your organization should be communicating with tic-tok, for instance, professional communicators have to always adapt and create. And in many cases kind of hack their way through this very fast changing world with a constantly changing array of tools and they have to hack because they’re not often designed for nonprofit sector agendas for advancing a mission and that never ending state of learning and experimenting is exhilarating, but it’s also time consuming and distracting.

Sarah Durham: So organizations often try to keep up by hiring and promoting digitally savvy staff and to communications roles, but those people don’t always have a marketing background or communications experience. And that does a great job, hopefully increasing an organization’s digital capacity, but it can create challenges first and foremost, it will lead to a tactics first culture where the goals and communications aren’t clearly articulated or advanced for instance, or perhaps it might spark some tension. When the person who’s gotten promoted is perceived as more junior or a tactician, other nonprofits hire marketing and communications professionals from the for profit sector, hoping they’ll be able to increase the organization’s communications capacity. What we’ve observed in a few cases, not all is that people from the corporate sector are often attracted to the idea of working for social good, but that the realities of building buy-in, working with significantly reduced budgets and resources and a lack of bottom line clarity. In other words, there’s no bottom line financial metric to work towards, which are all common realities in the nonprofit sector can be de-motivating and challenging to people who have thrived in corporate environments, where perhaps they’re used to having more administrative support, bigger marketing budgets, and really clear set of quantifiable numbers to measure to just to kind of sum that up. There is an ebook that we produced about teams and I’ll link to that in the show notes, which talks about how you build a successful communications team. And one of the things it really talks about is the skills to look for when hiring a communications person, particularly if your organization is doing so for the first time, another barrier to effective communications is the phenomenon that I call unicorn communicators. And what that’s about is when an organization searches for a staff or for an individual who has an impossible to find set of skills and talents, these unicorn communicators are expected to facilitate the flow of communications internally. They’re expected to effectively market the entire organization, single handedly. They might be asked to write, design and coordinate all kinds of things. They might be asked to support the fundraising communications programs, communications, government affairs communications, and unfortunately this magical creature who can do all those things is nonexistent. So instead we have to really focus on developing pragmatic job descriptions and searching if you’ve only got a part time communications position available, searching for the right skills that are pragmatic for somebody working in a part time position. For my money, that is about project coordination and people skills. I would much rather see you hire somebody who’s going to be great at collaborating with their peers and other departments and getting projects done than somebody who’s got one really unique set of skills, but struggles to see projects through from start to end or to work well with their peers.

Sarah Durham: Another barrier to effective communications is when key people hold all the cards. And this happens sometimes in organizations with smaller teams because the communications people or the development, people doing communications jobs are often working solo and with just a few other people. And because they’re working in a kind of a solo capacity, they tend to build up a lot of institutional memory. They often start oversee and execute projects independently and do so without documenting their processes, writing down passwords or capturing other details that might help somebody else step in and take over if necessary. And that lack of documentation and sharing and knowledge can reinforce a silo based culture. And it can be debilitating when key people leave or if somebody else wants to collaborate. It can also centralize power unproductively and create barriers to collaboration if somebody is a bit turfy about it. So the contrast to that is to encourage people who are doing communications work no matter who they are in your organization, to write it down, to create checklists, how they get things done, capture those passwords, share the login details, make sure that if they are out on vacation or out for any reason at all, somebody else has what they need to step in and see projects through or get into the channels and tools that you use to communicate regularly.

Sarah Durham: The next barrier to effective communications is when there’s sort of noisy, inconsistent mixed messages. And that often happens in larger organizations, particularly when staff across multiple departments are writing, speaking, tweeting, and posting about their work in an uncoordinated way when there’s no centralized function. And in these organizations, sometimes you see a lack of central communications guidelines or a person who can help coordinate the messaging, coordinate the flow, some staff end up winging it and they can easily go off message without even realizing that there was a message in the first place message coordination between departments can also fall by the wayside. So it’s common sometimes in these organizations for different departments to send out emails at the same time that described the same work in very different ways. And unfortunately this clutters up inboxes and sows confusion and annoyance among the external audience, cause they might be getting multiple messages from your organization that basically all talk about similar things, but describe it in different ways. The odds increase that the people who get those messages are just going to ignore them and tune you out. So the key here in larger organizations is first to make sure that you’ve got clearly defined messages. And secondly, to codify those messages in some sort of document or resource or repository that everybody has access to and that everybody’s trained to use. And finally to have somebody who is empowered to coach and support different departments or different teams in how, and when they communicate. And the intention there is not to be controlling or to hold them back. It’s more so to make sure that the communications follow an agreed upon flow. And that there’s a kind of an understanding that it’s not great if five emails go out in one day and then nothing goes out for months. So that it’s important for colleagues to coordinate and try to speak more with one voice institutionally, even as they elevate different departments or programs, individual messages.

Sarah Durham: The next barrier to effective communications is when the resources don’t match the needs or expectations of the organizations. One of the ways I often find myself describing this is to make a comparison to the, for profit world. You know, in my experience, nonprofits are regularly founded by visionaries who don’t have a budget for marketing or communications is not something that they invest in early on, typically. Cause if there’s any money at all to be spent, it’s going to be spent on the core programs in the for profit world, however, a founder wouldn’t dream of starting a business without expert marketers in their C-suite and a dedicated marketing budget. So what happens in the for profit world is we see skilled marketing staff armed with viable budgets and they get to, you know, get going and launch things. But nonprofits, on the other hand, rarely add marketing and communications people to their team in the first few years, nor can they typically allocate the resources these departments need to achieve the organization’s goals. So culturally, what this leads to is a kind of a sector wide way of thinking of marketing and communications as secondary or nonessential, but communications and marketing jobs in nonprofits are still there. They’re just oftentimes done by fundraisers, by program managers, by administrators who may or may not have expertise. So the opportunity here is to be honest about the resources that you need to communicate. And even if you don’t have dedicated communications people or dedicated communications budgets to name who is responsible for communications and be explicit about what they do or don’t have to work with on a monthly, a quarterly or an annualized basis, so that there’s no confusion. And I think this is particularly helpful as an organization grows and people suggest new tactics, new processes, new tools to use so that you can begin to align whether or not expanding your communications works in alignment with the resources that you have on hand.

Sarah Durham: And the last barrier to effective communications that I notice as a pattern is organizational silos. And that’s when departments are functioning more like enemies like they’re warring or competing groups, as opposed to collaborators and people who are working towards the same thing. And of course the key to breaking down silos is to shift the culture of the organization. That’s often determined by leadership, or it’s a tone set by leadership. But communications people can play an important role, I think in breaking down silos, particularly if the people on your communications team are collaborative and are great project managers, if they can sit down with their colleagues and other departments and ask them what their goals are, help set up communications that support those goals, demonstrate that they are there in service of different aspects of the organization to support it. That can really go a long way towards helping different departments come to trust. At least their colleagues in communications, if not other colleagues and begin to break down that silo culture.

Sarah Durham: So again, the barriers to successful communications that I’ve talked about today, and also in my book, The Nonprofit Communications Engine, is a scarcity of skilled professionals, unicorn communicators, key people, holding the cards, inconsistency, noise, and mixed messages when resources don’t match needs, or when there are organizational silos. If you’d like to read the book, you can find it on or wherever books are sold. And keep me posted. I’m curious what patterns you see. Don’t hesitate to drop me a line at Sarah that’s S a r a h at big duck dot com.