Photo by Anna Nekrashevich from Pexels
June 2, 2021

What are the latest trends in nonprofit communications?

Kivi Leroux Miller

If you are a nonprofit communicator, the Nonprofit Communications Trends Report, a yearly report released by The Nonprofit Marketing Guide is a great fact-based, research-based tool about marketing and communications within nonprofits. Sarah Durham chats with award-winning author, and founder and CEO of The Nonprofit Marketing Guide, Kivi Leroux Miller about the impact these trends have had during the COVID-19 pandemic in this episode of the Smart Communications Podcast.


Sarah Durham: Welcome back to The Smart Communications Podcast. I’m your host, Sarah Durham. And if you are anything like me, there are probably certain publications you look forward to. Maybe it’s a magazine you get every month in the mail. Maybe it’s a study or a survey that comes out every year. There are a few that are among my favorites and one of the publications that I consider a must-read and I literally look forward to it every year is the Nonprofit Communications Trends Report. And today I have invited my pal Kivi Leroux Miller to join me, to talk about the Trends Report. Welcome, Kivi.

Kivi Leroux Miller: Hi Sarah. Thanks for having me.

Sarah Durham: So, for those of you, who’ve never met Kivi, you’re in for a treat today, and I would strongly encourage you to check out the Nonprofit Marketing Guide, her business. She is the founder and the CEO of the Nonprofit Marketing Guide, and she’s also the lead trainer for hundreds of nonprofit communicators and 32 participants in her Communications Director Mentoring Program through the Nonprofit Marketing Guide.

Sarah Durham: Kivi is a trusted keynote workshop, webinar, presenter, and award-winning author of many books about nonprofit marketing and communications. And just because she, like many of you, can’t get enough of nonprofits and entrepreneurship for good. She’s also a co-leader of a Girl Scout troop and president of the Lexington Farmers Market Association in Lexington, North Carolina, where she lives with her husband, two daughters, seven cats, five of whom walked into the yard and never left apparently. And Kivi is one of those people that whenever I run into her at conferences, or I get a chance to talk to her on the phone, I really consider her a kindred spirit. We’re often thinking about and obsessed with a lot of the same nonprofit communications topics. So Kivi I’m so delighted you are here, and for the folks who have never read the Trends Report, which we will link to in the show notes, tell us a little bit about it. What is it? Why did you start doing it? How long have you been doing it?

Kivi Leroux Miller: Well, Sarah, it’s so good to have a friend like you to geek out on this stuff with. The feeling is definitely mutual that we get to talk about these things together. And that’s really one of the reasons why I started the Trends Report too, is because we have so much data about nonprofits in general, management, nonprofit fundraising, but there was very little data about the communications and marketing functions within nonprofits. And I wanted to know, I wanted to know the answers to these questions that you and I have been talking about for so long. So we started the Trends Report to try to get some of those answers. And originally it was really pretty basic tactical questions. The kinds of questions that we get from clients all the time, how often should I be posting this and that, you know, a lot of that kind of tactical approach to the work. And so we started there and then it broadened over the years to include more strategic questions, a lot more communications management questions. It’s really just sort of blossomed into this great fact-based research-based, knowledge base for nonprofit communicators.

Sarah Durham: We’re recording this in the spring of 2021. So the 2021 Nonprofit Communications Trends Report came out a couple months ago. This is the 11th annual Trends Report. And one of the things I always think is really cool about the Trends Report is that every year you seem to pick a different thing to dig into. So tell us what’s new this year. What did you focus on in 2021 that might be of particular interest for nonprofit communicators?

Kivi Leroux Miller: We went for the pandemic. Obviously, there are a number of different, big things going on in our world this year. We try to keep the questions to 30 to 40 tops. And so we do have to make some very difficult choices about what we ask people about, but we did decide to focus on the pandemic. And as you and I have talked about before the pandemic for nonprofit communicators was a bit of a stress test for their organizations. And I think most people assume that nonprofits were going to do poorly during the pandemic. But in reality, there were a number of nonprofits that did really well. Extraordinarily well. Had extraordinarily good years from a communications and fundraising point of view. And then there were others who did not, and things got significantly worse for them. So I’m very curious, what’s the difference? What happened? Why did those things happen? And what can we learn from that schism between those that did well? And those that did not.

Sarah Durham: So speaking of COVID and how it’s impacted nonprofit communicators, tell us a bit about what the Trends Report surfaced in terms of how communications folks are valued or understood within their organizations at this point.?

Kivi Leroux Miller: Well, I do think it was a big wake-up call for everyone, even the organizations that already place a fairly high priority on their communications work. Everything had to move online. We obviously work in a very event-heavy space, and with all of that being moved online, it made a big difference to the workload of organizations that didn’t have their sort of online infrastructure in place. They had to really get all of that in place all of a sudden, and then learn how to use it. Whereas if they had already understood the value particularly of online communications channels, they didn’t have to do all that sort of foundation infrastructure building. They were already building upon it and could really focus on producing good content. So we did see this sort of split there between the people who felt like they were playing catch-up and the people who are really able to adapt well. And to really, you know, we keep like knowing, we don’t use the pivot word anymore, but the people that were able to be agile, that is a word we still use and really adapt to the times those were the ones that were successful because they already had a lot of that infrastructure in place.

Sarah Durham: It’s definitely what I have seen and experienced too. You know, there’s another slice of this year’s Trends Report I want to look at a little bit together too. Which is about the communications team size and effectiveness. This is a topic that you and I especially love to geek out on. We’ll probably record a separate podcast on, but in this year’s report, you look at data, a few different ways. One of the things you looked at that I thought was really interesting this year was the effectiveness by communications team size. And in this year’s report, you’ve got this very sexy little graph that highlights the fact that people who work on nonprofit communications teams seem to believe that having three full-time employees and communications is kind of the sweet spot that it’s the most effective. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Kivi Leroux Miller: Sure. When you just have one person, as a lot of nonprofits do, even very large nonprofits, there’s only so much you can do, right? So when you can add that second, and then that third person with those additional staff allows you to do, it’s a couple of things. One is just the basic frequency of communication. So we see the frequency go up. And what I mean by frequency is are you posting on social media once a week or several times a week or daily? There’s a big difference between your potential effectiveness, same thing with email. Are you emailing quarterly, yikes, monthly? Or are you able to go a couple of times a month or even weekly, or even more often than that, depending on what you’re doing and who’s on your list? A lot of that is a function of team size. And so if you’ve got two or three people, you are able to hit those frequency marks where you really are getting the most out of whatever platform you’re talking about. And we just don’t have the capacity to do that kind of communications frequency over a number of different channels. When you’re one person

Sarah Durham: I’m curious when you think about the data you’ve been collecting about communications team sizes or really other areas, you know, you started talking earlier about tactical questions you’ve been asking in this survey over many, many years. Are there any big patterns or shifts that emerge in this data that are worth noting over time, you know, over many, many years?

Kivi Leroux Miller: Well, you know, some of them aren’t fully formed yet, right? Like social media, I think this is a conundrum for our sector. It’s in part because it’s always changing. The platforms are always changing, but I think people are still really trying to capitalize on the value they believe to be there. And a lot of that has to do with both frequency and really understanding what is engaging content for your organization and the people who are following you on social. And again, that’s kind of a hard nut to crack. And so if you’re just sort of superficially doing social media because you think you have to, you’re never truly going to understand the way to capitalize on those platforms. So I think we’re continuing to see that evolve over time. We’re continuing to see people really understand that, you know, just because everybody can write an email doesn’t mean that you can run a great email marketing and fundraising program.

Kivi Leroux Miller: There’s a lot more that goes into it than just typing on the keyboard. You have to manage your list for engagement. You have to, you know, build the list and keep track of who’s opening and who’s not, and what’s engaging. And so there’s a lot of management behind using these tools. And I do think there’s beginning to be an appreciation for all that goes into that beyond just sitting down at the keyboard and writing out copy or putting together a graphic in Canva. I think the pandemic accelerated some of that understanding that there is a lot of work that goes into actually truly managing these different communications channels as well.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, I would say when I skim through past Trends Reports, which I do periodically kind of looking for an old nugget of data or something like that, one of the things that strikes me that I think parallels what I’ve observed in the sector broadly is that they are increasingly focused on the role of strategic communications. You know, the role of the communicator, as a person who adds real strategy to the organization and helps advance the mission. The role of strategy and specific communications projects. And I think that echoes what you’re saying, right?

Kivi Leroux Miller: Absolutely. And that’s definitely something you and I geek out on together a lot too. We use a lot of metaphors at Nonprofit Marketing Guide and we mix a lot of metaphors too. But one of the metaphors I use with communication staff all the time is “are you the drive-through fast-food window?” Are people just coming into your office and asking for posters and emails and Facebook posts and expecting you to just turn that stuff out? Or are you a real strategic partner that’s sitting down and really talking about what a whole campaign around, whatever goal you’re trying to achieve would look like and what those objectives would look like and the, and how the thing would roll out? You know, that’s very different than a program person just coming in your office and saying, can you make a thing for me? And so we’re definitely seeing, I think, a real kind of professional approach taking hold among communication staff. And I feel like that’s kind of what our whole company is dedicated towards. And I know a lot of what you all do too at Big Duck is really helping people take it to that next strategic level.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, absolutely. And one last question before we wrap up is kind of zooming out again because you’ve got this big network at the Nonprofit Marketing Guide. If people who look to you for education, for capacity building, for insights in the sector, you’ve got all these years of data doing the Trends Reports. So how do you hope a nonprofit will use all of these findings and insights in the Trends Report and beyond?

Kivi Leroux Miller: Honestly, it’s really about letting people know they aren’t alone. So many people I talked to as communications directors think that the problems they’re facing as a solo practitioner in their organizations are theirs alone. And they are in fact in great company with most other communications staff. You know, occasionally we also have people who are working for bad managers who are being gaslit about communications and marketing work. And so being able to hand them data can be extremely helpful in those situations because it’s no longer just their opinion, it’s really based on research. So it can also be helpful in that way. But luckily I think that’s really a minority. For the majority of people. It’s really about saying, look, you’re not alone in this work. People are struggling with the same things you are. Here’s some things that are working for other folks. Here’s some things to try that are working, that you won’t be alone in trying some of those things. So in a lot of ways, it really is about helping people feel like they’re part of a bigger community of professionals who are learning from each other.

Sarah Durham: Absolutely. And that’s how I use the data a lot. I mean, one of the reasons it’s so alive for me is that in our work at Big Duck, we do a lot of work with nonprofits, helping them think about how to structure and hire for communications. And it’s super-duper helpful to be able to say, here’s some real data about the size of communications teams in organizations your size, or the way that communicators are spending their time in an organization of your size. So I think that benchmarking and comparative piece, I know I’ve found it super valuable. Well Kivi, I really want to thank you for joining me here today. And we will link to your company’s website and the Trends Report in the show notes. But are there any other places you would like people to find you or any other resources you’d like to highlight before we wrap up?

Kivi Leroux Miller: You could follow us on all the different social media channels you want, but honestly, getting on our email newsletter list is the best way to keep up with everything that we’re offering folks.

Sarah Durham: Okay, great. So, we’ll link to that and Kivi Leroux Miller from the Nonprofit Marketing Guide. Thanks for joining me.

Kivi Leroux Miller: Thank you, Sarah.