4 min Read
November 1, 2017

What can the right communications staff really do for your nonprofit?

Try this experiment: ask 10 different people throughout your organization what the purpose of your communications or marketing team is, and don’t let them use the words “communicate” or “market” in their response.

Did you get 10 different answers? Chances are, you did.

Maybe you heard things like, “Communications are the people who make the newsletter and other materials we send to our donors,” or “Marketing maintains our website and tells me when I can/can’t send out emails.” Or maybe you heard, “that’s the team who thinks about our organization’s brand.” While all of those may be accurate, they aren’t particularly helpful in surfacing the true value of communications.

“Communications” and “marketing” are not always defined in clear and useful terms, nor are they well understood as functions within many nonprofits. Here’s our definition: Communications is the consistent practice of establishing and maintaining connections with people on behalf of the organization.

I know what you’re thinking: Many people within your organization should build meaningful relationships with your primary audiences.


Everyone in your organization, regardless of how large or small you are, or what your mission is, should think of themselves as a communicator.

However, in most organizations, communicating ends up being mostly job-related (development staff will connect with your donors, programs staff with your clients, etc). Only your communications staff (or your executive staff if you’re too small for dedicated comms people) can help weave together all the messages and voices and help your organization craft something cohesive and compelling.

Here are a few recommendations for organizations who are trying to build a strong communications function in-house to advance their mission and express their voice in ways that go beyond day-to-day tactics.

Avoid decentralized communications

In many organizations, each department or program maintains its own lists and sends emails or other messages. While it saves the work of coordinating with others, it creates new challenges internally and externally.

Increase engagement with more coordination

One individual can receive multiple messages from the same organization, perhaps on the same day, with no coordination or cohesion; it’s as if each program behaves as a separate organization. This translates into dozens of messages sent and received each week, shaping a perception that the organization is too noisy, disorganized, or overwhelming. This decentralized approach can leave your target audiences feeling lost, disinterested, or just plain put off when we’d rather they notice, connect, and engage more deeply. No wonder open rates on emails declined 7% in 2016.

Add to that, the experience audiences have might be great in one area (“I loved that gala!”) and weak in others (“I don’t know why they are sending me this– what do they even do?”). Your donors or clients might remember that event, program, or initiative, but rarely understand or connect more deeply to the organization and its mission overall. There’s no big picture.

Improve learning organization-wide

Internally, inconsistent standards for quality abound, data isn’t shared, and useful lessons or information that might benefit other departments get lost. Nobody’s able to review or consider the big picture and begin to set organization-wide dashboards or metrics that help determine what’s working. Buckshot communications is the norm, but they don’t necessarily work.

Create a cohesive experience of your organization

Here’s where communications as a strategic function and regular practice—not just the tactical, reactive creation of materials—adds value, weaving together an experience that helps establish and maintain connections with the organization as a whole.  One key aspect of that is being responsible for defining the organization’s overarching voice, including planning and implementing its ongoing communications.

Moving away from siloed communications towards speaking with one centralized organizational voice is a big culture shift for many organizations. It requires seniority, trust, and the right tools, for starters.

Hire pros

If communications exist within a nonprofit to help establish and grow relationships, it must be a collaborative and mature department, not work in isolation, dispersed throughout your organization, or ignored by other staff.

Senior staff in other departments must be able to trust and collaborate with their communications peers, not just use them to produce materials. They should feel that working with their communications peers adds real value; it helps them do better work, reach people more effectively, and achieve their department’s goals. If they don’t experience it that way, they’ll see the communications team as a barrier or speed bump, slowing them down or getting in their way.

Think about seniority and maturity on your communications team so they are worthy of respect and collaboration in the eyes of your development, programs, and other staff. If communications staff people are hired with less expertise and given less authority or stature within an organization, you are essentially setting them up to be order-takers rather than strategic partners and allies.

Build interest, mindshare, and engagement

As we discussed earlier, everyone in your organization should be in the relationship-building business. For people on your programs, advocacy, or development team, time is often focused primarily on the highest-value relationships: major donors, for instance, or deeply active clients. The communications team can help support this by cultivating and stewarding other relationships which may not be as front-burner. I often think of it this way: communications staff chum the waters so other departments can go fishing.

To do this, communications staff must continually work with other departments to build interest in and curiosity about your work, capture and continue to build mindshare (that’s where branding is often very helpful), and cultivate ways to connect and engage.

If you’re still with me, you’re clearly committed to building a strong communications team within your organization. Be sure to check out this ebook for other tips on what helps them succeed, or check out our Teams work for me on how we can help.