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January 22, 2020

What should your nonprofit’s communications really achieve?

Big Duck’s latest book, The Nonprofit Communications Engine, outlines a simple model for nonprofit communicators and leaders that makes it easier for them to leverage communications in order to advance their mission. Nonprofit CEOs and staff who manage communications can use this book to set clearer goals, guide their planning and activities, identify gaps in their expertise, and discover opportunities to strengthen their communications. In this podcast, Sarah Durham breaks it down.


Sarah Durham: I’ve met a lot of terrific executive directors and CEOs over my 25 years in nonprofit communications and I’ve noticed that the vast majority of them emerge from the programs or the fundraising side. They’re excellent leaders and many of them are also excellent communicators. If you haven’t listened to them yet, you can check out a few of my interviews with people like Vince Warren from the Center for Constitutional Rights or Cecilia Clarke from the Brooklyn Community Foundation. They’re both excellent examples of CEOs who are also excellent communicators, but being a great communicator and a great manager of communications are different. Often I find nonprofit leaders hire and manage marketing and communications teams with expectations that aren’t always really clear and sometimes confusion abounds. We hire great people, but then we don’t necessarily make it clear to them what their job should be. So what can an in-house marketing and communications team really be expected to accomplish?

Sarah Durham: How do you measure their success? And what do you really need to succeed? What did they really need to succeed? These are some of the questions I set out to answer in 2016, when I began researching and writing my latest book, which is called The Nonprofit Communications Engine, a leader’s guide to managing mission-driven marketing and communications. The book is my attempt to define what an effective nonprofit communications function can and should achieve regardless of the age, the size, or the type of organization. It’s not a book that’s going to tell you, you know what you should be doing on Facebook or how to run an effective email campaign in the weeds. Instead, it’s really written for an executive director, a director of communications, maybe even a board member who is trying to think about how to manage and optimize communications more broadly, and it unpacks six basic elements necessary to achieve effective outcomes.

Sarah Durham: So in this and in some future podcasts, I’m going to introduce you to some of what’s in the book. Let’s get started. First, one of the things that emerged as I was researching the book is that in many organizations, different departments kind of function like puzzle pieces. For instance, the programs people are a critical puzzle piece to deliver on your mission. The fundraising team is an effective and an important communications vehicle or puzzle piece to help advance the mission. Maybe other areas like operations or advocacy, government relations are also important puzzle pieces. But as I got into my research, what I discovered was that in many organizations, communications or marketing isn’t necessarily a separate puzzle piece. It’s more like the shellac that covers the puzzle pieces and helps bring them together and unify them. And in my book I map out three outcomes that successful communications teams can achieve.

Sarah Durham: The first is engagement. You know you’re doing a great job engaging when the right people know, remember, and connect with your organization and your work. And then most importantly, they take meaningful action on its behalf. So number one, first and foremost, the communications team has to help fire up engagement on behalf of your organization and the people that they’re trying to reach with and connect with might ultimately funnel into your programs funnel into supporting your organization as donors. They might be activists, so there’s a lot of different audiences that you have to reach and engage to achieve this outcome. The second outcome that a successful communications team should help your organization achieve is to have a clear organizational voice. That means that the way you communicate as a business is clear, credible, compelling, and consistent at all points of contact. Whether I read some copy on your website, hear your executive director speak, read something that somebody wrote like an op-ed in the paper, get a flyer, it should feel like it’s coming from one place and ideally a place that has dotted its I’s and crossed its T’s in terms of the messaging and the tone and style of its communications.

Sarah Durham: So the second outcome that I advocate for your organization to focus on when it focuses on successful communications is having a clear voice. The third and final outcome that I talk about in the book is to develop what I call sustainable momentum. And that means that your organization’s communications aren’t dependent on any one individual. So often in my years working with nonprofits, I’ve found that there are organizations that do a great job communicating, but that the communications hinges almost entirely on one person. Maybe it’s the person who is the communications manager and they just know how to do everything. They have all the institutional memory and it’s great while they’re there, but if they get sick or they leave, things can fall apart. In other organizations, there’s no sustainable momentum because there is an ambassador of sorts or a leader of the organization like its executive director whose voice is so closely aligned with the voice of the organization that if they leave where they’re unable to speak on behalf of the organization, there’s no sustainable momentum around communications.

Sarah Durham: So just to reiterate, there are three outcomes that I talk about in this book that I hope your organization will develop as it develops its communications practice and they are engagement, having a clear institutional voice and developing sustainable momentum. In subsequent episodes of this podcast, I’m going to break down the six elements that are necessary in order to achieve these outcomes and in the meantime, if you search for “Nonprofit Communications Engine” or search from me, Sarah Durham on you’ll find this book and you can order a copy. If you do, let me know what you think and feel free to drop us a line at [email protected].