Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash
September 2, 2020

Where do nonprofits go wrong with communications?

Joan Garry

Thought leader and host of the “Nonprofits are Messy” podcast, Joan Garry, talks about what an effective nonprofit communications strategy can look like and provides some tips on how to become a five-star storyteller.


Sarah Durham: Welcome back to the smart communications podcast. I’m Sarah Durham, and I’m here today with somebody. I suspect you already know if you listen to a lot of podcasts. Her name is Joan Garry. Hi Joan.

Joan Garry: Hi, Sarah. How are you doing?

Sarah Durham: I’m great. I’m delighted to have you here.

Joan Garry: Thank you.

Sarah Durham: Joan Garry is one of the most persuasive and powerful voices in the nonprofit podcast landscape. Arguably the entire nonprofit landscape via her podcast Nonprofits Are Messy and her other work as a consultant and a thought leader. So let me tell you a little bit about her in case you don’t know a lot about her background. Joan began her career in the television world, actually in corporate television spent a lot of years working in places like MTV, which she helped launch, but then in 1997, while either having a midlife crisis or perhaps avoiding one, she decided to switch gears entirely.

Sarah Durham: And she became the executive director of GLAAD one of the largest gay rights organizations in the US. Joan spent a number of years at GLAAD sounds like they were not easy years, lots of ups and downs and a lot learned in a very hands on way next. She went to work as a political fundraiser and co-chaired the LGBT finance committee for the Obama 2008 presidential campaign. And most recently she’s been the principal of her own business, Joan Garry Consulting, which she describes as a boutique firm that helps nonprofits across a wide variety of sectors. She helps them chart a clear path forward untangling, strategic knots, and enabling them to have the best shot at pursuing their missions. Joan also does executive coaching strategy engagements, and she founded a really cool thing called The Nonprofit Leadership Lab, which is a monthly online membership site for board and staff leaders from smaller nonprofits.

Sarah Durham: As a thought leader, Joan writes a blog for board and staff leaders. It reaches over a hundred thousand people monthly and her podcast Nonprofits Are Messy, is frequently the number one podcast in this space. I’ve been lucky to be on it a few times and I highly recommend it. She covers a wide range of topics. It’s always really helpful and interesting. And Joan also in her copious free time teaches at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania on nonprofit communications strategy and the media. Joan welcome, welcome, welcome.

Joan Garry: Well, thank you so much. I’m actually really excited. It’s just a topic that I think is we can’t talk enough about actually.

Sarah Durham: And as an expert in communications and also somebody who’s worked with so many different organizations, you have this big picture perspective that I think a lot of people who work in the weeds can probably benefit from. So let’s take a step back and start with the big picture. What do you see as the why nonprofits need to pay attention to communications Joan? And what’s the purpose of communications in a nonprofit?

Joan Garry: The answer is pretty simple. Sarah is that nonprofit leaders have to be five star storytellers in order to be a thriving nonprofit. Every one of your stakeholders has to be able to tell a terrific story about your organization. Why? Because everybody is in the business of trying to invite more and more people to know and do more for their organization. You’re all in the invitation business. If you don’t get the story, right, people aren’t going to come to your party and people is power. Whether that’s donors, volunteers, your next staff member, your next board member, the people that you need to mobilize to write a petition, people is power. I know that’s not grammatically correct. So those are the big things for me is that nonprofits need to recognize that they are in the storytelling business. And because they’re in the invitation business,

Sarah Durham: In my new book, The Nonprofit Communications Engine, I wrote a little bit about what the nonprofit should expect to achieve from its communications. And I defined three outcomes. One of them is sustainable momentum, which basically hinges on having people and processes that can keep the ship moving without being dependent on one person. The second, but probably the biggest is engagement. And when you interviewed me on your podcast a few months ago, you used a phrase that I loved and I’ve been quoting you on. You said, nonprofits need to build an army of the engaged. And I think that’s absolutely right. I’d say that’s probably 75% of the challenge for a nonprofit communicator. And then the third outcome that communications should focus on for the results that they expect us to elevate the voice of their organization, to make it clear what their organization is about, who they are and why people should actually get engaged with it, care about that specific program or initiative

Sarah Durham: Does that resonate for you? Joan?

Joan Garry: Absolutely 100%. And I think that one and two are connected that you can’t create momentum unless you build an army. And I think that actually they’re all intersected there. It’s almost like you’d imagine them to be three rings that intersect because when you elevate the voice of your organization, if you were to write an op-ed or a blog post or get out in the ether, talking about the issues facing your clients, you’re elevating the voice and the stature and the credibility of your organization. And in so doing you generate momentum. And if you then have the right communication strategy, then you can actually use all of that to begin to create these sort of spheres of influence that go wider and wider, kind of like ripples in a pond

Sarah Durham: When you were working with organizations or when you’re teaching strategic communication, where do you think organizations go wrong? Or maybe a better way to ask that is if you could wave a magic wand and make all nonprofits excellent communicators, what would be different?

Joan Garry: Can I answer the, what goes wrong question? Cause I actually forgot my wand. I left it at home. So when I teach the nonprofit communications strategy, we do this one class where we open and I just arbitrarily pick like five or six nonprofits. And I start reading off the homepage of the website. I don’t tell the students anything about the organization. I just start reading stuff off the homepage of the website. And then I ask the students to tell me what they think that organization is and does. And I’m here to tell you, it is about the funniest thing I do in my seminar all semester, we end up, I can’t even talk. I’m laughing so hard and I’m not laughing at any nonprofits. I would never do that. I’m a laugh with kind of person, not a laugh at person, but the problem is that nonprofits try to communicate too much and they forget how much they know and how little everyone else knows.

Joan Garry: So the first one is I do all of these things and I want to tell all of you about every single one of them. And then secondly, I’m going to use all kinds of jargon. I love things with letters. We’re responsible for the M O U S E of the G S M O T. I’m telling you, I read these things out loud to 20 year old students who are howling with laughter, the first problem, which I kind of call the sort of vomit on your website thing, does you no justice whatsoever. And I know exactly where it comes from. It comes from pure unadulterated passion. You want to tell everyone every single thing about your organization. I sat next to somebody at a fundraiser once. And I said, so what do you do? And it turns out she was a nonprofit leader. And I said, tell me about your organization.

Joan Garry: 20 minutes later, the woman was still talking to me and I actually had no idea what the organization was fundamentally about its meaning its purpose as identity. So as a pain in the ass, I said to her, could we try this again? And could you pretend that I’m 10 years old? Now you may regret sitting next to me at this fundraiser. And like six minutes later, it was a lot better, but still not great. And then the second piece is what I’m sure Sarah Durham knows a lot about, which is called the curse of knowledge, which is something that the Heath Brothers talk a lot about in their book called Made to Stick, which is an excellent, excellent read. And the curse of knowledge is basically says once you know something it’s actually really hard for you to imagine not knowing it. And so when I use LGBT, if I were lucky enough for my grandmother to still be alive after L she’d be lost and she wouldn’t listen to anything else I said after that, because she wouldn’t know what that is. So those are the two things I think a lot about that actually hamper and thwart, the ability of nonprofits to communicate effectively and largely. And I’ll just finish this up to say largely it comes from a deep and abiding passion. It’s passion. And that’s a very good thing for you to have in your messaging should always be rich with passion and enthusiasm, but it actually can also blur your ability to get to the heart of the matter quickly.

Sarah Durham: I totally agree. I think passion is a great thing, but I also think a lot of things you’ve talked about do come back to that curse of knowledge, the use of jargon, wanting to share everything with everybody. Those are real challenges. I love your example of speak to me as if I were a child at Big Duck. We sometimes use an exercise where we ask people to imagine an alien has landed and you have to explain your organization to the alien.

Joan Garry: Oh, I love that.

Sarah Durham: You can use big words, but you might have to explain those big words. If the alien doesn’t know them, I think it’s the same idea.

Joan Garry: Totally.

Sarah Durham: One of the fundamental recommendations that we often make to Big Duck’s clients who struggle with the curse of knowledge is to remember to state what the problem is or the challenges you’re facing. You know, so many organizations jump in with a solution to the problem and the person that they’re talking to doesn’t actually understand the problem yet. You might need to spend a little bit more time explaining the problem first.

Joan Garry: Oh, that’s so spot on. Yes.

Sarah Durham: So perhaps it’s not nice to say dumb it down, but dumb it down. Make it easier. Simpler, clearer.

Joan Garry: I also like the, did you know question, like, I don’t know if you know this, but the most food insecure neighborhood is just five miles down the road from where you’re standing right now in your suburban bedroom community. And I immediately with that question, I’m like, I didn’t know that really, something like that. You can get people at hello that way.

Sarah Durham: Exactly. Joan, you talked earlier about the importance of being a good storyteller. You began to touch on the role of the Executive Director and specifically as a storyteller. I think one of the challenges that many organizations have is that they don’t always have an Executive Director who is a great storyteller or maybe there are other people who have to tell the story too. So what advice do you have for organizations who are struggling with that? Or how would you encourage an organization to get everybody singing from the same songbook and telling the right story?

Joan Garry: So I call that building a culture of storytelling and you can’t do that unless you build and exercise that muscle. I do fair number of keynote speeches. And I do workshops and I often do storytelling workshops. And by the way, this is the really, really good board engagement thing. So people might ask me, would you do a fundraising training for my board? I won’t do fundraising trainings, but they want the technique of like how to sit down and ask for money. Do you ask it before the cappuccino is plated or after, right? How much do you ask for you? You could read about that, but what if, instead of doing a fundraising training with your board, you did a storytelling training and you use some resources, whether it’s, you know, Big Duck’s resources or a chapter from my book as a preread, you send it out to all your board members.

Joan Garry: And by the way, you can do this at a staff retreat too. And you actually workshop people’s stories.Tell me about The Legal Aid Society. I’d love to tell you about The Legal Aid Society. Did you know blahblahblahblahblah we are the largest blahblahblahblahblah and can I tell you a quick story? And by the way, when you do that, everyone will say yes, as long as it’s really quick. Can I tell you a quick story? And then you have your little nugget of a story about a real person who’s been impacted by the work of The Legal Aid Society, and then you wrap it and then you end with, would you like to know more? That’s it? And so you actually end up exercising the muscle of a board member to get comfortable telling a story and inviting someone to know more because that actually is the essential core of fundraising.

Sarah Durham: Okay. And the book you just mentioned is that Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership, perhaps?

Joan Garry: It is, it’s a novel title, isn’t it? Sarah? Yeah. In my book, I have a chapter called You’ve Got to Get Me at Hello. You can scan it and send it as a PDF to your board, as a preread, I always wrote my book, assuming people would do this, have the board read it. And I bet there are chapters in Sarah’s book, you could do exactly the same thing to get a conversation going about this very subject and to transform the idea of asking for money to the equation that I use, which is credible messenger plus compelling story equals new stakeholder. And if you can actually change the mindset of your board members to think about themselves as ambassadors and storytellers, I guarantee you that it will make a difference. And the same is true with every one of your staff members.

Sarah Durham: Great. There are a lot of exercise we’ve talked about so far in this conversation. You’ve got a few that you’re proposing in terms of doing a preread, finding something in your book or my book that could be a preread, right, bringing people to the table. Another is reading off the homepage of the website, maybe doing that in front of a group that you invite to come together and you can do that also by looking at peer organizations.

Joan Garry: Everybody read that off their website at the kitchen table to their kids and ask them to tell them what they learned about your organization.

Sarah Durham: Absolutely, I think it’s also a great exercise to do with peer organizations. Totally. If there are organizations you partner with or consider competitive in some ways, do the same thing with them, think about how they’re communicating or how they describe similar services and initiatives to yours. You’ve also recommended role-playing, which we do a lot of recommending and leading at Big Duck. And really what that’s about is doing some practice scenarios and exercises to give people fluency in it. When we work with our clients at Big Duck on messaging, we always do role playing with them and we often try to give them cheat sheets and different tools that they can either carry around, put in their wallet, or reference easily to help keep it all top of mind. Any other exercises that are easy to do that you recommend to help organizations take a step back and get some perspective?

Joan Garry: I just really like the idea of igniting the staff and the boards with enthusiasm for the organization, because you and I can talk all day long about sort of the technique of storytelling. But if a story itself is not told by someone who is basically kind of dripping with enthusiasm and passion for the organization. It can fall really flat. So sometimes I think this can be a little cheesy and sometimes too sort of perfunctory, but this sort of mission moment to get people to actually talk about why they got involved. What was the igniting incident that got you involved with this organization? What’s your sort of organizational love story, if you will, because that actually primes the pump for wanting to tell people about the organization. So that will actually get you over the hump of the, perhaps the anxiety of saying, well, I’m not as good as storyteller as the CEO is.

Joan Garry: Can I just have the person go talk to the CEO, well no, actually you can’t because we need an army of ambassadors in addition to an army of the engaged. So I like that thing going on too, because it’s like warming up the crowd, right? You’re warming up people to remember, Oh my gosh, this organization means so much to me and to my family. So my friend Ellen LaPointe just started as the CEO at Fenway Health in Boston. And I sent her a text and I wanted to ignite her. And so I said as a nonprofit consultant, as a coach, as a LGBT leader, and as a mom of a lesbian who lives 20 minutes from Fenway Health, I need you to be successful. And so she knew that I have personal skin in the game for her success. And that personal element is really key to whether or not the story lands.

Sarah Durham: I totally agree. There’s a great resource. And I’ll link to this in the show notes, along with the other things we’ve talked about today, but I recommend a TED Talk by Nancy Duarte. That’s D U A R T E. She has a business called Duarte. I guess that’s epitomous, that trains people in public speaking and her TED Talk is about the structure of a great talk. And in her TED Talk, she’s mostly talking about presenting, like when you give a speech or a keynote, or something, and what I think you’re talking about and what she covers in this TED Talk are very similar Joan. When Nancy Duarte describes is that the structure of a great talk brings the listener on a journey where first they visualize something aspirational and then that’s contrasted by the reality of how things actually are. So it’s how things should be. And then how things are, how things should be, how things are sort of a up and down. And when you bring your listener or your reader on that journey to visualize how things should be, and you connect to your personal passion, you inspire them and you have to ground it in. We’re not there yet. Here’s what you have to do. And actually in this Ted talk, which is great, she compares very kind of improbable speeches. Like the, I Have a Dream speech to the announcement of the iPhone speech and she maps how those speeches actually follow the same structure.

Joan Garry: Well, I actually, I’m going to watch it today. I have heard of her, but that’s really, really good.

Sarah Durham: It’s a really powerful thing and an easy thing for anybody to use.

Joan Garry: If I can, there’s just one quick thing I wanted to say too, is that this is at the heart of why strategy work is so important. And I know you do a lot of it at Big Duck, in strategy, you’re actually creating the picture of the destination, point B.
Sarah Durham:

Joan Garry: And I think what people sell short about strategy is that it is such an engagement tool if you do it right, because you’re actually saying, imagine a world that B right. So you’re describing B and you’re saying today, we’re at A, we want to go to B, here’s what we need to go to B. Don’t you want to invest in that journey with us. That’s how you market a strategy. That’s how you get multi-year commitments for strategy work.

Sarah Durham: Right.

Joan Garry: That’s how that, when I did the High Holiday appeal at my Synagogue, I sat with the Rabbi and I said, talk to me about B, where are you going? Because that’s what I’m selling. I’m not selling membership only covers X amount, or we need 60% of all of the congregants to give. We need that. But what if, what are the people listening need? What’s the dream. What’s the dream. That’s awesome. Joan Garry so much to talk about with you. Thank you for joining me today. And if you’d like to dig deeper into the many, many resources that Joan has to offer, you can find them [email protected]. That’s Garry with two R’s. Joan, thank you for joining me.

Joan Garry: Thank you so much, Sarah, and thanks for the work that you do in the sector.