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November 3, 2021

Who should be on your communications team?

Kivi Leroux Miller

Sarah Durham, Big Duck’s founder, and Kivi Leroux Miller, founder, and CEO of the Nonprofit Marketing Guide, share tips that will help any nonprofit strengthen their communications team and improve its capacity to succeed.


Sarah Durham: Welcome back to the Smart Communications Podcast. I am Sarah Durham and I am joined today by Kivi Leroux Miller, who is the founder and CEO of the Nonprofit Marketing Guide. Welcome back.

Kivi Leroux Miller: Hey, Sarah. Good to be with you.

Sarah Durham: So Kivi and I have a long-standing, really fun history of talking about nonprofit communications and in particular, as she sometimes puts it, geeking out on the team stuff. And that’s where we’re going to dig in today and talk about together. But for those of you who don’t know the Nonprofit Marketing Guide, I suggest you scurry over to their website tout suite. Check them out, sign up for their e-news. Kivi is the lead trainer for hundreds of nonprofit communicators and many, many participants in the Communications Director Mentoring Program. I’ve known her for years and years. She’s a popular and trusted speaker, leader, webinar presenter, and award-winning author of multiple books about nonprofit marketing and communications. And probably like many of you, she’s also a very active volunteer in her backyard in North Carolina, she leads a Girl Scout Troop. She’s the president of a local farmers association. And she’s always up to something good when she’s out in the field or at home with her family. So welcome back Kivi, I’m excited to talk to you about teams.

Kivi Leroux Miller: Yes.

Sarah Durham: So you and I, actually, years ago, we collaborated on something that is an ebook, that Big Duck and the Nonprofit Marketing Guide put out together where we did kind of a survey. And we asked nonprofit people to tell us if they were happy in their jobs and what were the things that contributed to their success in their jobs. And we identified five key factors, and I know those factors have served as a jumping-off point for a lot of the thinking I’ve done and you’ve done. And in your Nonprofit Communications Trends Report, and we just recorded another podcast about that too, you also do a lot of thinking about teams and what makes people in communications teams feel healthy and supported and thriving. So tell me today, as you think about who should be on your communications team, what comes to mind? What advice would you give?

Kivi Leroux Miller: Well, you know, it all goes back to what you’re trying to achieve? Are you primarily doing communications and service of fundraising, or not? So that’s one of the first questions we always ask when we’re talking about teams because in our research about half of nonprofit communicators feel directly responsible for fundraising results in some way. And the other half do not. And that may be because they’re funded through a number of different models that don’t rely on individual donations, or they may have outsourced all of that to a consulting firm. But for whatever reason, they’re not particularly interested in fundraising. And so that has a lot of impact on the team structure and the strategy and how the communications functions work within an organization. So that’s the first question usually.

Sarah Durham: And when you think about the people on the team specifically, one of the things I’ve thought about a lot, and I think you’ve thought about a lot is like, you know, the right skills, the right number of people. I, for instance, have really changed my mind about who should be on your communications team. And I’ve become a really serious believer in the idea that the people on your communications team, particularly if you only have one person, need to be great project managers and great kind of interpersonal skills communicators.

Sarah Durham: They need to be the kind of people who can engender trust and belief from their colleagues because if they’re going to collaborate with, let’s say those fundraising colleagues if they’re working in service of development or their programs, colleagues, if they’re helping other people, their colleagues in those other departments need to like them, need to tell them things, need to be able to work with them. So to me, getting along well with others and being a great project manager has emerged as much more important than maybe a particular tactical skill like writing or design or social media. What do you think? What do you look for in a great communications person?

Kivi Leroux Miller: I mean, I generally think that’s true. I agree with you. I think the reality, unfortunately for most organizations is that they have to do both, right? They still have to write the content or design the content or whatever it is. So I do think they have to have some of those communications tactical skills. But absolutely I think trust is a huge issue. You really have to have the trust of both your executive team, as well as your sort of programmatic or fundraising co-workers in order to be an effective strategic communicator. If they don’t trust your expertise on how to handle an issue or the best platforms to communicate something, then it’s a non-starter. So I think you’re absolutely right. It has to be somebody that can really establish that trust and hopefully authority within the organization for being the expert about how to communicate.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, absolutely. And actually going back to what you talked about earlier when you were saying, the first question you ask is, is this communications team working to support fundraising predominantly or not? You know, years ago, I remember you did this really interesting piece of research about where communications sit in the organization, and that was one of the elements in it, but can you talk us through that?

Kivi Leroux Miller: Sure. So we’ve identified five different structures that we see most commonly in the nonprofit sector. We call them centralized, which is where the communications team is really listening to everything that’s going on internally. So your fundraising program, executive, all the other goals, and sort of centrally coming up with a plan for how communications is going to run. Those are typically organizations or communicators where fundraising is not the absolute primary goal of the communications team.

Kivi Leroux Miller: On the flip side, when you do have fundraising that is a primary goal for communications, then we recommend what’s called the integrated team structure. And that’s where the fundraising decision-makers are really sitting down with the other communications/marketing folks and collectively, jointly, developing a communication strategy that yes, is fundraising led, but also appropriately deals with all of the other communications and marketing needs of the organization–whether that’s sort of brand and reputation PR, program marketing, whatever it may be. Those two team models are really, in our research, the most effective. In terms of getting the work done well, and there is also the place where people are likely to be happiest in the work and to feel like they’re really making a difference.

Sarah Durham: So centralized and integrated.

Kivi Leroux Miller: Right, and really the difference between those in the role of fundraising again. Now there are these other three models out there that we still see, but they’re all problematic in their own way. They don’t produce the same level of effectiveness overall, and you generally have a lot more anxiety among the communication staff. Now doesn’t mean, that is absolute. There are plenty of organizations using these other models that are successful. I’m just saying your odds are much lower, that you will be successful compared to the centralized and integrated teams.

Sarah Durham: So, spill the beans. You got to tell us what the three other models are.

Kivi Leroux Miller: Okay. So the first one, and the one that I really hate the most, is the internal agency team. The metaphor I use for this is that you’re treating your communication staff like a drive-through window. People are rolling up on you and telling you what they need, and they just want you to make the thing pretty, and to turn it out overnight. There are certainly internal agency teams that function in a strategic way. So again, it’s not an all or nothing, but a lot of times people are being treated like an internal agency and they’re really just told to shut up and make the thing. And so there’s a lot of problems there.

Kivi Leroux Miller: The other two teams are really typically in much smaller organizations. One is the CEO-led team. So this is essentially where you have a communications person who’s acting as an executive assistant, more or less to a CEO doing a lot of personal communications tasks for the CEO. And then they also, oh, happened to update the website or do the newsletter or post on social too. So that tends to be smaller organizations or founder-led organizations where the founder is having a hard time growing the communications functions within an organization.

Kivi Leroux Miller: The last one is what I call fundraising-led and that’s different from the integrated team, in the respect that the fundraising-led team really does not acknowledge other communications needs within an organization. They tend to think everything is fundraising or it’s not important. And that’s just strategically false in the nonprofit sector. I mean, there’s always something else mission-oriented that you should be communicating about too.

Sarah Durham: Hmm. That’s really interesting. I don’t think I’ve heard you talk about fundraising-led in the past, but what you’re saying really resonates for me. We’ve done a lot of work with nonprofits where the development staff oversee the communication staff and are largely directing what the communication staff work with and other departments like maybe, you know, government relations or programs, or like, Hey, what about me? And then there’s also this question of sort of the organizational voice or brand and who directs that? So I’ve definitely seen that movie a few times.

Kivi Leroux Miller: Right. And so that’s really different from like an integrated team where you still have fundraising in the lead, but you’re also talking about how the program work, and the brand work, and the advocacy work all tie in. Like it’s truly integrated. Now that’s very different than the fundraising-led team where they just kind of blow-off everybody else.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, and I think with integrated teams, those teams sometimes are called things like advancement. They have these kinds of bigger, more unified goals for sure. The internal agency model, while I definitely have seen it in very small organizations where the communications people are treated like a drive-thru, as you say, where I’ve seen it most commonly is actually in very large organizations where there’s a national kind of internal agency function and then regional or local organizations or affiliates turn to them to make the thing. So that internal agency that sits in national is producing a lot of templates, a lot of stuff, and kind of feeding things to the locals. And the locals are requesting things. Is that where you see it too?

Kivi Leroux Miller: I think that’s absolutely an example, but I also see it in other situations most often where you have a lot of lawyers, for example, on your program team or a lot of physicians, or a lot of academics. You know, people who think of themselves very highly as a profession, and honestly kind of look down on their communications and fundraising co-workers because they don’t have whatever letters, you know, follow their name. We have a lot of sort of legal defense-type nonprofits in our sector. And I see this a lot in that kind of environment. So if you’re an attorney listening to this, I just encourage you to take a step back and treat your communications co-workers with respect. They too are professionals.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, that’s a good call to action. And I would also say with those audiences, if they are listening, those are also people who tend to be very precise about language and potentially very jargony. Lila Tublin, who was one of the senior copywriters at Big Duck, just wrote this great piece on the Big Duck blog, I’ll link to in the show notes, about writing in plain language, the power of writing in plain language, and that’s kind of a tangent, but another, I think, related important issue with those folks.

Kivi Leroux Miller: Yeah, it’s also a huge control issue. You know, they think they should be able to control the editorial calendar, for example. You know, they’d have a hard time letting go and letting other people do their jobs.

Sarah Durham: Interesting.

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Sarah Durham: Okay. So, I want to dig in a little bit for a minute about the size and skills of your communications team. In the Nonprofit Communications Trends Report, which is currently in its 11th year, you do all this incredible research to explore in the sector what’s going on in communications departments. And in the 2021 trends report, you had this really interesting stat about the fact that three full-time employees seems to be kind of a sweet spot for communications teams. Tell us a little bit about that piece of research, what it uncovered, and why it was true?

Kivi Leroux Miller: When you get to three people, it’s really about capacity. So you have the ability to not only think strategically about things but to also really implement them well. When you’re asking one person to do all of that, it’s just too much. And so, you know, corners are going to be cut in different places. And lots of times that is on the strategy side. They’re just busy doing all the things all the time and not having the space to really think strategically. But it also means that they can’t do all of the different tactics very well.

Kivi Leroux Miller: So for example, when we ask one person communications teams if you could magically get a co-worker, what would you have that person do? They almost always say “I would have them do social media.” Social media is like this black hole sucking up time. And then it’s more kind of technical things like video. Everyone knows how engaging video is. Yes. It’s easier on your phone, but it still is a technical challenge for a lot of folks to produce that content and to get it uploaded and shared well. So that’s the kind of thing that you can really dive into more when you have a little more breathing room because you have two or three people on your team.

Sarah Durham: Hmm. Interesting. I have always been particularly interested in the question of how many people should be on a communications team in-house? And I guess I’ve been interested in this because there’s this part of me that feels like some organizations have too many people in-house. In other words, they tend to hire full-time people who do things like copywrite, or design, or make videos, or do these different things that they don’t necessarily actually really need to have full-time people for. But then I also see organizations that are just woefully understaffed. In my experience, human service organizations, I think because of the way they’re funded and the lack of unrestricted dollars that they have, they almost never have enough comms people. They’re lucky if they’ve got one or two full-time communicators in an organization with thousands of people versus arts and culture organizations, where they have a whole marketing team, that’s separate from the communications team, doing completely different, sometimes overlapping, stuff.

Sarah Durham: So, this question of how many people should you have and what should you do in-house versus what should you outsource, really kind of keeps me up at night. I think it’s interesting you’re finding that three full-time employees is the sweet spot, but would you sort of caution organizations based on their mission to go up or go down in any particular way?

Kivi Leroux Miller: Absolutely. You know, it doesn’t mean that four or five is bad. It just means that there’s a tremendous, sort of huge growth spurt that you can go through when you go from one to two or two to three. So that’s all I’m saying when I’m saying three is the sweet spot.

Kivi Leroux Miller: I do think you’re right. That when you start to parse out the work, someone is just copywriting, someone is just designing, or someone is only managing one channel that you actually create a situation where you may be less strategic. And in a lot of the research that we’ve seen from our Trends Report and our coaching programs when I am talking to large organizations with large teams, a number of those more sort of junior tactical people feel very divorced from the strategy. It’s almost like there’s a little internal agency team within the comms team. So I do think that that is something to be cautious about.

Sarah Durham: I’ve definitely seen that too. And I think that’s a very real tension that nonprofit communicators and their executive directors or CEOs probably don’t talk about enough, which is the reality that there is a certain amount of just production work that has to happen. There is a certain amount of fast-food truck, drive-through, “I just need the thing.” that goes on. And I think sometimes when people take a job in a nonprofit communications department, they are really, really excited for the big projects. Like maybe the time where you get to rebrand, or you get to do a new website or redesign something in a big way, but that’s not actually the day-to-day work.

Kivi Leroux Miller: Right.

Sarah Durham: The day-to-day work is a little bit tactical. I think there’s a real tension in that. Nor also what I encourage a nonprofit from hiring somebody in-house who really just wants to do those big projects, because you actually are much smarter to outsource some of those things probably. But do you feel the same way?

Kivi Leroux Miller: I think that’s right. I think the bigger issue with team size is really about whether people are seeing that as an opportunity to just pile on more work, where it should really be more about, okay, let’s have a real conversation about what the priorities should be. And to really just nail those priorities, to just do a really great job on a few things. I mean, you can do that when you have a slightly larger team, or you can just continue to pile on and not prioritize. And unfortunately, I think we see a lot of that. It’s like, well, I let you hire two more people. So now I can keep giving you all this random crap to do. You still have to have that real strategic conversation.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. One of the things I often encourage organizations to do to that end is to write a department mission statement, write a purpose statement for your team. And don’t just do it in isolation, do it with your executive director, or maybe do it with other people on the leadership team. Like, get on the same page with people about what communications is meant to do at your organization and like tape it on the virtual or literal front door of your department so that when people come to you with all that stuff they want produced, you can really pressure test it and say, you know, is this in service of our department’s mission? Or is this something that maybe your team could do itself or there’s another way we could handle so that we can maximize the value of our team’s contribution?

Kivi Leroux Miller: Yeah. We also encourage people to do, we call it the “pie slicing exercise”. So, you’re just taking a circle and you’re cutting it up into pie pieces and what the relative size of those pie pieces are. If you have a piece of pie and you got 12 slices and they’re all the exact same size that tells me you’re not really prioritizing anything. And, you know, what should be the bigger pieces? And how big should those pieces be? Especially when you’re doing like we were talking about earlier, if you’re a social service organization, you could very likely have 20 or 30 different programs your organization runs, like literally, that’s not an exaggeration. But you can’t do equal communications for 30 programs. So who’s got the bigger piece of the pie? And maybe that changes throughout the course of the year or seasonally? But those are the conversations you need to be having.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. I totally agree. I love the pie slicing exercise. I’ve done that a few times with an added layer too, which is, first, slice the pie, and then also look at the number of hours in a week or a year for the people in communications. Because there’s also that sort of like, okay, if you carve that pie into three or four slices, and then you overlay those three or four priorities onto the three people in communications who work collectively 5,000 hours a year, what does that really translate into hours per week or hours per year that gets spent on any one of those priorities. And when you drill it down into hours, you start to get a sense of what is really going to be realistic.

Kivi Leroux Miller: Right.

Sarah Durham: That all of the things are definitely not going to happen in that pie with 30 slices.

Kivi Leroux Miller: Exactly.

Sarah Durham: All right. Well, this is super fun for me. I appreciate the opportunity to hang out with you here on the podcast, Kivi, and to geek out on our shared love of communications teams. I’m going to link to a number of your resources and to some of Big Duck’s like that ebook I mentioned, we’ve got a couple of other things in the show notes, and thanks again for joining me.

Kivi Leroux Miller: Thank you, Sarah. Happy to do it anytime.

This podcast has been sponsored by Bloomerang


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