4 min Read
April 3, 2015

Who’s in charge of communications?

Does your organization have dedicated staff people for communications? Or even staff people who have, as part of their job description, some responsibilities for creating or managing external communications?

Unlike for-profit businesses of comparable size, nonprofits don’t typically hire people in communications jobs until the organization reaches a certain size: often somewhere around a $4 million operating budget or a staff well into the double digits.

In bigger organizations, communications people sometimes work in the development department (often reporting up to a “Director of Advancement” who’s typically a fundraiser). Maybe several staff people take on various communications responsibilities within various departments. With little or no coordination between them, this can often result in duplicated efforts, conflicting messages, or other “silo issues.”

At the end of a workshop I gave for the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network in San Francisco in 2010, a participant asked me what she thinks is the optimal staffing structure for communications. In particular, should development people should have oversight for communications, or communications over development?

I’ve been stewing on this question for years and can’t say there’s one “right” way to do it. As with most things, it depends… on the vision, mission, and objectives of the organization, on the types of audiences they are aiming to reach, and other variables. (Hey, if the answers were easy we’d all have them, right?)

Questions around communications staffing have gotten even more complex in the past two years as it’s become increasingly difficult for nonprofits to avoid participating in social media. Communications of all types increasingly require ongoing feeding and watering to be sustained, so somebody (hopefully somebody responsive and mission-minded) needs to have a job description that includes it.

After years of observing how nonprofits manage communications, for better and for worse, we Ducks aren’t convinced that staffing structure is the real challenge. Instead, we think the more important question is what type of culture does your organization have around communication?

In a nonprofit that truly values good communications, you’ll find:

A mature, transparent culture around sharing information internally and externally.

People know what their colleagues are working on and are clear about how their work relates, supports, and connects. In meetings, they offer updates about their work and leave thinking about what information should be shared internally and externally. They take the initiative to share rather than waiting to be told, and are trusted by leadership to share appropriately (rather than having to seek approval for everything they send out). A transparent exchange of information is encouraged, and people generally view their colleagues in other departments as allies.

A defined budget for communications.

Instead of scrimping together a few shekels to update the website on the down low, organizations that value communications budget for it. They have line items in every budget for staffing, printing, and other external communications support they might need (e.g. consultants, developers, etc).

It’s also important to anticipate years that will require additional communications mojo (a major website overhaul, for example, or a new identity process) and budget for it proactively- perhaps seeking specific funds for the project.

If your nonprofit isn’t there yet, I’d suggest beginning a conversation about communications with the folks who manage the budget by looking at how your peers do it and considering an appropriate percentage of your annual operating budget (perhaps 5%). Remember that effective online, printed, and other communications increase your visibility and reputation and reinforce your credibility, which helps your donors, programs audiences, and advocates feel better about connecting with and supporting you. It’s a growth strategy- not navel-gazing.

Real, live human beings who are responsible for communications.

Most nonprofits now realize they can’t afford to ignore social media, but few have staffed for it. Bigger national and international organizations like the Red Cross or the Humane Society of the United States not only have communications staff people, they even have (several) folks devoted exclusively to social media. If your budget is too small for a dedicated communications person on staff, at least try to build communications tasks and responsibilities into other job descriptions (maybe your fundraiser can handle it?).

A long view attitude.

Instead of diving in to social media reactively or producing all sorts of materials with dubious ROI (return on investment), organizations with a healthy communications culture bite off what they can chew and focus on doing that well- not on doing everything. They keep an eye out for the latest trends, technologies, and tools that might affect their work, monitor how others in their area are communicating, and make refinements for the long haul, instead of working reactively. The “long view” is a concept outlined in detail in Brandraising. It’s about maintaining a look at the bigger picture, and not just working in the trenches constantly.

How much does your organization’s culture value the importance of communicating effectively with internal and external audiences? We’re interested in hearing how things work at your organization. Please leave your comments and ideas.