Why Communications: Why Now, Why It Matters
Over 90% of the board candidates BoardAssist matches with nonprofit boards become leaders within 12 months of being placed by BoardAssist. We’re proud of that number – its why folks come to BoardAssist when they want to join a board. Our candidates want to be sure they can “be the change” they want to see in the world once on board. One great way they often do that is by helping the nonprofit they are supporting rethink their communications efforts. For advice on how to be that high impact agent of change supporting communications strategies once on a board, we asked Janet Falk, a communications maven, for advice. Thanks for your terrific guest post Janet!
Why Communications: Why Now, Why It Matters
Communications activities at nonprofit organizations, sadly, are often considered an expense, rather than an investment. Let’s see instead an opportunity and consider how Boards can make a difference by taking a lead.
The primary goal of Communications for nonprofit groups is:
- create opinion/ perception where there isn’t any;
- change existing opinion;
- reinforce the perception.
Ask first. Do your Board members and senior staff know, with certainty, how your organization is viewed among the various segments of your audience? Short of conducting a survey, undertaking a corrective communications program, and executing a follow-up study, it’s difficult to measure specific impacts and awareness.
So, let’s look at Communications from the reverse angle.
- What happens when an organization decides not to proactively communicate its programs, services and successes?
- What are the consequences of not spending time and money and not investing in the organization, not promoting it and its partners?
When your organization chooses to limit the funding support of its Communications activities, it appears as a cost-saving for the short term. However, there are potential negative outcomes over the long term:
- Does your nonprofit rely on a single media outlet serving the community, perhaps a daily or weekly newspaper? If so, it may be vulnerable to a break in the relationship. Moreover, your group might be overlooked or ignored by other media that serve the area, as they presume your favorite media outlet will cover news related to the organization.
- Does the organization communicate periodically with members of the local business community? Many executives and business owners support selected organizations based on vendor relationships and personal friendships. Contact with business leaders should not be limited to requests tied to year-end giving or large-scale fundraising events. Such donors may perceive little incentive to increase their support. Additionally, they are not motivated to connect with the nonprofit’s leaders beyond their primary contact.
- Do you keep elected officials, such as City Council members, in the loop about various programs, not only the ones funded by tax dollars? They may erroneously believe that nonprofit groups like yours are supported sufficiently by the community. They may see no reason to increase the allocation they helped secure for the organization.
- Do your leaders communicate informally with peers at nonprofit groups with similar missions or serving in nearby geographies? When you do not build alliances in advance, you will not have a comfort level and shared experience before an urgent need to collaborate.
Let’s imagine total philanthropic support as a pie, with slices cut for many organizations, resulting in a complex and dynamic funding process. By not proactively promoting itself, a nonprofit may be viewed as saying:
- The pie is big enough. Local government officials do not need to increase their allocations to expand the pie.
- The pie cannot grow. Everyone who can give is already giving at their maximum level. We do not need to engage the media to promote philanthropic support from businesses and individuals
- Our organization has served our slice of the pie to everyone already. There is no need to tell our diverse audiences and potential supporters, donors, employees, volunteers, clients, nonprofit partners, etc., about what we did compared to past years, how we differ from other organizations or what we would like to accomplish with their participation and support.
The downside risks of not investing in Communications are great indeed.
The Board should recommend a comprehensive audit of Communications activities to evaluate the current basic tools: website, newsletter, marketing brochures, holiday greeting card, directory listings and digital presence, among others. Based on this process, the staff may revise the existing materials, engage in proactive Communications and create materials that increase the opportunities to:
- garner media attention;
- collaborate with like-minded and neighboring groups;
- engage the business community and
- connect with elected officials.
Some straightforward and simple tactics for Board members are:
- invite contacts to subscribe to the nonprofit’s monthly/quarterly newsletter and engage in subtle cultivation of potential donors;
- schedule individual quarterly phone calls with elected officials and business leaders to remain top-of-mind;
- host an informal individual or group coffee chat to enhance warmer and stronger ties to the mission.
Members of the Board can effectively get the nonprofit on the radar screen of target audiences, namely business executives, elected officials and staff of peer groups, perhaps even local media, through these outward-directed approaches. These efforts will dovetail neatly with renewed and ongoing Communications activities by staff.
The question of embarking on Communications should be revisited not as if, but when. Communications is an investment not an expense. The Board should urge proactivity and support the nonprofit’s professional staff as they harness the power of Communications to help the organization achieve its greatest potential for itself and for its community.
Janet Falk, Chief Strategist of Falk Communications and Research, is a Public Relations and Marketing Communications professional. Having served on staff and as a consultant to nonprofits, she helps put organizations on the map to attract new clients and attendees, engage supporters and move ahead to fulfill their mission and achieve their goals. Through proactive media outreach she has generated increased attendance at events and fundraisers for Staten Island Legal Services, Staten Island Historical Society, Roosevelt Island Residents Association and Roosevelt Island Historical Society, among others.