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It's Time To... Level Up!

For real communications impact, funders should skip the one-offs and invest in building the expertise of nonprofit communications directors. That’s how we’ll level up the marketing maturity of the sector.

Kivi Leroux Miller
By Kivi Leroux Miller
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Imagine a roomful of nonprofit communications directors at small to medium-sized nonprofits. You tell them that each person in the room will receive a $20,000 grant exclusively for communications work, but they must say right there on the spot how they will use the funding.

Imagine in your best Oprah voice: “You get a grant! You get a grant! You get a grant!”

Among the stunned shrieks of joy, what requests would you hear in that room?

I bet these five would dominate:

  • a website makeover
  • a social media intern
  • new CRM software
  • a new logo or rebrand
  • new computers or high-end smartphones for staff

While I too wish that foundations were funding more of these basic needs, I’d argue that there’s something even more important and more impactful for funders to address: the creation of more professional communications expertise within our sector.

A Young Profession Growing Fast

Nonprofit communications as a profession in its current form is still quite young, but growing quickly. When I wrote The Nonprofit Marketing Guide in 2010, it was published as a handbook for scrappy do-gooders learning communications on the job, because that’s what everyone had to do. Remember, this was back when Facebook had been open to the public for just a few short years.

While you could take a few classes in traditional public relations for nonprofits, there were no classes in how to be a nonprofit communications director, managing multi-channel campaigns in a breakneck media environment.

Fast forward to today, and that book and my second, Content Marketing for Nonprofits, are used as textbooks in undergraduate, graduate, and certificate programs across the country. Instead of getting a single broad-strokes lesson in communications as part of a nonprofit management executive program, students can now study nonprofit marketing in multiple in-depth courses.

This is big progress. But we can’t expect tens of thousands of nonprofit communications directors to go back to school. Most of them can’t afford it and don’t have the time (they work at nonprofits, remember?). Therefore, high-quality, on-the-job learning experiences are essential.

Solving the Problems Holding Communicators Back

I wholeheartedly believe that investing in the professional development of nonprofit communications directors is the only way to solve the top communications problems we collectively face.

Nonprofit Marketing Guide produces an annual Nonprofit Communications Trends Report. In the 2016 edition, communications staff named the following as their top five problems:

  • Too many competing priorities
  • Urgent tasks take precedence over important ones
  • Too many interruptions during the work day
  • Lack of coordination of co-workers
  • Lack of clear processes and procedures

A website redesign or help from a social media intern doesn’t address any of these problems. In fact, unless you address these problems first, the funding for that website and those interns may just be a waste.

The most difficult challenges that nonprofit communicators face daily—and that stop them from doing their best work on behalf of their causes—will never be fixed with a series of one-off redesigns, consultants who parachute in and then disappear, or subscriptions to software services that take years to master.

Nor will a strategic plan that sits on a shelf, or fill-in-the-blank communications strategies or editorial calendars. These are no use in helping a communications director decide what, if anything, her organization should be doing on Snapchat, or how to respond to the latest live stream of some horrible event in the neighborhood.

Marketing maturity, on the other hand, would greatly increase the odds of both strategic and timely decision-making.

Investing in the professional development of nonprofit communications directors is the only way to solve the top communications problems we collectively face.

How to Build Expertise

Over the last five years, I’ve personally coached more than 100 nonprofit communications directors and facilitated what are essentially support groups for them through our six-month Mentoring Program for Communications Directors.

I’ve found these three elements to be most effective in building that personal expertise so they can effectively address these challenges, get great work done, and help their organizations mature:

Access to others in similar situations. Communications directors often feel lonely, and may believe they are the only ones who haven’t figured it all out. They fear the dysfunction at their nonprofits is theirs alone. Of course, this is flat-out wrong. By surfacing many frustrating situations among their peers, communications directors learn how to resolve those problems with their own co-workers.

Access to peers with more experience. The wisdom that flows between communications directors in the Mentoring Program is amazing. And this isn’t just people with more time in the job sharing with newbies. Fresh out of college participants have often coached much older peers on targeting younger demographics, for example. The collective problem-solving in these groups is truly impressive.

Access to simple frameworks for being more strategic. The job is full of unlimited options and ideas to try. But all that choice is overwhelming and often crippling. Giving people frameworks for how to think through the options and make good decisions customized for their situations is also very powerful.

I hope you can imagine many different ways that these elements, coupled with individual and personalized coaching, could be delivered to communications directors across the country. We are constantly innovating new approaches at Nonprofit Marketing Guide. But we are only one of what I hope will someday be many different providers of these kinds of professional development experiences tailored to nonprofit communications directors.


2016 Nonprofit Communications Trends Report

Curious about how nonprofits will communicate in 2016? Want to keep up with the latest trends in our sector?
The 2016 Nonprofit Communications Trends Report has you covered. Find out through what channels and how often nonprofits will communicate with supporters. Plus, we’ll also dive into the job satisfaction levels for nonprofit communicators, their biggest stumbling blocks, and what they think they could do to communicate more successfully.
Go to Resource.

What Leveling Up Might Look Like

Is it possible to measure this growth in expertise and marketing maturity? I think so, and I’m giving it a try in a few different ways.level-up-numbers-01-3 The 2016 Nonprofit Communications Trends Report revealed that about half of nonprofit communications staff (53%) describe their confidence level as “comfortable” in their abilities, with over a third (37%) saying they feel “very capable” in their jobs. That’s from communications directors with an average of 10 years in the nonprofit sector and seven years specifically in nonprofit communications and marketing! I’d say we have plenty of room to grow that confidence.

Similarly, in self-assessments at the start of the Mentoring Program, we ask participants to rank themselves using a “Knowledgeable, Proficient, Expert” seven-point scale on over 40 marketing maturity indicators. About half of participants rank themselves in the Knowledgeable range overall, with the other half in the Proficient range. My goal is to help move the knowledgeable group into proficiency, and the proficient group toward expertise.

level-up-numbers-02-4-01As I develop the survey for the 2017 Nonprofit Communications Trends Report, I plan to include several questions that I hope will provide additional benchmarks. I’m working through questions that will gauge both the individual communications director’s assessment of their own expertise, as well as their judgment of the organization’s marketing maturity as a whole. The survey, which is usually completed by about 2,000 nonprofits, will be open throughout November, with the full report released in mid-January.

We Must Make This Investment Sooner Than Later

The good news is that most nonprofit communications directors love their jobs. The 2016 report showed that about half of communications directors hoped to make this work their lifelong careers—which I find to be an incredibly encouraging statistic given today’s ever-shifting labor market. Nearly three-quarters of communications staff are satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs.

But I fear these numbers will slide without the kind of support I’ve articulated here. Already, 48% of communications directors and 61% of communications coordinators plan to leave their current position in the next two years. This is similar to the rate of departure for development directors, which is already a well-documented crisis for our sector.

Let’s not let that happen to our communications directors too. Instead, let’s invest in building the profession and developing marketing maturity throughout the sector.

Kivi Leroux Miller

Kivi Leroux Miller

Kivi is CEO of Nonprofit Marketing Guide, LLC, where her mission is to help nonprofit communications directors both learn their jobs and love their jobs. She runs a mentoring program and several training programs exclusively for nonprofit communications directors at She is also the author of two books, The Nonprofit Marketing Guide and the award-winning Content Marketing for Nonprofits, with a third on the way. Connect with Miller on Twitter @kivilm and The Nonprofit Marketing Guide at @npmktgd.

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