Program and Communications Staff: Can’t We All Just Get Along?

January 14, 2011

I’ve spent most of the nonprofit portion of my career as a communications professional supporting the programmatic core of organizations. But I have also worked directly in program departments, creating and growing grassroots initiatives in the field.

While both program and communications staff are passionate about their work – and the mission of the organization they serve – there are often times when the two groups seem to be operating in two different worlds. As a communications staffer, I used to think, Why don’t the program people get it.

Then I went to work as acting deputy director of programs. After a few months, when my former communications staffers came to me with excellent ideas for promoting program work, I thought to myself, Why don’t the communications staff members get it?

Understanding the Other Perspective

Check out the view from my window.

And then I realized, the two different, but equally passionate, groups defined it very differently. Program staff saw promoting the nonprofit’s work as tangential to doing the work. As progressive, cause-driven communicators, the marcomm staff believed that promoting the work of the organization was a vital part of doing the actual work of the organization.

Sharing our story…

Communications staff saw sharing the challenges and accomplishments of the organization as integral to engaging supporters, the lifeblood of the organization. If we did not regularly share our analysis of relevant issues − and what supporters could do about them− how could we sustain and grow our advocate/activist base? How would we recruit volunteers to roll up their sleeves to do our on-the-ground work if we did not actively engage them through various communications channels?

And why would anyone donate to the programs we saw making a major difference in the world if we did not share the stories of our staff, partners, volunteers − and most important − the constituents that were heroically helping themselves, their families and communities?

is part of doing our work.

My short time as a program staff member helped me see that, as a communicator, I needed to help program staff see that promoting the work was part of doing the work. They have to see the tangible program benefits to PR, marketing, and community outreach and engagement. Program staffers have to see that engaging supporters helps sustain the initiatives, advocacy and campaigns that they develop and manage and, hopefully, increases the resources available for their work.

Seeing the Value Added

So, how do we get our program colleagues to see the value in what we do as communicators, and value the time we are asking them to take to do it?

First, connecting program staff with supporters is critical. Supporters share their enthusiasm for the work of the organization in a way that is infectious. Most supporters really value the opportunity to get up close and personal with program staff and the constituents they serve.  If communicators create opportunities for authentic informal interactions between supporters – donors, volunteers, activists – everyone wins.

Of course, what I am calling informal interactions may still be serious opportunities for learning and sharing. I am referring to gatherings, information sessions with program staff and visiting partners, attendance at press conferences, informational conference calls or webcasts, etc. I simply mean interactions that are not specifically part of the program staff’s usual work with volunteers and advocates. These may include having program staff members invite constituents to rallies or protests, asking them to contact congress people, including them in fact-finding missions, etc.

How else do we as communicators encourage our program peers to see our work with them as eminently valuable? We need to document how volunteers, activists and donors hear about our organization.

  • This can be as simple as asking, How did you learn about our organization/program/campaign, on registrations, web log-ins, tear-offs on written materials,  etc.
  • You can do a survey of constituents to learn how they learn about you.
  • You can create opportunities for constituent feedback and participation on your blog that will suss out this kind of information.
  • You can get a bit more complicated and do in-depth in-person or telephone interviews with select supporters – or (even more complex) a random sample of supporters.

A different kind of documentation − correlating an uptick in donors or volunteers with a press hit, a special event or increased SEO from a new web section and/or article − can also show in black and white the direct relationship between doing communications work and increased resources for programs.

Your Suggestions Please

What else illustrates the value of communications work to program vitality?

Have you found a similar dynamic in your nonprofit — or even for-profit? What do you do, whether you are program staff or communications staff, to encourage cooperation between the program and external affairs departments?

Thanks in advance for your tips.

Denise M

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