What Does a Board Communications Committee Do?

A minute ago, I introduced you to a new partnership with NCGives, where we will all hopefully learn a lot more about running a communications department of one for a small nonprofit, through the experiences of Melinda Pearce, NCGives’ communications director.

One of the challenges that Melinda is facing right now is how to use a board marketing or communications committee. She has board members and other volunteer leaders who are experienced with various facets of marketing and communications, but what should she be asking these people to do? What are some reasonable expectations?

I’ve seen nonprofit communications committees do everything from the purely strategic (creating a marketing strategy and simply monitoring implementation through quarterly reports) to the day-to-day tactical (writing and/or reviewing the e-newsletter).

Here are a few ideas that fall somewhere in the middle:

  • Open doors by connecting staff with reporters, graphic designers, and other communications professionals in the committee member’s network.
  • Be a sounding board for staff who do the work and make the decisions, by offering feedback and suggestions.
  • Do research on target audiences, for example, to focus and improve marketing strategies.
  • Gather intelligence on what competing organizations or “frenemies” are doing to help staff stay abreast of important trends or developments.
  • Friendraise by speaking publicly and privately with others about the organization’s good work
  • Launch special projects that staff are incapable of pursuing for whatever reason (e.g. not enough time), but that greatly benefit the organization

What does the communications committee of your board do? What would you like them to do (or not do)? Tell us in the comments.

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  • http://www.pandltranslations.com Janine Libbey

    I am on the Marketing/Grassroots Committee and we have been wrangling with how to go from creating a communications plan to actually executing it. I'm going to share your great suggestions with the Executive Director and my other committee members. Thank you!

  • Nancy

    Great post, Melinda and Kivi. A few other ideas for communications committees (or adhoc marketing advisory boards, as I tend to call them):
    1) Help build support (and budget) of your organization's leadership. Objectivity has power.

    2) Mentor your marketing team (and other colleagues) in marketing (what your plan is, how they can be better communicators themselves).

    Keep up the great work!

  • Nancy

    Just one more thought — if you're board can't take this on, I often find that other supporters will. A great way to build such an ad hoc advisory group is to ask next time you do an online survey. If you make your expectations clear (and I'd ask folks if they're willing to be contacted for periodic input on marketing decisions) and finite, you'll get a good response.

  • thefriendraiser

    love the bullet 'friendraise'!

  • chrissyme

    I am SO looking forward to this series…I just volunteered to sit on a marketing committee of a non-profit and am a little overwhelmed by the unorganization–I think that can be the biggest drawback of marketing by group effort. I hope your blog entries will address the idea of how to “organize” a marketing committee that really has no direction. This is a great group of people that would be awesome at day-to-day stuff, but there doesn't seem to be any structure–definitely not a strategic plan which could be distracting. I am really looking forward to following this. I think there are a lot of us there that need this. Thanks.

  • Home Improvement

    My point being that there's no reason for this post to be any different. Sometimes people comment on the “theme” of a post, or on a specific section.

  • http://twitter.com/wildwomanfund Mazarine

    I'm not seeing comments addressing who should be on your board communications committee.

    In my last communications committee, we had a VP of marketing who had been on there for a very long time, (and who never came to our meetings, or answered phonecalls or emails) a civil servant (who was very hard to get ahold of) and an retired member of the community (who didn't have a clue about marketing.) So when I needed advice and help with strategy, they hadn't any idea. When I needed them to make 4 phonecalls, they seemed incapable. Reaching out to other board members didn't seem to help either.

    So the composition of your committee is important. You need people who actually WANT to be on the board. You need people who know what marketing is. And you need people who have the capability and the WILLINGNESS to set aside 1 hour a month to take care of their duties on this committee.

    You need to make a list of typical marketing tasks, and ask them to take care of one for you, or ask them to help you prioritize them. Make it as simple as possible. They are busy people, and can't spend a lot of time on you.

    In my experience, a board communications committee doesn't do very much if the right people aren't on there! So my tip is to sit down with them and say, “I need you to accomplish this specific task by this date, and I will call you to see if you've done it.”


  • http://twitter.com/barbchamberlain Barb Chamberlain

    I work in communications professionally (at Washington State University Spokane) and have served on a wide variety of nonprofit boards/committees for organizations of all sizes.

    I now chair the Communications Committee for the Empire Health Foundation, which formed in 2008. As a start-up charitable grantmaking foundation we receive a lot of interest both from the media and from potential grantees.

    We have an excellent professional communications firm (Desautel Hege Communications) and they don't need us to tell them how to do communications work.

    In addition to what you list here (all good) we provide our “antennae” in the community and our perspective on how key messages will be received. It continues to amaze me as someone who does this for a living how much value can be added by someone asking, “But what if they take this comment THIS way?” Everyone hears nuances differently.

    This speaks also to the importance of having diverse perspectives on your communications committee. I don't mean just the “standard” measures of diversity, but also people from different professions, different parts of town, or whatever represents new voices for your organization.

    For example, I live in a city and our foundation serves a large geographic region with a lot of rural territory; we have to be sure we don't come across as urban-centric and that our choices of images and words represent the entire region we serve. Everyone on the board is very dedicated to this concept, but we wouldn't quite “get it” if we didn't have people who live in the more rural areas looking at the communications materials.

    We also serve to reinforce communications/message discipline among fellow board members. Fortunately we have a highly experienced board and everyone understands the importance of channeling communications through our president and using our talking points.

    On a board with less experienced members, I know it can often be the case that someone who means well can get wildly off message or start doing the staff's work. It's not always enough (or easy) for the executive director/president or the consultant to say “This is how we handle media contacts”–fellow board members need to play that role as well.

    Director of Communications and Public Affairs
    Washington State University Spokane

    Empire Health Foundation Board of Directors

  • http://twitter.com/barbchamberlain Barb Chamberlain

    Tried to post a comment yesterday but it didn't show up; this may end up as a quasi-duplicate.

    I work in communications professionally and have served on nonprofit boards for years for organizations both large and small. Some had staff, some had working boards and no staff.

    Currently I serve on the board of the Empire Health Foundation, a private grantmaking foundation in eastern Washington. Formed out of the proceeds of a sale/conversion of a nonprofit hospital system to for-profit, EHF has been the subject of intense media (and potential grantee!) interest. Communications discipline has been essential throughout our formation and start-up over the past two years.

    I'd add 3 items to your excellent list:

    - Serve as community antennae. What's the buzz, what questions are people asking board members, what needs to be addressed in talking points and other materials?

    - Be the watchdog on board discipline for communications protocols. An executive director or other staff member can tell the board that media inquiries are to be routed through staff rather than fielded by individual board members, but it's a stronger message coming from fellow board members.

    - Bring diverse perspectives to bear in reviewing messages and materials. This isn't just “obvious”/standard measures of diversity–it's the perspectives that are important for your organization to understand.

    On the EHF board, for example, most of us live in the city. The Foundation serves a large geographic area, most of which is rural. Our two rural board members are invaluable in recognizing images that don't ring true and picking up on “city-centric” language.

    One of my focus areas in board service (besides communications) is governance practice. I generally use a matrix to organize what we know about current board members to help us see the gaps and then target recruitment of new board members. This helps broaden the perspectives around the table and enriches discussions about communications.

    This matrix approach could be used at the committee level to identify current expertise/viewpoints and what you'd like to add, either from the board or from additional volunteers recruited specifically for communications as someone suggested.

    Director of Communications and Public Affairs
    Washington State University Spokane

    Empire Health Foundation Board of Directors