Comms Department Like a Drive-Thru Window or Reservations Required?

As I shared earlier in the year, we did some research on nonprofit communications teams structures as part of our annual Trends Report. I’m also looking at how comms teams are treated within the different organizational cultures of nonprofits.

I’ve found a restaurant analogy to be helpful when talking about the some of the key differences.

The Comms Team as Drive-Thru Window

Some comms teams, especially those structured as internal agencies, are like drive-thru windows. They take an order from the development or program departments or executive director. As quickly as possible, they produce the work product. They do their best to ensure some consistency (i.e. following the brand guidelines).

But they aren’t involved in creating the menu or the individual recipes. Those strategic decisions are made by others or simply absent. It’s all about churning out the work.

The Comms Team as a Reservations-Only Nice Place

At the other end of the spectrum, you have the places that are harder to get into and that usually require a reservation. In other words, you have to get in touch well in advance of when you want the work product. When you get there, you discuss the menu with the servers, and you jointly come to an agreement about the best approach to your meal, working out the different courses. This is like putting together a creative brief and setting up a work flow with drafts and deadlines.

This is the approach used in some larger nonprofits with highly centralized communications departments. But it’s also the approach in many smaller or understaffed communications departments that are nevertheless strategic about how they use their limited communications resources.

The Comms Team as a Fast Casual Restaurant

Let’s describe the middle ground between Drive-Thru and Reservations Only as Fast Casual.  You can get the food — and comms work products — relatively quickly, but you are still discussing what you want with the staff. If you have a big project, you talk about it in advance, just like you’d make a reservation for a big group at a fast casual place. But when it’s busy, you know you have to get in line and wait your turn.

The Comms Team as Food Truck

Here’s one more model for you: In some nonprofits, the comms teams are quite agile and rather autonomous or independent. They are able to switch up what they are working on quickly and move where they are most needed, while still producing a high-quality product.  But their focus is often quite narrow, just like a food truck menu.

What do you think? Which restaurant style represents the culture of communications work at your nonprofit?



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  • RR

    Yes! This is so true. My organization is best described as fast casual. We definitely talk about some of our big picture communication goals, but there are those small day-to-day projects that come up without much time spent on strategy.

  • CM

    I love this article! As a young professional who has just started working in the communications sphere this is helpful in determining how where I work now differs from where I might want to work in the future.