It’s a common frustration for nonprofit communications directors who are trying to work collaboratively with staff: getting people to meet their deadlines.
This is a hard first step, but one that’s essential: If you want someone to meet your deadlines, they have to believe it’s important to do so. And that means that they understand the strategic role of communications for your organization, and how great communications are essential to great programmatic and fundraising results. Without the buy-in, your job as deadline enforcer is much more difficult.
But even with that understanding, you’ll still run into situations where people just don’t cooperate.
Let’s use getting staff members to submit articles for a blog or newsletter as an example. Here are some approaches you might try.
Be super specific about the task and the deadline. Suggestions and deadlines are not the same things. If you say something like, “I’d love to have it by Friday,” that’s not a real deadline. “Submit a newsletter article by the end of the week” is still too vague. How many words do you need? What’s the article’s focus? Exactly what day and what time is it due?
Make deadlines — and whether they are met — public information in the office. Transparency breeds accountability. Make staff deadlines public, and state in a matter-of-fact way who met this month’s deadlines and who didn’t. Perhaps you could send a regular email that includes the contributor’s name, topic, deadline, and when the article was actually submitted. You could even color code early, on-time, and late. You are simply reporting the facts, so what appears next to the person’s name is entirely up to them.
Even if you don’t go public, you need to have a private conversation with the person about the missed deadline. They need to know that you know they missed it, and that it’s a problem for you. If you just ignore the missed deadline, it’s a signal that it didn’t really matter and they were right to prioritize something else over meeting your deadline.
Try some other carrots and sticks. What works here will depend on your office culture, but play around with some different kinds of rewards (something as simple as kudos from you or the boss in the staff meeting) and sticks (like refusing the promote their programs on social media until they meet your newsletter or blog deadlines).
Take a cue from reality TV and build in some friendly competition for those carrots and sticks. Departments that are most compliant with meeting your deadlines and producing the best articles don’t have to clean the break room for a month; the loser departments do.
Give staff a big head start with models to copy. You need that newsletter article, but your project coordinator is stumped about how to get started. How about giving her some basic templates to choose from? For example, you could give her an outline of a how-to article or a Top Five list. If you are asking her to write more of a narrative story, share a few past examples, breaking down exactly how the story is told, paragraph by paragraph. Or, if you could provide a Q & A template for the writer to follow, where you provide the questions and they provide the answers.
Be explicit about consequences to the project or the organization. Odds are you have some flexibility, but you can’t let people take advantage of that all the time. When people miss deadlines over and over – especially when it’s the boss – it’s important that you outline the trade-offs.
Maybe you won’t have enough time to carefully proofread everything, or maybe the newsletter will publish without important information. Or you won’t be giving your supporters enough time to respond to your call to action, which means lackluster results. Or you will look like flakes. Or your supporters will forget who you are and why the work matters.
Again, this is a much easier case to make when staff and managers already believe in the value of high-quality, consistent communications.
Want to go even further, and provide some personalized help to your staff contributors?
Break it down into smaller deadlines. Instead of saying “your blog post is due in six weeks,” consider breaking that down into some intermediate deadlines that will help the person bite off a chunk at a time. Ask for the topic, then a headline, then teaser copy, then a first draft, and then a final draft. Some writers need to do the full piece before they can give you teasers or headlines, and that’s fine too, but you might ask to see the first draft earlier in that case.
Ask for potential road blocks when you make the assignment. When you are first setting a deadline, ask the writers if they can see anything on their schedules and to-do lists that would get in the way of completing the assignment. This is really just to prompt them to think about their own time management, and to agree with you ahead of time that they can, in fact, get the work done. You might suggest that they block out time to do the work.
Get to know their writing styles and where they get stuck. Part of your job as a communications director is to help coach other staff on communications tasks. Get to know your bloggers and their writing styles. Who has a hard time getting started? Who are the perfectionists who have a hard time saying something is done? Who works best from an outline? Who works best under deadline pressure? Rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach, customize the help and nudges you provide based on what each person needs.