Every now and then, a fundraising consultant will write a post essentially saying that all nonprofit communications and marketing should be driven by fundraising goals and staff, with a few limited exceptions, like media relations and general branding. Here’s the latest example of this point of view from Richard Perry and Jeff Schreifels, further amplified here by Jeff Brooks.
Those of us who actually work in nonprofit communications and marketing know, of course, that is simply ridiculous.
There’s this little thing called the mission. And when you implement the mission, you have programs and services. And those programs and services all need communications and marketing support. Oftentimes, they need A LOT of communications and marketing support in order to get people to use or otherwise participate in those programs and services.
Nonprofits are also very often championing particular points of view, values, or policies related to their missions. That work also requires a tremendous amount of communications and marketing support to educate people and to change hearts, minds, and behaviors, depending on the particular missions and issues of the nonprofit.
If you want to get deep into it, here are
Can you fundraise while also marketing programs and services or doing issue-oriented education or advocacy? Sure, sometimes. But definitely not all the time. In many cases, that would entirely inappropriate. Many times the people nonprofits are trying to engage in program work are simply not the same people who support the work by donating money.
Of course, fundraising is also one of the possible goals for nonprofit marketing and communications. In our research, about half of nonprofit communicators feel responsible for achieving fundraising goals, but the other half do not. This reality often has fundraising consultants clutching their pearls, especially those that assume that all comms work must be driven by fundraising.
Who are these awful nonprofit communicators who don’t consider themselves responsible for fundraising, these consultants often wonder? They work in organizations that are funded in a variety of different ways that don’t depend on hundreds or thousands of individual donors. That could be institutional grants (like foundation funding) and contracts (from government agencies). It could be fee for service work or earned revenue. It could be one or two very large fundraising events. It could be a dozen major donors who cover everything. Or it’s often a combination of these things that create a budget that simply doesn’t require hundreds or thousands of individual donors to keep the nonprofit running.
So what’s really going on with these posts claiming that all nonprofit comms should be controlled by fundraising and fundraisers when there are so very clearly many, many more things that nonprofit communicators must manage?
It’s about control.
When you are a one-person communications department or a small team trying to manage ALL the communications needs of an organization, you have to make choices. And when people (e.g., fundraisers) don’t get their way every time, they naturally don’t like it. But the programmatic managers don’t like it when they are told they can’t do exactly what they want when they want it either. It’s often the communications director’s job to play the traffic cop role, ensuring that the right messages are going out to the right people at the right time, without completely overwhelming the people the nonprofit is communicating with, so that the nonprofit can achieve all of its communications and marketing goals (again, see above). It’s a lot to juggle.
Another common theme in these types of posts from fundraising consultants is that communications staff don’t understand fundraising techniques and copywriting. And sometimes that is true. But here is something else that is also true: A lot of fundraisers don’t have the right fundraising techniques and copywriting skills either. This is especially true for fundraisers who are more highly skilled in events management or major donor cultivation, for example. Just because they can raise money that way doesn’t mean they can write a decent appeal letter or donor newsletter. In fact, I am constantly talking to communications directors who are being asked to do that work on behalf of those kinds of fundraisers (even when the writing is supposed to be the fundraiser’s job).
Rather than arguing about who is supposed to work for whom or hand-wringing about this “dilemma,” a much better approach is to ensure that (1) people acknowledge the variety of communications and marketing needs and goals across the entire organization — all that is needed to achieve the mission, (2) the right people on staff who are assigned the work get the training they need to perform that work, regardless of their job titles, and (3) that outgoing communications are well-coordinated (think editorial calendars and workflows) so that it makes some sort of reasonable sense to people on the outside.
This approach produces far superior results than simply demanding that comms staff report to a fundraiser and thinking that’s the solution. It’s not.
We have good research on team structure and effectiveness, but that’s another post. We also have research on how little fundraising staff typically know about key communications and marketing skills, especially all the tech stuff “under the hood,” including email engagement, video production, and even how to pitch a reporter on a story, for example. That too is another post.
Just for kicks, here is my response from the last time a similar round of comms-bashing fundraising posts popped up in 2015. It has a fun graphic and an offer of boogeyman spray, should you be in need.