We are hosting this month’s Nonprofit Blog Carnival and we have chosen the theme “Getting Along with Others.” I know a lot of you have trouble with your board members so please be inspired by Kathy Westra’s patient pursuit to get board approval for a new communications staff member. ~Kivi
The ingredients for great organizational storytelling were all there. A regional conservation organization founded in 1897 that’s still going strong today. A vital education program that’s helping turn public school students into “Green Kids.” A top-rated summer and school-vacation camp. A field studies program offering world-class instruction to adult nature enthusiasts. A volunteer citizen science program that for two decades has collected data to monitor the health of our sprawling urban area’s streams. A mission-critical advocacy campaign to protect the D.C. metro region’s “last best creek.”
And no real communications capacity to tell those great stories to a wider audience, or to begin to use the newest social media tools to get the word out to a younger, tech-savvy demographic.
That was the challenge when I joined the Board of Directors of the Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS) in 2011. The economic recession of the years following 2008 had hit our small organization hard, and budgets were tight. Our capable part-time communications staffer had her hands full just keeping ANS’ regular communications—a monthly e-newsletter and a quarterly print newsletter—coming. Media relations were necessarily relegated to a minimal level of effort. Twitter and Facebook posts were being handled by a volunteer. And all those great storytelling ideas were back-burnered in the sheer “daily-ness” of the workload.
Three of us on the board were experienced nonprofit communicators, and formed the core of the board’s communications committee. With the encouragement of the board’s president, Kathy Rushing, we began a patient campaign in 2011 to convince our fellow board members that investing in marketing and communications capacity was critical to ANS’ future. We were certain that hiring additional staff to implement some of our big communications ideas could pay equally big dividends in the form of increased membership and donations, as well as wider visibility for our great programs.
Our first step was to identify the “low hanging fruit” of communications opportunities that could be harvested, if only we had the resources to pursue them. We worked closely with staff, and had the full support of ANS’ staff leadership, executive director Neal Fitzpatrick, and deputy director Lisa Alexander. We began talking at every board meeting about these missed opportunities. I’m sure we sounded like broken records, but our colleagues on the board were listening.
Last year, the board approved the organization’s first multi-year strategic plan, which included investing in communications staff capacity to meet some bold communications and marketing goals. While almost everyone on the board was supportive of addressing this need, we were told that unless additional funds could be found in the budget, we could not borrow from the organization’s reserves to hire additional staff. Clearly we had more internal marketing work to do.
Then, in May of this year, an unusual opportunity presented itself. Our part-time communicator resigned to pursue an expanding green business venture. With ANS now lacking any formal communications capacity, the time was right to make an urgent case to the board for immediate investment in a seasoned, full-time ANS communicator. The board communications committee helped draft a job description for a communications pro who could help move ANS firmly into the digital communications mainstream. Lisa and Neal went to work identifying funds in the current budget that could be applied to a new, full-time salary, and found most of what we needed by reallocating existing budgeted funds.
This month, we made our move, and asked the board for a one-time budget allocation for the additional funds we needed to hire the senior-level communicator Lisa had recommended for the new position. The vote to support our proposal was nearly unanimous, with ten members in support and one abstaining.
Our patient efforts—and the extraordinary support we received from ANS staff leaders—helped bring our fellow board members to the point where they felt comfortable and ready to say yes to an outside-the-budget investment in a full-time senior communicator. We’ve made an offer to our top candidate, and expect she will join the staff in early September. We know she’ll make a big difference.
Kathy Westra is the principal of Your Green Voice, an environmental communications consulting firm based in Silver Spring, Maryland. Her long career as a nonprofit communicator includes posts as communications director for The Wilderness Society, the Rural School and Community Trust, and the National Parks Conservation in Washington, D.C., and the Island Institute in Rockland, Maine.