Nonprofits’ Non-Prioritisation of Communications: A Strategic Misstep
Does your nonprofit treat communications as an afterthought? Here’s what you need to know.
About the author
Kehinde Afolabi prepared this article as part of a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy.
When Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy commenced its operations in 2013, communications was never on its radar as the organisation struggled to understand the relevance and scope of communications [i] to its core mandate of doing legal research to make better laws and improve governance for the public good. For the India-based nonprofit, its mix of staff, primarily consisting of lawyers, with a mix of academic, litigation, and law firm backgrounds, was just enough to get the work done.
In time, the organisation’s work started gaining traction; negative attention and backlash from the public who erroneously associated its policy-influencing work with government decisions. As a defence strategy, the organisation sees itself constantly undertaking reactive communications. This led to the conclusion that communication is a defensive tool for reputation damage control.
However, a much bigger reputational crisis changed this perception forever. The Financial Resolution and Deposit Insurance (FRDI) Bill [ii], which the organisation had contributed to drafting, was made public. Widely misunderstood as a means for government to convert cash deposits into bank shares at whim, the Bill garnered so much public backlash that the government was forced to withdraw the Bill. As a major contributor to the Bill, Vihdi Centre was not spared in the backlash. This was a wake-up call for the organisation’s leadership who realised that apparently, the ideas and intent behind their work were not reaching the public. It dawned on them that their reactive approach to communications, did not make them consider the option of preparing the public on the purpose of the Bill before its release, hence, the panic backlash.
This realisation convinced the organisation of the need to put energy into developing a concrete communication strategy. Their first attempt was to engage a PR firm who fell short as they lacked a thorough understanding of the organisation’s work, especially what it was trying to do with research. At this point, Vidhi Center understood they needed two things: communicating impact, and a team that understood how to communicate this impact.
In 2020, 7 years after its establishment, the Centre brought an in-house communications team onboard. The result? For the first time, their website and blog became a go-to resource for media persons and law students as the Centre showcased its impact through storytelling.
This proactive narrative turned the misconceptions about the Centre around as the audience began to see research as a means to an end with positive intention, corroborated by concrete examples from external stakeholders.
Since the onboarding of the communications team, the Centre has seen a steady rise in their reach and audience engagement. Their website receives five times more page views per month after its relaunch in July 2020. Their social media handles, especially Twitter, have grown by nearly 62% since January 2020, with a steadily increasing engagement rate. Over 2021-22, the Vidhi team published 32 new reports. These reports had 301 media pieces that either featured, cited, or covered them. In fact, the communications team ensured an average of at least 12 pieces a month during these two years, excluding op-eds written by researchers.
The story is a typical example of the risks nonprofits face when they fail to see the relevance of investing in communications.
The story above is a typical example of the risks nonprofits face when they fail to see the relevance of investing in communications. Like Vihdi Center, some of them learn the hard way. It was, however, impressive that the Center went all out to get it right, especially with the onboarding of the full complement of staff for its communications team.
Our Current Reality
Learning from the examples of nonprofits that have gone through reputational crisis such as the instance above, many nonprofits have embraced the need for an internal communications team. As laudable as this realisation is, there remains a challenge, adequate budgeting for communications.
Over the years, it has been observed that nonprofits treat communications cost as an overhead such that it is usually the first budget line to be cut when finances get tight [iii]. Most often, the communications team of most local and international nonprofits often rely on programmes to get funds for communication activities. This leaves them implementing programme communication activities, while core communication initiatives are left hanging.
The 2017 Nonprofit Communications Trends Report recommended non-profits to allocate between 5- 15% of total operating budget to communications.
It was on this basis that the 2017 Nonprofit Communications Trends Report [iv] recommended the general rule of thumb which stipulates that nonprofits are expected to allocate between 5-15% of total operating budget to communications. This has not been the case as almost 20% of non-profits have no firm budget at all and ‘find’ budget when the need arises [v].
Buttressing this reality is the 2020 Nonprofit Communications Trends Report which indicated that nonprofit investment in communications staffing hasn’t changed over the last five years, even as the workload continues to grow. Since the commencement of the survey on communications team size in 2015, there has been very little change in how many full-time equivalents (FTE) nonprofits are devoting to communications [vi]. This reality is reflected in a communications team that is either too small to effectively meet the needs of the organization, or a remuneration too low to attract and retain top communications talents.
How Did We Get Here?
The challenge dates as far back as the early years of nonprofits, especially those who receive their funding from the government. The fact that these seek and receive government funding, benefit from tax exemption, and able to give a deduction to donors, make them liable to government restrictions on communications. For example, the rights of nonprofits in Australia to advocate remains contentious as charities are prohibited from engaging in political activities. This situation affects nonprofits communications as the divide between fundraising promotion and public education is blurry. They are subjected to finding unorthodox ways to communicate in a state of strategic ambiguity – getting along with touchy authorities without slowing down in the pursuit of their mission. An additional restraint under state fundraising laws for charities in Australia is that the organisations are not supposed to spend more than 40% of the funds raised, while Canada imposes a 10% maximum share of finances that can be spent on political activities. This directly affects aspects of communications such as grant writing, marketing, advertising, and public relationsvii.
Another factor is the strategic feature that distinguishes nonprofits from businesses – their expressive, non-instrumental character. Unlike businesses, nonprofits have a strong participative and occupational subculture. They exist in a social movement environment led by compassion and solidarity, not competition and commensurability. These values caused a perspective constraint that made them relax as regards strategic communications as they believe that they already have the “ears” of their stakeholders [viii].
Furthermore, there is a common belief in many organisations that the natural talent of the leaders is good enough. These, however, do not take cognizance of the role of marketing research which is integral in any public effort. In cases of nonprofits with limited resources, they consider communications an idiosyncratic self-indulgence as they often prefer to divert all their resources to achieve what they consider their mission. For nonprofits who linger between grants to survive, the prevailing logic is that communications can only be affordable after they survive [ix]. The irony of this is that it is because of failure that they realised the need for communications – a valuable tool that can help them recover from hibernation.
Why Prioritise Communications?
The Nonprofit Marketing Guide found that the least effective nonprofits devote a below average portion of their overall budget to their marketing and communications staff salaries [x].
Every organisation irrespective of their unique model and structure requires some sort of communications support to advance their mission.
Every organisation irrespective of their unique model and structure requires some sort of communications support to advance their mission. From driving brand awareness and affinity that establishes your organisation’s credibility with government funders and foundations, to generating support for and organising action around issues about which your organisation advocates, and promoting social and behavioural change, your communications team remain an integral component of the processes [xi].
For nonprofits who cut communications budget based on the opinions of uninformed funders and decision makers who conclude that communications is a luxury rather than a necessity, they are major contributors to the “Nonprofit Starvation Cycle [xii].” The irony is that cutting communications budget when times get tight will typically have the opposite of its intended effect. It will cause the organisation to lose the traction built with donors, supporters, programme participants, and volunteers, and its financial sustainability will decline right along with that traction [xiii].
Furthermore, in cases where Nonprofits fail to establish a clear budget line for communications, communications budgets are treated on an as-needed basis, making every initiative, innovation, and experiment a major ask as the organisation needs to constantly find a way to pull money from other budget lines. In such situations, measuring the impact of communications expenditure becomes elusive. Such lack of accountability makes it difficult to make the case for deeper communications investments with funders [xiv]. Hence, the vicious cycle continues.
Talent is, without a doubt, the most important component of any nonprofit communications effort. Thus, the need to be able to attract and retain the best and brightest communications talent. Nonprofits with limited budgets and a small communications team with an ever-increasing workload stand the risk of losing their top performers to the corporate world where they can get higher remuneration for lesser workloads. It is, therefore, imperative that nonprofits demand that funders, supporters, and decision makers help organisations find a way to compensate competitive talent with salaries comparable to what these employees could expect to earn in similar corporate roles [xv].
Nonprofit budgets will always be tight, but the effect of cutting off communications is similar to “stopping a clock to save time [xvi].” In more transactional terms, it’s like a business that stops advertising to save money. No doubt, such business is headed for the drains.
Nonprofit communication is about credibly establishing an organisation’s image with stakeholders who affect the attainment of its mission. Consistent execution of an effective communication strategy will increase brand awareness, which in turn can help secure partnerships and funding [xvii].
Rather than ignoring or slashing communications budgets in tough economic times, nonprofits should think about how they can better optimise spending and explore innovative approaches to produce faster, better results that can get the organisation’s overall budget back on track [xviii].
i Devanshi Vaid & Halima Ansari. Case study: Getting your nonprofit communications right. 2022. Case Study: Getting your nonprofit communications right | IDR (idronline.org)
iii Allysa Conrardy: 7 Nonprofit Marketing Budget Mistakes + How To Avoid Them. 2023. Nonprofit Marketing Budget Planning: 7 Mistakes To Avoid (prosper-strategies.com)
iv Nonprofit Communications Trend Report. 2017. https://irp- cdn.multiscreensite.com/9b732bbb/files/uploaded/2017NonprofitCommunicationsTrendsReport.pd f
v Alyssa Conrardy: Seven Deadly Non-Profit Budget Sins: Part 1 & 2. 2020. https://prosper- strategies.com/nonprofit-marketing-budget-part-one/
vi Nonprofit Communications Trends Report. 2020. www.nonprofitmarketingguidee.com
vii Roumen Dimitrov. The Strategic Response: An Introduction to Non-profit Communication. 2008. https://www.academia.edu/202824/The_Strategic_Response_An_Introduction_to_Non_profit_Communicatio n
viii Roumen Dimitrov. The Strategic Response: An Introduction to Non-profit Communication. 2008. https://www.academia.edu/202824/The_Strategic_Response_An_Introduction_to_Non_profit_Communicatio n
ix Roumen Dimitrov. The Strategic Response: An Introduction to Non-profit Communication. 2008. https://www.academia.edu/202824/The_Strategic_Response_An_Introduction_to_Non_profit_Communicatio n
xii Ann Goggins Gregory & Don Howard: The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle. 2009. https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_nonprofit_starvation_cycle
xvi Christopher E. Fleming: What Did Henry Ford Say About Advertising? https://lubbockradioadvertising.com/advertising-henry- ford/#:~:text=Henry%20Ford%20once%20said%2C%20%E2%80%9CA,have%20a%20good%20internal%20oper ation.
xvii Sherpa Communications: Four Reasons Why Businesses Should Invest in Public Relations. https://sherpacomms.com/blog/four-reasons-why-businesses-should-invest-in-public-relations/