Looking for a role in nonprofit marketing communications? Based on my experience, there are common attributes for successful marketing communications professionals in nonprofits. Key skills to have include a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly both in written and verbal form, solve complex problems, ethical behavior and time management. But in today’s competitive environment what are the key items in your skills toolbox? Here is my top ten list of additional skills that employers are seeking:

1. Ability to create value in your relationships

Sure you have a brimming rolodex and a four digit number of LinkedIn contacts, but how effective are your relationship hygiene skills? Are you genuine and authentic and do you bring something beneficial to the discussion? A large part of working with a nonprofit is collaborating with many different audiences, both internally and externally, which makes relationship-building first on my list. A relationship is two-way, where each interaction is an opportunity to bring value for the other partner.

2. Adaptable writing skills

You write a press release that’s gone through multiple levels of approval with each word being carefully considered and debated and then you have to turn it into 140 characters, a brief post on Facebook, a Q&A for employees and a blog post? Flexing your writing skills for each audience and platform is key to being a successful communicator. “Someone who can take complex content and turn it into simple, plain language” is one of the top skills Sherry Calder, Senior Manager, Communications, Canadian Diabetes Association looks for when hiring.

3. Passion and talent in balance

The mission of a nonprofit is truly at the heart of its community, including employees. One way to find out if there is a spark is to volunteer with an organization that you think you would like to work for. “Not only is this an important step in tailoring your resume, but also helps you begin to determine if this is the type of place in which you potentially want to work,” says Annette Power, Director of Communications, Canadian Cancer Society.

It is important for hiring managers to strive to partner the organization’s purpose with a person’s passion and skill set, to keep them engaged and provide a meaningful environment. Like Power, Calder encourages people to try volunteering for a nonprofit to get a feel for the cause, the environment and culture. “From there you will not only be doing some good, you will be enhancing your skills and gain a better understanding of the nonprofit sector. Many nonprofits seek volunteer support for events and campaigns. You can get your foot in the door as a committee or volunteer member.”

4. Effective storytelling skills

When somebody asks you, “how was your day?” you don’t bring out a PowerPoint presentation. Instead you begin to guide them through key points you want to share. A story is a way to build connection and in healthcare, for example, storytelling can play a key role. Stories help patients understand their disease, enable them to feel less isolated and empower them to take action. The ability to put facts into a compelling context and deliver them with emotional impact is to tell a story. In fact, interviews are an exercise in storytelling as is pitching the media or meeting a new stakeholder. Whether it is a corporate or personal narrative, to an internal or external audience, effective storytelling can help your organization differentiate itself in a crowded marketplace.

5. #socialmedia savvy

Social media is a cycle that never ends and where a key metric is the quality of conversation, making it particularly beneficial for nonprofits. It can be relatively economical (expense, not time-wise). You can create a community or attract one to your channel. Either way, social media enables you to connect directly with your audience. With social media continuing to play an increasingly large role for all organizations, highlighting your skills and experience relating to LinkedIn, Facebook and staying savvy on how to write in 140 characters or create video to land on YouTube’s homepage is critical. Power recommends building skills in social media that go beyond “yeah, I use Facebook/Twitter”.  As she notes, “social media is playing a growing role in engaging and responding to the community.  Social media is not simply a tool; it plays a key role in any integrated communications strategy.”

6. Ability to influence and lead

Effectively influencing is key to any field of work, but for organizations where budgets are tighter, market research may be limited and cutting through the clutter is key to success, the skill of being able to influence others will help you to get colleagues to greenlight activity, media to cover your story, stakeholders to join your efforts and for you to get hired! A common thread connecting leaders is the ability to influence.  It takes training, practice and changes in behaviour to be really good at it but it’s a science worth learning.

7. Stakeholder engagement skills

Nonprofits often have small and nimble teams and so as a communications contact, you can find yourself in great demand by government, private companies, academic institutions and other like-minded stakeholders. Having effective stakeholder relations will not only make you popular to play with in the sandbox, it can also help you broaden your engagement with audiences to meet your objectives. Being able to look through the ‘lens’ of each stakeholder will help situate you in their shoes and enable you to deliver what they are looking for. “Nonprofits serve increasingly diverse communities and your ability to connect and understand the population the nonprofit serves is essential to your success,” says Power.

8. Collaborative style

People always say fit is key but I would argue a collaborative working style will make you a fit with almost any audience.  Being able to effectively come together with a variety of colleagues, volunteers, partners and agencies from different backgrounds to accomplish a common goal will make you a key asset. Working ‘with’ people instead of ‘for’ will create a partner attitude with a deeper level of engagement and greater outcomes.

9. Empathy

The value of listening and demonstrating that you understand a program participant’s story, a healthcare provider’s assessment or a stakeholder’s perspective is helpful for delivering strategic communications with impact. Empathy is considered a transformative skill, which makes it hard to outsource. An effective example is the video, Empathy: the Human Connection to Patient Care, by the Cleveland Clinic, which underscores just how important it is to be able to see through another person’s ‘lens’.

10. Creativity

Often working for a nonprofit can mean being part of a small team and in some instances, even a one-person show.  This makes it really important to demonstrate creative thinking in words, concepts, campaigns, even in how you relate to your colleagues and manage budgets. “You have to be creative since there is often little to no budget for the marketing communications team to accomplish its goals. This also provides room for flexing those marketing muscles and provides a deeper feeling of accomplishment when you do meet or exceed those goals, says Calder.

I’ve worked with a lot of people rooted in science and evidence-based thinking.  When I come to their table, they are looking for me to bring a creative flare to make the data sing – to help the audience understand its relevancy to them. I have even led brainstorms with such colleagues who really enjoy stepping out of their labs or institution and being transported into a brightly coloured, Willy Wonka-esque type of world where anything is possible.

Whether you are looking to launch a career or transition, both Calder and Power agree that generalists are a great fit for nonprofits.  As Calder observes “most nonprofits do not have the luxury of hiring specialists – it’s often “all hands on deck” that brings great learning opportunities and involvement with so many unique projects.”

Whitney Binns

Whitney Binns

Senior Communications Strategist, Person-Centred Care at Cancer Care Ontario
Whitney Binns is a seasoned communications professional with twelve years of experience, split equally between nonprofits and PR agencies. She has worked for the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario and the Canadian Diabetes Association, as well as agencies including, Hill & Knowlton, MSL Group and Edelman. On weekends when she’s not on the tennis courts or in a yoga studio, Whitney likes to indulge in a glass of Ontario wine while enjoying a good read
Whitney Binns
Whitney Binns

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