In most nonprofits, almost everything the organization does — from program work to direct service to fundraising — involves the marketing and communications team in some way. Many nonprofits also place high value on collaboration, but lag in using even the free versions of newer collaboration tools like Slack, Asana, or Basecamp.

When I talk to colleagues in nonprofits, one of their top critiques about the sector is inevitably that we all feel like we run from meeting to meeting all day long. It’s the way many nonprofit teams collaborate — gathering around a conference table to reach consensus, share progress, and plan new strategies. Given that marcom folks are involved in almost every aspect of an organization’s work and operations, that makes meeting overload even worse for our teams and ourselves.

These tips won’t get meetings off your calendar, and likely won’t even help make the meetings you attend more efficient (though I do include some resources at the end of this piece that might give you some ideas to make meetings less painful and more effective), but they will ensure you use those meetings to advance your strategic marcom goals.

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Leveraging meetings to advance marcom goals

1. Prioritize your priorities

Meetings — especially at the nonprofit senior staff level — can be great idea generation opportunities. When lots of new strategies and approaches are swirling in the air, enjoy the brainstorm, but take time to think carefully about how these new inputs fit in with what’s already been agreed upon as your most important work.

  • Use the strategic plan as a guidestar. If your organization has a functional strategic planning process, you should have a clear set of organizational priorities that drive strategic communications priorities. Use those as a filter to suggest where marcom time and resources will be best spent.
  • Take good notes, and circle back later. If the meeting is a true brainstorm, it might be better to just capture all those big ideas that surface. After you’ve had a chance to synthesize and review the notes, propose where and when you think the marcom team should move forward on particular new initiatives.
  • Be willing to shift priorities to accommodate valuable projects. Your marcom to-do list is not sacred — when a new project with a high organizational value arises during a meeting, don’t dig in your heels and defend your team’s existing tasks. Use the meeting as an opportunity to make recommendations about how these new priorities can be incorporated into your team’s project list, but also remain clear and direct about what has to come off to make those accommodations. Then follow up with an email after the meeting to document those agreements.

2. Collect stories

I can’t tell you how many times I or my team members have sent emails encouraging staff members in my nonprofit organization to let us know when they have great stories to tell. Though everyone has the best intentions of sharing their stories with the marcom staff, the reality is program team members and others in the organization get busy, get distracted, and get overwhelmed. If they’re not great storytellers to start with, they may find composing an email too much to overcome. But in a meeting, there are lots of opportunities to collect those gems that make your content sing.

  • Go for leads, not full narrative essays. Often, meeting agendas are crowded, so there won’t be time to hear a fully-formed story. Try, instead, to glean leads — anything from glimmers of a story that may be on the horizon to just a sentence or two that lets you know where to follow up — and keep a running list of them. Then you can follow up after the meeting, and incorporate the detailed version into your content strategy.
  • Listen carefully for clues. Did your head of programs just mention a new conference she’ll be attending? Did your executive director just mention a new major donor? Did your legislative director meet with a state senator last week? As people give updates and reports, they’ll likely drop a trail of breadcrumbs to what might just become your next great piece of content.
  • Send out a list of questions ahead of the meeting. It can be hard for people to think of recent stories when they’re put on the spot. This is particularly challenging for introverted members of your staff. A snappy list of three to five questions (Have you met any interesting people in the field lately? Did something exciting happen at a recent event or conference? Is there someone new we’ve touched through direct action?) emailed a day or two before the meeting can help prime your fellow staff members’ memories and get them ready to answer the questions in person.
In meetings, there are many opportunities to collect stories >> Leveraging meetings to advance marcom goals #NPMC Click To Tweet

3. Practice patience

As the marcom person at a meeting, I’ve listened to many other people tell me how to do my job. I’ve received “helpful” input from the finance director who wants to explain how their previous organization handled hyperlinks, or the program associate with an active social media presence who thinks we’re handling Twitter all wrong, or the development director who swears the marcom team at his last organization completely revamped the website in a couple of months (so why can’t we?). There will always be several people in the room who don’t understand marcom at all, or who understand just enough to be obstructive, and that can create a very frustrating meeting dynamic.

On my best days, I handle this dynamic well. If I’ve had enough sleep and not too much caffeine, I listen actively, reflect their ideas back to them, and calmly explain our overall strategy and priorities. But I’ll admit I’ve been the frustrated communicator in plenty of meetings, and when my patience wears thin, so does my ability to remain diplomatic and calm. It’s important to find ways to stay centered when in the midst of a frustrating conversation.

  • It’s business, not personal. One of the great strengths of nonprofit work is how much of their heart everyone puts into their jobs. We’re all saving the world, and the world is better off for it. But…that can become one of the weaknesses, too. Trying to detach enough from the criticism and not take it too personally will make the work easier and less stressful.
  • Listen for new perspectives. These conversations are great opportunities to uncover what’s missing from your marcom strategy. Probe more deeply to find out what organizational and individual priorities might be driving those criticisms, and you might uncover a blind spot in how you’re addressing the needs of some of your key audiences.

As a nonprofit marcom professional, you may not be able to turn down all those meeting invitations, but using these tips, you’ll be able to leverage that time to make you a more effective leader and a stronger player at your organization’s conference table, and that, in turn, will make your overall marcom strategy stronger, too. 


Additional resources to help make meetings manageable

Here are some great resources to help you master the art of effective meetings:

Do you have meetings this week where you can implement some of these ideas? Try them out, and share your experiences and additional tips in the comments below!

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Genie Gratto

Genie Gratto

Genie Gratto is a mission-driven communicator with a passion for storytelling, technology, and social change. She began her career as a reporter, but has spent more than two decades communicating on behalf of nonprofits changing the world in myriad ways, from ensuring freedom of choice for all women to progressive police research to labor rights to protecting the public’s health to promoting diversity in tech.
Genie Gratto