As I was interviewing for my current job, an interviewer asked what I would miss about my old position.

“My team,” I said. “I wish I could bring them all with me.”

The team I worked with at the time was amazing—committed, passionate, funny, diligent, harmonious—each person lending her strengths to serve our mission through cohesive storytelling, media relations, digital marketing, editing, design, and project management.

I’ve worked on all kinds of nonprofit marketing and communications teams during my career, from a tiny staff of two to a 16-person communications crew spread across an entire floor. No matter how big or how small, the best nonprofit communications teams all shared the same commitment and similar skill sets.

You don’t get that kind of team by accident. It takes careful consideration and planning to find the people you need to serve the organization you already are …and the one you’re hoping to become. Here are some things to consider and questions to ask as you build the ideal marketing and communications team at your nonprofit.

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Here are six steps to building a nonprofit marcom team

1. Think about your organization’s needs.

There is no template for the ideal marketing communications team, and no formula for the perfect order to add headcount. Every organization has a different focus, different workflow, different audience, and different stakeholders.

If your organization manages one event a year, it probably doesn’t make sense to hire a year-round events expert. But if your organization hosts some sort of recurring meeting or conference, you need an experienced event manager to help ensure those activities happen smoothly.

At one past employer, our CEO wanted a full-time social media staffer. But the social media scene for our organization’s focus area was a big echo chamber. Our social efforts showed no real impact for the audiences we hoped to serve, so it made more sense to dedicate full-time resources elsewhere.

Key questions:

  • Who are our key audiences, and how do they engage with us?
  • What strategic organizational goals are we supporting with those audiences?
  • What’s the best channel to reach out to those audiences?
  • How do we properly manage the channels that bring the best engagement and/or return on resources?

2. Dream big and create a long-term plan.

Post it notes planning

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If you’re looking further ahead than about 18 months, your communications strategy plans are pretty worthless—the audience and platform landscape changes too quickly to truly forecast much farther.

On the other hand, organizational strategy plans—especially they’re living documents—can actually help you forecast the makeup of your marcom team in three, five, or even ten years. For example, if you’re working at a grant-funded organization with a long-term plan to raise big donor funds, you might need to add someone with fundraising communications experience, or event-management background.

Even if you don’t need those bodies on board right away, an aspirational staffing plan lets you think strategically about who you hire, and in what order. As your organization grows and changes, you can use your headcount opportunities wisely.

Key questions:

  • How could scaling your marketing communications team increase your organization’s impact?
  • What elements of your organization’s three- or five-year strategic plan will require communications support in order to be successful?
  • What positions are unnecessary in the short-term? Which ones are “nice-to-haves” rather than “must-haves”?
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3. Consider the funding picture.

Puzzle

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Constant fundraising—whether building a diversified portfolio, or engaging individual donors—is part of nonprofit life. Marketing communications teams are generally considered overhead expenses, so our work is much harder to fund than core programs. Many foundations have a strong desire to support policy research, but they’re less interested in funding the infrastructure that’s necessary to communicate to the right audiences.

It’s tempting to accumulate grants to fund a position, but that may lead to creating the Frankenstein of communications jobs—a position that stops making sense when the funding picture changes. Here’s an example: At a previous job, we had the opportunity to hire a half-time communications staffer to support our training programs. We hunted for resources to fund event planning during the other 20 hours of her week. But when we stopped organizing funded events, we had to repeatedly shuffle her duties. Eventually, this staffer’s job barely resembled the tasks for which we hired her. When a team member’s duties are buffeted by the random winds of funding, no one—neither the affected team member nor the rest of the staff—will be happy with the results.

Key questions:

  • Are we reasonably certain we have the long-term funding to support a full-time hire? If not, can we accomplish our goals with a part-time staffer or contractor?
  • How does this position fit in with your larger, longer-term plan for growing the team?

4. Seek out candidates with crossover skills.

Teamwork

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Unless you’re supporting a major organization, every member of your team must wear multiple hats. But, surprisingly, many marketing and communications professionals either don’t want to multitask, or can’t handle the work.

Real talk: I’m a marketing communications professional because I figured out quite early that literary journal submissions were not going to pay the rent. I’m a writer first and foremost, but I dove into other opportunities to diversify my marketable skills. I learned how to build and manage websites; I became fluent in social media tools long before their ubiquitous use; I even taught myself page layout in order to create programs and catalogs.

When I’m hiring now, I look for people with these sorts of crossover skills. Sure, I want them to have great depth in one key area, but I also want my team members to be able to use one another as sounding boards. Having folks on the team with at least some exposure to other marketing and communications disciplines is incredibly helpful.

Building a diverse team also makes a huge difference, because people who come from different backgrounds will also bring a wide variety of experiences to the table. Not only will each individual provide valuable cross-disciplinary strengths, but more diverse teams are proven to be more innovative. That effect holds true for nonprofit communicators as much as it would in any other industry or discipline.

Key questions:

  • Where is your team already strong, and where should you hire to gain more depth?
  • Do your job postings encourage diverse candidates with cross-disciplinary skills?
  • What networks can you tap into to diversify the pool of people from which you’re hiring?

5. Don’t hire for “culture fit.”

Usain floral

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It sounds like a good idea on the surface to bring on people who not only match the competencies required by a particular job, but who also share the organization’s values. But “culture fit” is quickly falling out of favor for good reason. Comfort often has less to do with shared values and more to do with hiring people who look or act like everyone who already works at the organization.

And it’s not just a Silicon Valley phenomenon; I’ve heard the “culture fit” argument used many times in the nonprofit world. Years back, I was down to two finalists for a job on my team, but my top candidate’s experience was all in the private sector. Several members of our management team worried whether she would accept the position if it were offered. “She’s never worked at a nonprofit,” they said. Even though I reassured them that the candidate understood the differences between nonprofits and other organizations—and even though the job announcement included our salary range—my bosses’ reluctance put me in an uncomfortable position. Eventually, their reticence required three increasingly awkward conversations with the candidate to confirm she’d accept the salary we were prepared to pay. Eventually, we did offer her the position, and she accepted. And because she shared the organization’s values, she thrived in the nonprofit environment.

If a candidate demonstrates a real commitment to your organization’s mission, it doesn’t matter where she’s worked before. And someone who’s not already steeped in nonprofit norms will bring fresh ideas as you build communications plans and define the best tactics to achieve your goals.

Key questions:

  • Are you looking for candidates outside your comfortable networks?
  • Are you open to candidates who might not have nonprofit experience?
  • Is your interview team diverse enough to provide a wide range of input as you make hiring decisions?

6. Build an authentic team culture.

TeamBuildingandLeadership

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In the organizations where I’ve worked, the best communications directors have been very real people who brought their whole selves to work. Of course, they were consummate professionals, on point both in meetings and with stakeholders, and adept at giving helpful and encouraging feedback. But they never let their teams lose sight of who their bosses were as individuals: people with families, friends, activities, and, lives outside the office. Those blurry work-life boundaries built team cohesion and camaraderie.

As I’ve led larger and larger teams (and, honestly, as I’ve grown more comfortable with who I am as I’ve aged), I’ve become more at ease showing my team the person behind my leadership. That ethos has manifested in many ways, from inviting my former team to my wedding reception to letting my current team know when I was suffering from an emotional hangover after a weekend potty-training my toddler.

I encourage the same openness from my team members, at whatever level they are most comfortable. I recognize that people are human and fallible, and that they work best when they know I don’t expect them to be automatons. That doesn’t mean I coddle performance issues, but it does mean that I want people to feel like they are free to be themselves. Whether that’s sharing a few vacation photos on our Slack channel or chatting about music at lunchtime, our team finds lots of opportunities to engage authentically.

Key questions:

  • How do you model authenticity to your team?
  • How are you demonstrating genuine interest in your team members as whole people?
  • What opportunities are you providing to your team members to express themselves? Are you making sure those openings are as comfortable for the introverts as the extroverts?

Building a great nonprofit marketing and communications team takes time, effort, and strategy. But you’ll be rewarded with a robust crew that will do an incredible job in service of your organization’s mission… and help make the world a better place.

Editor’s note: If you’re reading this post in November 2017 and want to talk more about building nonprofit marcom teams, please join this month’s #NPMC Twitter chat. It’s taking place on Wednesday, November 29 at 1:00 p.m. ET.

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Genie Gratto

Genie Gratto

Senior Director, Marketing Communications and PR at AnitaBorg.org
Genie Gratto is Senior Director, Marketing Communications and PR, for the AnitaBorg.org, which envisions a future in which the people who imagine and build technology mirror the people and societies for whom they build it. She began her career as a reporter, but has spent more than two decades communicating on behalf of nonprofits, fulfilling a broad range of missions from ensuring freedom of choice for all women to progressive police research to labor rights to protecting the public’s health to, now, promoting diversity in tech.
Genie Gratto
Genie Gratto

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