Beyond the job description, most new nonprofit Communications Directors don’t typically receive a handy user manual titled Everything You Need to Know About Communications at our Nonprofit. So, how should a new Communications Director get acclimated and make sure they’re starting in their role with a solid foundation? While every nonprofit’s situation will be unique, here are four actions we consider ‘musts’ for the first 90 days on the job.
Dig into the organizational strategy
While you likely already have a baseline knowledge of the mission from the interview process or past experiences with the organization, now’s your time to go deeper. We recommend beginning with a review of key organizational strategic documents, including current and past strategic plans, theory of change or logic models, financial statements, recent proposals, and program and service overview materials so that you develop a strong grasp of the organization’s purpose and the change you’re seeking to make. If you’re working remotely or hybrid—as The Nonprofit Communications Trends Report shared is the case for the majority of nonprofit communicators these days—try to schedule some in-person time for site visits and tours to get a first-hand look at your programs in action. As your nonprofit’s lead communications strategist, you’ll need to make sure that the projects you execute advance the mission and support your organizational goals overall.
Understand your ecosystem
In addition to digging into the mission of the nonprofit, you’ll also want to learn about the peer landscape you’re a part of and how your organization fits in. While building a deep understanding of your ecosystem can be an extensive research process, there are also simple and quick steps you can take to get started. Ask your colleagues what nonprofits they consider to be your closest peers and partners and whether your organization is a part of any coalitions or issue-aligned networks. Sign up for their email lists and start following their accounts on social media to get a sense of their brand and the communications approaches they’re using. This will help you understand the ecosystem you’re a part of, what distinguishes your organization, and offer ideas about future approaches to partnerships and communications.
Familiarize yourself with existing communications
High on the list for your first 90 days should be taking stock of the existing communications approach, and figuring out what’s already in place. This step will be among the most time-consuming and will likely require meetings with colleagues, and some data analysis too. Before jumping into a new strategy, channel, or major communications initiative like a campaign or website overhaul, be sure you have a solid grasp of the way your organization has been using communications to date. You’ll need to speak and write daily about the work of the organization, so start becoming acquainted with the existing voice of the organization.
By the end of the first three months, aim to have answers to these questions:
- Is there already a brand or style guide? Is it in use? Any sense of what’s working or challenging about the brand?
- Are there clear audience priorities? Has any research been conducted about your audiences, what motivates them, and how they want to hear from us?
- What communications channels, technology, and systems are in use? Are they active and generating engagement or out-dated and falling flat?
- How are current communications campaigns performing overall? Take note of your initial sense of strengths and opportunities.
- Is there a current communications plan with defined goals and strategies for this year? If not, developing one may be one of your first projects to take on
- What is the cadence of communications throughout a typical year (e.g. when certain campaigns or big events tend to happen)? What is on the horizon for this coming year? What’s around the corner? Is there a communications or editorial plan that captures all of these important dates?
Start building collaborative relationships
While this is the case for starting any new role, and not unique to a Director of Communications position, it can’t be overstated: strong relationships are essential. Your success and satisfaction in your role will be influenced by the relationships you nurture with your team. Nonprofit communications require healthy collaboration with staff across the organization, including the folks running your programs. Start building trust and establish strong internal communications practices from day one. Consider hosting listening sessions with different departments across the organization—including with any staff you manage within the communications team—to learn about the structure of communications and any past successes and challenges related to processes and workflows.
Through these conversations, try getting a sense of how people perceive the work of communications within the organization. Is it viewed as a strategic driver of the organization’s mission? Alternatively, do you sense that people think of communications as a service or resource that should be responsive to the needs and goals of other departments? Depending on the types of input, there may be some follow-up work around developing a common understanding of the mission of communications at your organization and what people can expect from the department in the future.
Focus your time on learning and listening in the first few months. The tactical communications to-do lists—managing social media, updating the website, getting out the press release—are bound to pile up quickly. And while you most certainly will need to take on plenty of these projects in your first months, be sure you are starting your role with the foundation in place to be strategic and intentional in the long term.
Are you responsible for communications at your nonprofit? Would you benefit from some support or coaching to help you get acclimated in your role and clarify the purpose of communications at your organization? Contact us if you’d like to explore how we can help you prioritize and plan your communications efforts.