non-profit communications
November 19, 2016 3:05 AM   Subscribe

What has been your experience working as the sole comms person at a non-profit organization?

I am in conversations to be the Director of Communications at a non-profit, which would include doing both strategy and day-to-day work (social media, website, outreach, etc). I have only worked for larger organizations before (which were also non-profits or government, but with 500+ staff members). I would be the only person in the company doing communications work.

I very strongly believe in the mission of the organization, but I am concerned that a position where one person does all of the communications work may be overwhelming (if not impossible in some areas). If you have experience in this, I would love to hear how it works. How do you manage strategy AND social media AND media outreach AND event planning AND fundraising? (in my past organizations, each of these was a discrete function) What percentage of your schedule do you devote to each area?

I would also welcome any other questions that I should be asking as I consider this position.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (7 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Have you asked how they prioritize these facets, how it was all handled in the past, why they lost their last communications person, and what they're looking for the new one to do differently?

The all-too-common trap is a struggling organization with unreasonable expectations that one person can fix everything if only they're *right* person. It's an ego boost to feel treated as the new hero, but if it turns out that you can't fix everything then it's obviously your fault; you must not have been the right person after all. No noble mission is worth putting yourself in that position.
posted by jon1270 at 3:23 AM on November 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

If you haven't already, ask to see what they're putting out now and ask what their expectations are. From my experience with non profits, the workload will be far more than one person can handle but they know this and won't actually expect you to do everything, especially not to the standard you might think is appropriate for the organisation.

You might never be on top of all that you wish you were, but their priorities and minimum expectations might be fine, eg at my last job, they cared a lot that the newsletter went out every month but couldn't care less about our social media presence. Lots of things didn't get updated as quickly as I would have liked, lots of good projects never got off the ground, just because I could not possibly have worked more hours every week. They often offered me volunteers to help but I can honestly say that none of those people were actually helpful, they just became more for me to manage.

Just make sure (as sure as you can be) that what they find acceptable is what you think you can do. Many of my friends/acquaintances in non profits feel like they're doing the work of three people and are exhausted because they have high standards and care about the organisation.
posted by stellathon at 4:14 AM on November 19, 2016

Chiming into say that I work in comms, and website design and publicity and media and fundraising in a tiny little charity - there's just two of us. We share some of the Twitter/Facebook stuff, with me doing more on Twitter and my colleague doing more on Facebook.

My time tends to be split between keeping outward looking stuff as up to date as possible on social media, writing our monthly newsletter and working on our website (which includes design, coding, updates and techy stuff - say, 40% of my time), planning and creating publicity and other materials for events, supporters and talks (30%). General admin type stuff that needs doing like replying to supporters, keeping databases updated, tech/IT support (10%) and then the rest spent on pushing forward on new ideas for fundraising. In the end, my colleague does most of the talking, and I do most of the work that supports the talking. We make a good team.

I actually only work two days a week for this charity, probably throw in a few hours more a month for free and have never had a job I love more, mainly because I have a great colleague and truly believe in what we are attempting to do.

The frustration - there is always more to do than I have time for. I have a work list that seems to always grow and never shrink however much I do. As stellathon says - you can end up exhausted if you have high standards. I have had to learn that, sometimes (most times), 90% there is good enough and you don't have time to tweak stuff to (your definition of) perfection.
posted by IncognitoErgoSum at 4:34 AM on November 19, 2016

I would also welcome any other questions that I should be asking as I consider this position.

Ask about your budget. Do you develop it or is it handed to you? Will you have to fight for every dollar, or is there room to include some outsourcing? Having some freelancers can make the difference between sanity and insanity. For example, ~$500 can get you a competently-written feature article for your newsletter that includes three interviews with volunteers, whose names you supply. There should also be money for graphic designers.

Ask to see the current departmental budget, to include line items. What's not there will tell you as much as what is there. What you want to be finding out is if it all falls on you personally or whether you really are directing the department with appropriate resources.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 5:03 AM on November 19, 2016

Hard-won lessons from a former Comms director:

1 - Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. Know what you're doing when - and WHY your priorities best support the work of the organization. Be prepared to explain, over and over, why you are working on This and not That.

2 - Make sure your boss has your back WRT #1, and know that sometimes her/his pet project becomes the This you are working on to the detriment of someone else's That. Quickly learn the difference between their brainstorming/spitballing and a directive.

3 - Avoid the trap of "I can just knock this out." Make sure you are giving yourself enough time to work on longer-term projects and not just crossing easy wins off your to-do list.

4 - Make sure you understand and can defend your relationship with Development. Are you a peer of the DOD, or downhill? This will greatly impact your workload and ability to prioritize.

5 - Advocate for a full organizational calendar of events and activities, both forward-facing and behind the curtain. Make it your role to facilitate longer-term thinking and planning. Also, be prepared for someone else's lack of planning to become your crisis.

6 - Set and share production schedule templates so your colleagues understand how long it will take to execute a particular project. They will always think it should take half as long as it does.

7 - Own your expertise. Everyone who has a Facebook page or has attended a cocktail party thinks they know as much as you about social media and special events. They don't. Be prepared to explain why you've made a decision, as the SME. (This is not to say you should be close-minded about new ideas, but you have to measure it carefully. Once the door gets cracked open too far, every comms project becomes a group project.)
posted by Sweetie Darling at 6:23 AM on November 19, 2016 [14 favorites]

I cannot like Sweetie Darling's answer enough.
posted by warriorqueen at 10:15 AM on November 19, 2016

My roommate does this, and I get to hear ll about it on the daily. Here's what I've gleaned from listening.

First, this is a game of managing expectations. All work requests need to come through your boss, not people dropping by asking for you to do "one thing really quick". Create a work request form if there isn't one already. Establish a proofing routine, so you don't have to complete things two weeks early and have it go past every set of eyes in the department six times.

Make sure you know who is responsible for getting ads and/or copy from donors. It might be you.

Don't charge out of the gate with your best work on the first project they hand you. Instead, pace yourself, and show steady improvement. This also allows you to build in flexibility to go all out on super important stuff, and just get through the less critical things.

Make sure there is enough room in the budget for you to outsource some things during busy times.
posted by ananci at 1:45 PM on November 19, 2016

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