3 Common Nonprofit Communication Challenges Your Organization Must Overcome

9 min read

In our work with nonprofit organizations of every shape and size, we often observe patterns, and one of the most noticeable is around common nonprofit communication challenges. Though every organization is different, most nonprofits seem to face their most significant communication challenges in one of these three scenarios:

  1. The organization is experiencing a change in leadership
  2. The organization is approaching or adjusting to a merger or new partnership
  3. The organization is experiencing a change in board dynamics

The right communication strategy, or the lack of one, can lead to success or failure of an organization to meet its goals. And, while these three nonprofit communication challenges open organizations up to vulnerability, they also bring with them tremendous opportunity for positioning and future success.

Let’s take a closer look at each scenario, the specific nonprofit communication challenges they pose and what your organization can to do address and overcome obstacles head on.

Nonprofit communication challenge 1: A change in leadership

According to a recent presentation given by Nonprofit Quarterly, between eight and 10 percent of organizations transition executives every year, but 77 percent of nonprofits reported they do not have a leadership transition program in place.

“It’s unfortunate, but more than half of CEO transitions are not well-managed in my mind. The current CEO drops off, and a new one drops in,” said Atul Tandon, founder and CEO of the Atul Tandon Institute (and now Opportunity International’s Global CEO), in a recent Nonprofit PRO article. “Nonprofits are not like a Navy ship, where one commander can just jump in because they all follow the same protocols.”

Mismanagement of a CEO, or an executive transition in general, creates uncertainty for all of your stakeholders, but particularly for staff––who ask, what does this mean for me and our organization’s mission?––and donors, who want to know what new leadership means for the future of your organization.

Nonprofit communication challenge 2: Approaching or adjusting to a merger or new partnership

Interestingly, this particular nonprofit communication challenge often poses a two in one. That is, many organizations undergoing a merger are doing so in part because of the loss of a CEO, which was a factor in 52 percent of the mergers studied through the Metropolitan Chicago Nonprofit Merger Research Project. This particular report analyzed 25 nonprofit mergers that took place in the Chicago metro area between 2004 and 2014.

Whether your nonprofit is experiencing a leadership change or not, there are inherent challenges that come with bringing two organizations with differing missions, organizational histories, boards, staff members and cultures together.

Through our work, we know many of these challenges stem from the difficulty of seamlessly communicating to various stakeholders, internally and externally, on topics that range broadly from operations to fundraising and from strategic goals to overall mission and vision.

Communication that defines mission-alignment and the future of the newly formed organization also needs to be reflected under a unified brand. With that in mind, it’s no surprise, that 44 percent of organizations that participated in the Nonprofit Merger Research Report found naming or branding the new organization a challenge and 64 percent found the cultural integration more difficult than expected.

The key to unlocking this challenge lies in your ability to understand and articulate the strongest assets of each organization, and bring those to the forefront of your new brand and messaging strategy.

Nonprofit communication challenge 3: Shifting board dynamics

While there is significant work to be done when it comes to board diversification, something we’re seeing more commonly in our work is nonprofit communication challenges that come about as a result of boards that are made up of multi-generational members. As nonprofit boards seek to become more diverse, we only anticipate these challenges to grow. This diversification should be viewed as a positive shift, but it must be managed from a communications perspective.

Quite commonly, board members view their role as ‘protector’ of the organization, legally bound to ensure the longevity and solvency of their organization. For some, this mandate is a call to exercise an abundance of caution and focus on risk mitigation — in essence, do what they can to be sure bad things don’t happen,” said Jean Case, CEO, Case Foundation in a Boardsource article. “But, while of course that’s important, it’s incomplete. Today’s board members have to go further, and challenge the organization to be sure good things happen, too.”

Case goes on to say that challenging the status quo is important, and requires board members to take risks and be bold. In times of industry and organizational transformation, this is particularly true, but not every stakeholder is necessarily going to agree.

Common themes with nonprofit communication challenges

There are three things each of these instances have in common, and all require a strategic approach to communications.

  1. All evoke emotions about “the way things used to be,” particularly for stakeholders who have been involved with your nonprofit for a significant period of time. Individuals feel a strong tie to the organization’s roots and history and often these feelings becomes heightened during a time of transition. In our work, we often hear romantic stories about the “good old days,” before a new leader transitioned in or a new partner came into the picture and shifted an organization’s focus. This is coupled with cautionary tales and concerns about a new direction. And, it’s not uncommon for long-standing board members to feel like everything that went into building the organization to what it is today is being overlooked. These individuals matter, and the bridge must be built to connect your organization’s history, and those who were a part of it, to its future.
  2. Speaking of the future, all three of these situations create uncertainty about it. What will the organization look like under new leadership? Our organizations are so different, will we actually be able to work together? What does this mean for my job? What does this mean for my investment? Will I still be able to get the help I need?  A clear roadmap for how you will meet your vision is essential for bringing everyone along.
  3. Many times, these changes evoke the “wait and see” mentality. This is particularly true of donors, who decide they will wait to give until the future of the organization is more certain. Creating excitement regarding the transformation is central to keeping donors and others engaged with your mission.

Approaching these nonprofit communication challenges

What can your organization do in a time of transition to create clarity and unity among its most important stakeholders?

Put your (shared) mission at the center

It seems obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many times the mission gets lost in the logistics. Putting your mission at the center is the most effective way to align all of your organization’s most important stakeholders from a communications perspective.

During times of transition, many successful organizations will also define their “decision pulse.” Explained to Quartz by Nick Tasler, an organizational psychologist and author of The Impulse Factor: An Innovative Approach to Decision Making, “Decision pulses feature what mission statements often lack: specificity and simplicity. A decision pulse is a single strategic direction or identity, one level below the company’s ‘vision,’ that makes corporate strategy actionable.”

While Tasler uses “corporate strategy” as an example, the idea of a decision pulse can be elicited for organizations going through transformation as well, particularly in the case of a merger, where a single mission may be hard to achieve straight out of the gate. The decision pulse can serve as a benchmark and easy guide for collaborative decision-making.

In fact, we recently worked with the nonprofit arm of a publically traded company that was merging with a family nonprofit. Their decision pulse: equal access to world-class surgical care. This centralized statement gave both organizations something to work toward as they unified their two brands. Will this decision help us to achieve equal access to world-class surgical care? Yes or no?

Engender transparency and foster inclusivity

Communicate openly and honestly with stakeholders as appropriate, and most importantly, give them a voice. This can be done with all of your organization’s audiences through one-on-one interviews, roundtable discussions, townhalls, small group meetings and online surveys.

With changes in leadership, provide individuals with an opportunity to share their excitement or concerns––this will help you determine the communication to put in place to create certainty during your time of transition.

If your organization is merging with another, use this engagement and feedback process to understand what your stakeholders see as the biggest strengths of each original organization and how they view a merger impacting its future work and mission.

These tactics can also be used to elicit views from board members who may be less likely to share, particularly critical feedback, during board meetings or public conversations. However, with this information, you can begin to create a plan for alignment.

Insights gleaned during this process will allow you to develop a proactive plan for addressing concerns, and you will also gather information that can be used to build excitement for your organization’s next chapter.

Leverage these nonprofit communication challenges as opportunities

While changes in nonprofit leadership, mergers and shifting board dynamics can pose nonprofit communication challenges, they also provide natural opportunities for you to connect with your most important internal and external stakeholders.

Through our own work with dozens of nonprofits, we’ve found that successfully navigating these challenges brings most organizations clarity and unity as a result of working toward the same “decision pulse.”

Use these times to raise awareness of your mission, to remind people of the important role you play in your community and to create certainty around what these changes mean for the future of your nonprofit, while ultimately bucking that “wait and see” mentality.

Are you experiencing any of these nonprofit communication challenges? If so, we’d be happy to discuss it with you.


How Can Your Organization Improve Communication?

new nonprofit brand scorecard coverBetter nonprofit communication and branding requires a new vocabulary, framework and set of guiding principles. Simply applying for-profit brand methodologies that focus on revenue generation and visibility is not adequate. As Nathalie Kylander & Christopher Stone suggest in their research for Stanford Social Innovation Review, we need to start thinking about nonprofit branding in terms of brand integrity, brand democracy, brand ethics, and brand affinity  in order to build nonprofit brands that play a strategic role in internal alignment, mission advancement and social impact. Over the next several weeks, we’ll break that framework down and show you how to apply it at your organization.

If you’re eager to get started now, download our free resource, The New Nonprofit Brand Scorecard, to see how your nonprofit brand stacks up in terms of integrity, democracy, ethics and affinity.

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