How to Create an Effective and Efficient Nonprofit Marketing Department

8 min read

I started my career as a nonprofit marketer in 2014. Since then, I’ve worked at traditional nonprofits, professional associations, and agency settings. Though my experience has been varied, there’s one thing I’ve found to be true no matter where I’ve worked: nonprofit marketers often get the short end of the stick. 

If you think about it, nonprofit team members are all under constant stress. For direct service personnel, this stress is often concentrated on the quality of service they provide; for marketers and communicators, the stress can be distributed over a period of time and caused by pressures coming from all directions that impact workload and responsibilities. After all, in order for direct service staff to provide services, people need to know about your nonprofit, right? That means when your numbers are running low, and you simultaneously have a new program to promote and an event to sell out, pressure can be off the charts.

All of this pressure may lead to a flurry of requests from program staff, leadership and others: develop more social media posts, create more flyers, send more emails, find more clients. Not only can this be stressful, but it can lead to a breakdown in an organization’s secret weapon: internal communication. 

A strong internal communication plan is the key to a nonprofit’s success. Poor internal communication has a negative impact on 56 percent of projects, and can increase the time and money spent on a project — both of which are precious resources at a nonprofit. 

Throughout my career, I’ve worked as an in-house marketer at nonprofits, as well as in agencies that partner with nonprofits. I’ve gained a lot of project management experiences — both good and bad. The difference between an effective nonprofit communications team and an ineffective one almost always has to do with their internal communications—that is, how employees talk to each other for project management. 

The difference between an effective nonprofit communications team and an ineffective one almost always has to do with their internal communications—that is, how employees talk to each other for project management. Click To Tweet

In this blog, I’m going to take you through a customizable process that will help you build an internal project request process that’s fair, focused, and effective at helping your nonprofit and all its departments succeed. 

First things first – there is no one-size-fits-all approach

Before I dive into my recommendations, I want to start by saying that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to nonprofit internal communications. These are suggestions based purely on my own experience. For the best results, use the following tips as a guide — an outline with which you can fill in your own best practices. 

Talk to your team

There’s a difference between a manager and a leader: managers control while leaders empower. If you want to create an effective internal communications plan for your nonprofit, you need to create a system that works for your organization — and one that you can scale.

Start by having conversations with relevant stakeholders within your nonprofit (think: program directors, your executive team, direct service personnel, or other marketing staff). Ask them about their project management pain points. Find out their version of a perfect internal communications plan. Basically, learn what makes them tick. 

After you finish talking to your team, go through their answers and look for common pain points or processes. Not only will this give you a solid framework to fill in, but it also creates a bottom-up structure that takes into account everyone’s needs, rather than just your own.

Identify your strengths

Agencies, more often than not, have staff members who are good generalists but also specialize in one or more areas. For example, my background in communications is pretty well-rounded, but I also have extensive training experience. When a training project comes up, it often makes sense to pull me in, given my background. 

We recommend sitting with your team and identifying everyone’s strengths. If you have a rockstar email copywriter, make a note of that. If your social media manager is slower at copywriting, but their posts always perform well, write that down, too. Not only is this a great opportunity to recognize everyone for the good work they do, but it also helps you direct work requests as they come in. The better someone is at a given task, the faster they’ll be able to execute it.

Identify your weaknesses

No team is perfect — it’s almost impossible to create the perfect team, where every potential need is satisfied. That’s OK. It’s better to identify your team’s weaknesses early on so that you know what kinds of projects to accept, or reject. 

If your nonprofit has a need that your team isn’t able to execute, we recommend working with a communications consultant or partnering with an agency. In my experience, I’ve seen a lot of projects that were started in-house with the best intentions, but had to be redone by an external consultant anyway due to limited time, resources or skillsets. At the end of the day, the project took longer than was anticipated, and it took precious time away from that staff member’s schedule. 

Time-out each project

After you’ve identified your team’s strengths and weaknesses, work with them to figure out about how long each project could take them. Be fair with your time estimates — this is how you’ll determine how many projects you’ll be able to take on (and what kind). Don’t forget to include a small buffer and make sure you plan for reviews, too! Remember, you’re going for the most realistic times possible, without sacrificing timeliness or quality.

Look for ways to standardize

Speaking of timeliness: you should look for any opportunity to standardize your process, if you can. When it comes to knocking out projects left and right, templates are your best friend. They will save you so much time in the long run and keep your content visually consistent, too. 

Brands that are visually consistent are three-to-four times more likely to be remembered compared to brands that aren’t. 

Social media and email graphics, infographics, or any other digital media are ripe for template creation. But it doesn’t stop there — you can create a style guide and brand voice document to house pre-approved copy which you can drop into your content as-needed. Standardizing your content creation process, regardless of type, will save you time and increase your visibility. A win-win, if you ask me. 

Create your services menu

Once you’ve identified what projects you can take on and how much time they will take, it’s time to put together your menu of services. As you start to do this, you’ll want to set monthly project maximums for each menu item — that is, the maximum amount of a given project you can take on each month. 

Inevitably, this will shift depending upon what’s going on and when, but having a general sense of your team’s utilization will help your nonprofit’s internal communications plan succeed. Just as you want your organization to be mindful of how much work they’re asking you to take on, your organization will want to know that when they ask for something, they can count on you to get it done. 

It may help you and your team to start thinking of yourselves as an internal agency; you’re a small-but-powerful team that can produce high-quality, impactful work. A team that is powered by talent but grounded in the systems you’ve created for success. 

Put it all together

Once you’ve laid the groundwork for your new internal communications plan, it’s time to test it out. You’ll want to start by introducing your new menu of services to leaders within your nonprofit, making clear what you are — and aren’t — able to do. Put it all out on the table, including why you created this new project management system in the first place; just be sure to highlight how this change will be for everyone’s benefit, not simply your own.

To really make this stick, you’ll need an internal order request form — something that makes your colleagues think critically about everything they’ll need for a given project. By having this step in place, you’ll be able to get all of the information you need up front. This will cut down on the time you spend chasing rogue staff members looking for the correct location of an event, or the best photos to use; all of that information will be right in the form.

If you don’t have time to create one, that’s OK — we’ve created one for you! Download this project request form template to help streamline your nonprofit’s internal communications strategy and improve your organization’s effectiveness. This template is easy to use and customizable to fit your organization’s specific needs. 

Remember: internal communications can make or break a project. Nonprofit communications is too important to leave up to chance.

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