Nonprofit organizations spend a lot of time and energy communicating with external audiences, which include donors, volunteers, board members, reporters, politicians and policymakers.
But are you neglecting to communicate with one of the most crucial target audiences of all — your own staff?
With so much on your plate, deliberate efforts at internal communication tend to fall by the wayside. And yet, employees are the lifeblood of any nonprofit and staff engagement, knowledge and passion are critical to achieving success.
Fortunately, any organization with a solid external communications plan is already well on their way to communicating effectively with internal staff — it's just a matter of reshaping some of the external content so it will resonate internally.
"A lot of not-for-profits know what they deliver and know how they inspire people," says Lindsay Kiloh, who communicated with thousands of staff and volunteers as an internal communications expert at VANOC, "so can we just shift that, turn it a little bit and make it relevant for our employees."
Here are a few tips to creating better internal communications:
1. Engage your employees and excite them about your cause
Since most nonprofits already have a committed group of staff, this shouldn't be difficult to do, says Kiloh.
"I think sometimes nonprofits don't realize they have something even better than for-profits have, and that is a shared purpose,? she says. ?There's a reason why people join a particular nonprofit, and it's usually around the good that organization does, or the difference that they're making. I think that they can really leverage that."
A great way to remind staff of your organization's values is through storytelling. Client stories or exciting news aren't just for donors — let your staff see their impact, too.
Share information about new initiatives, client successes, awards, fundraising achievements and events. When you inform staff of major accomplishments, let them know they play an important role in achieving results. They'll feel appreciated and energized about your organization's mission.
2. Understand your audiences
Whether you're a small or large nonprofit, know the staff demographics and the best ways to communicate with them. Do you have a bunch of tech-savvy Gen-Ys who will appreciate YouTube videos and a robust intranet? Staff who enjoy receiving email? Employees who like to read a printed copy of a newsletter in their hands? In some cases, it may be a combination of the above.
At Arts Umbrella, a Vancouver-based organization focused on inspiring children through arts programs, email has become the best way to ensure that the nonprofit's variety of permanent and contract staff stay up to date.
"Some staff are here quite frequently, others are not, which makes it really difficult to try to ensure that the message is getting out to everyone," says Susan Smith, director of programming and marketing. "For us, the reason that email has been such an important tool is we have such a varied staff with varied schedules. We have people that only come in on a Saturday, and most of our administration staff works only Monday through Friday, so for us it's been really crucial."
3. Communicate regularly
Once the communication method has been decided on, pick a timetable and stick to it. It might be a biweekly, face-to-face staff meeting, a monthly newsletter or a weekly phone call, but be as consistent as possible. At Arts Umbrella, an open monthly meeting for both administrative staff and contractors helps everyone stay on the same page.
"We work in a highly dynamic environment and people are working on a number of projects at once," Smith says. "I think it's very easy in those situations for small groups to be so focused on the projects that they're working on that they don't even realize that down the hall something big may be happening."
Sometimes it helps if your communications are creative and fun, making it more likely that the messages won't be ignored. For example, during her time at VANOC, Kiloh helped organize events including a fashion show to launch the new Olympic uniforms and a mock David Letterman-style talk show to deliver the latest information.
"If the organization allows it, get creative around how you deliver information," says Kiloh, "and still make it useful. The point is to get across information, but not put people to sleep."
4. Leverage technology
In Amanda Grainger-Munday's office at Timeraiser, there used to be the equivalent of a swear jar. Except this jar wasn't for curse words — instead, whoever asked for a document to be emailed had to toss in a few bucks.
Timeraiser, which holds events across Canada that link skilled volunteers with nonprofit agencies, has transformed their internal communications to live completely online. Using an abundance of cloud computing tools such as Google Docs, Smartsheet.com and Salesforce.com, the nonprofit has been able to work more efficiently, share information with people throughout the country and find content quickly and easily.
Instead of asking for a document to be emailed to her, Grainger-Munday can go and find it herself. She can access logos, spreadsheets, blog posts, budgets, contacts, donations and more — anywhere, anytime. And so can Timeraiser volunteers and community partners.
"Information doesn't get lost. We're not working on multiple versions of a file where changes get overwritten or someone needs to double back on work because they didn't realize they were working on the wrong version," she says. "Those types of things just don't happen here in our organization. The motto that we use is: create information once, distribute it widely and access it anywhere."
If you're thinking your organization doesn't have the cash to fund a sophisticated IT overhaul, Timeraiser focuses on tools that are free or low-cost, easy to set up and intuitive to use. They also share their methods, so other nonprofits can learn how to implement them. For more information, visit www.it.timeraiser.ca or www.frameworkorg.org.
5. Don't forget to share
At times, nonprofits assume that staff are too busy to listen to internal communications, or aren't interested. But that couldn't be further from the truth, says Smith.
"At the end of the day, the method [of internal communication] is probably less important than the idea that people want to know information," she says. "They are invested in where they work, and it's important to share as much as you can with the group as a whole. It's amazing when you're busy how easily that can be forgotten."
Sondi Bruner is a Vancouver-based freelance journalist and holistic nutrition student. Find out more about her writing services at www.sondibruner.com, and explore vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free recipes on her food blog, The Copycat Cook.
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