What to do with a communications/marketing degree

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More than any other skill, the ability to communicate effectively is almost always at the top of employers’ lists when hiring. They want to see that you can listen, write, speak confidently, and facilitate the transfer of information within their organization.

This need for clear and efficient communication is especially crucial in the nonprofit sector, where organizations often depend heavily on audience engagement.

“We really have such a strong responsibility to talk about our missions and our stories and our work, and it’s so important to be able to communicate that well,” says Owen Charters, CEO of CanadaHelps.

“And I think we do a pretty lousy job of it, as a sector. I’ve always come to the table thinking that there needs to be a better, more strategically focused plan or effort in every organization around marketing and communications.”

Finding ways to differentiate themselves and articulate their public value is something that challenges all nonprofits. If they’re not able to tell a compelling story, it’s hard to maintain the support of donors, politicians, or the public. And in our current economic and political climate, not placing enough focus on building effective brands and losing this audience can make them an easy target for budget cuts.

Every kind of nonprofit – NGOs, registered charities, social service or relief organizations, community-based advocacy groups, or volunteer organizations – needs a strong marketing and communications team. They otherwise risk falling back on superficial brand marketing and advertising tactics that can prove fatal, and losing the interest of those most likely to support their cause and mission.

Needless to say, if you have an undergraduate degree in communications or marketing, you’re well on your way to finding work in the nonprofit sector.

Lots of possibilities

“In addition to the research skills and critical thinking skills that students in most arts and social sciences degree programs develop, communications students get extra attention to public speaking, understanding audiences, professional writing, and perhaps most importantly, critical analysis and understanding of the media,” says Dawn Johnston, program coordinator of communications studies at the University of Calgary. “So when it comes time to think about things like fundraising, grant writing, and stewardship of donors, COMS students have a real leg up.”

During the four years of my undergraduate degree in journalism I developed a lot of these same skills – writing professionally became second nature to me, and I came out with a strong understanding of audiences and the media. But it was my hands-on experience over those same four years working part-time for a national nonprofit that really allowed me to grasp the importance of communications in the sector. On my first day as communications officer I was thrown right into the internal and external relations of the organization, and for the rest of my time working there I never stopped learning new aspects of the field.

Today it’s almost impossible to secure a relevant job straight out of your undergraduate program if you haven’t had this kind of applied experience. So what can you do to make sure you have the best shot when looking for work in the nonprofit field?

First, let’s look at the different roles and levels of employment that might be available to someone with your background and education. Though marketing and communications are closely linked, larger organizations have a lot of positions and some will likely be more relevant to your degree than others. By sorting through these you can figure out where you want to end up, and narrow down the most effective ways of making yourself stand out to employers.

Depending on its size, an organization can have anywhere from one person in charge of all marketing and communications, to a complete department with many different positions.

At the top there is usually a director of communications or marketing – sometimes both – who is in charge of all internal communication and external relations activities for the entire organization.

This would include delivering messages to the community and media, and engaging with the general public and professionals to inform them about the organization’s mandate and how to access their services. It would also involve responding to requests for information from members of the community, including the media, on matters of public interest. On the marketing side, it could cover everything from supporting fund development activities, marketing communications like advertising and promotions, and market research.

At the entry-level, some organizations have communications officers who help with the basic implementation of communications and marketing plans, or administrative assistants who support the more senior positions. These can be great places to start.

As communications officer I was responsible for preparing the organization’s internal newsletter, responding to requests from media, and even developing content for a website. Administrative assistants tend to have more of the day-to-day responsibilities like scheduling meetings, taking minutes or key messages, and typing reports and other documents, but you can learn a lot from this type of position if you open yourself up to it. In my current role as administrative assistant in the communications department of a large national charity, I’m constantly absorbing my surroundings, listening and learning from my daily interactions and the meetings I sit in on, and even taking on some small writing tasks when I can find time. Again, these experiences are what you make of them, and you have to start somewhere.

Larger nonprofits also typically have a fundraising director or manager who is responsible for organizing, managing, and directing fundraising campaigns (also know as fund development, or sometimes just development). This position would entail developing, planning, and coordinating fundraising events and opportunities, developing and maintaining relationships with funding agents and donors, and making sure supports receive proper public recognition. It’s a critically important marketing position in any nonprofit, and requires someone with exceptional communication skills.

It's all about experience

Johnston says communications programs typically instill a deep understanding of audience in their students, which is probably the most useful and unique skill they develop.

“We put a great emphasis on students learning the difference between how messages are crafted for different audiences – the general public versus clients versus media versus potential donors versus internal employees,” she says. “They also learn how these various audiences unpack and understand information and messaging, which makes them very effective team members in the nonprofit sector.”

Knowing how to communicate appropriately and efficiently to these audiences is just as important. In fact, according to a survey conducted in the U.S., the ability to communicate is crucial when seeking work in any profession. Millennial Branding surveyed 225 employers using Experience Inc.’s data pool of 100,000 companies, and found that almost every employer ranked communications skills as "very important" when hiring for entry-level positions.

But the same survey found a significant gap between employers’ expectations and their willingness to hire recent graduates. It showed that while most employers think students should have between one and two internships before they graduate, only half of them have hired any interns in the past six months. So, as much as your ability to communicate and showcase this skill to prospective employers is a definite advantage, you’ll need more than that to find work in the nonprofit sector. Almost every hiring manager today wants to see that you have experience working in the field, be that from internships, a job, or volunteer work.

“Degrees are ranked very low on the list of things I look for when hiring. It’s all about experience and how they present that experience on a resume,” says Jennifer Schnare, director of annual giving at Baycrest Foundation. “Be prepared to take an unpaid internship, and make the most of it – do the grunt work without complaint, but put your hand up to get involved with the more detailed work.”

According to the Millennial Branding survey, students should aim to have multiple internships coming out of university, or at least a lot of solid experience volunteering.

“Any practical experience that you can put on your resume places you above all the people competing along with you,” says Sandra Chiovitti, associate director of media relations at SickKids Foundation.

Another way to gain this practical experience is taking a post-graduate college program.

“I’ve always said the practical college training is what prepared me more, and taught me employable skills,” says Chiovitti, who studied public relations at Humber College after graduating university with an undergraduate arts degree in mass communication and English. “University taught me about research and writing and theory, but college gave me more practical training that I apply in this job.”

Post-graduate college programs in fundraising are also worth considering, according to Schnare. Though it won’t guarantee you a job, it can open up doors to internships and other connections. “It’s a cost-effective way to get some business experience without getting an MBA,” she says.

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a series that explores how you can apply your undergraduate degree in the pursuit of a career in the nonprofit sector. In the coming weeks we’ll also look at how degrees in pure sciences, business and even engineering can help you find your way to work in a nonprofit.

Photos (from top) via iStock.com. All photos used with permission.

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