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The Nonprofit Marcomm Transformation, Part 2: Winning Hearts & Minds

Change Management for High-Impact Nonprofit Communications Programs

In Part 1 of The Nonprofit Marcomm Transformation, we built a powerful plan to jumpstart strategy in your communications. Now you are ready to begin your nonprofit marcomm transformation! But without widespread endorsement, even the best strategy remains on paper. Resistance in nonprofits is understandable – tight budgets, urgent needs – which is why I am offering strategies specifically tailored to winning marcom buy-in in a nonprofit environment. With the right change management approach, strategic communications can become a key driver of organizational success.

Step 1: Embrace Your Role as Change Champion

Stop being the communications team seen as simply fulfilling requests. I call this the Kinko’s model. No knock on Kinko’s, but they exist to perform a specific function. Production vendors are a vital part of any marcomm ecosystem, but the strategic value you bring to an organization goes far deeper. To use a sports analogy, you are one of a few or even the only person in the organization who can “see the whole marcomm field.” Every seemingly minute choice is based on careful analysis – you know all the alternative paths you could have taken and why you zigged rather than zagged. Your unique perspective may be underappreciated due to the silos that form in nonprofit organizations, especially those with more work than resources. It’s time to position yourself as the strategic advisor guiding fundraising and program success. But how?

  • Begin at the Top: Success requires the staunch support and unwavering buy-in of executive leadership. This can be a challenge when CEOs are carefully balancing operational investment against investment in programs. Ensure your CEO can make these budgeting decisions from a place of complete understanding and transparency by demonstrating how marcomm directly supports fundraising, program awareness, and other mission-critical endeavors.
  • Translate ‘Comms’ Into Outcomes: Think like a CEO/fundraiser/enrollment director, not just a communicator. Don’t just say “We need a new website,” assuming everyone understands the why. Instead, say “We need an online tool that turns X more visitors into engaged leads and, ultimately, more donors/students/volunteers.” Don’t say “press release,” say “earned media coverage placing us in front of X major donors, foundations, and influential stakeholders whose support depends on our visibility.”
  • Pick a Pilot Project: During this process, you may find that winning CEO buy-in is more difficult than you imagined. That doesn’t mean you can’t move forward. Start with a single initiative (like your annual gala, volunteer drive, or community event), one that allows you to develop a plan with minimal resources and, most importantly, to quantify how it performs compared to previous efforts. Your goal is to demonstrate efficacy. Success in a defined area builds trust and paves the way for more buy-in and bigger changes.

One note of caution here. Step 1 is when systemic deficiencies and inefficiencies will likely make themselves known. Tools that are not or cannot be integrated, messy databases, staffing gaps … this is the time when any roadblocks previously flying under your radar will come to light. It is a normal part of the change process but be prepared. When something is not working as efficiently as it could, there’s always a good reason (or several!). Do your best to learn those reasons before you commit to huge gains out of the gate, especially if your CEO is skeptical. The goal is to earn trust, not point out flaws in others’ systems or overpromise. Which brings us to Step 2.

Step 2: Know Your Audience of CM Stakeholders

As we move through these change management (CM) steps, I have great news for you! In many ways, a CM plan is merely a communications plan with a very specific goal. Just as not everyone likes SMS as a communication channel, not everyone in your organization views the role of communications and its relative priority in the same way. Developing mini-personas and mastering the art of tailored messaging will increase your success with diverse stakeholders:

  • Board Members: There is a large kernel of truth in the saying “Out of sight, out of mind.” Work with your CEO to carve out time with the board no less than once a year. Use these opportunities to demonstrate the value of marcomm, and talk about your approach and your goals. Invite questions and feedback. More importantly, take in the feedback, without defensiveness or resistance. Most boards value ROI, reputation, and brand strength. Collect data to show ROI, and encourage data-driven decisions in resource allocation. Show them how strategic communications enhance the organization’s brand and protect against reputational risk. Pull out the plan you began in Part 1 of this series, and emphasize how this living document will enhance fundraising, recruitment, and so many more efforts.
  • Executive Leadership: Once you have established broad buy-in from your CEO, expand that momentum by demonstrating how your strategies support long-term sustainability across the organization. Share your plan and invite feedback. This will set a tone of collaboration and allow you to lay out how the plan will ensure consistent messaging in donor proposals and larger campaigns, build stronger relationships with current stakeholders and partners, generate more awareness and engagement with programming, and demonstrate wise stewardship of funds. Over time, the senior leadership team gradually moves away from the “What can you do for me?” mentality to a stance of “What can we do together?”
  • Frontline Fundraisers: This might be one of the easier stakeholder groups for marcomm professionals to relate to. Frontline fundraisers are storytellers at heart, and you are doing similar work more of the time than you might imagine. They already understand how strategic storytelling creates an emotional connection that attracts new donors and cultivates deeper relationships with existing ones, so focus on tactics with this group. Explain how you can implement systems that make the mechanics of their jobs smoother, empowering them to do what they do best – nurture relationships and secure gifts for the mission they are passionate about.
  • Program Staff: Likewise, program staff knows the power of compelling stories, but they may not understand the full scope of marcomm responsibilities you oversee. I call this the “But on Social Media I Saw…” persona, and it’s where a lot of churn and ad hoc requests can originate. With this stakeholder, it is critical to communicate the breadth of your responsibilities and demonstrate an active commitment to serving their needs – while balancing many other competing needs. Having a plan to share with program staff can allay fears that their contribution is not valued or that their programs or areas of expertise will be neglected in marcomm activities. You can reassure staff that their programs will get the positive spotlight they deserve and that marcomm prioritization is not random but grounded in a careful strategic framework. Let them know their stories are the very foundation of so much of our work, how we “show” rather than “tell.” This cultivates collaboration and builds a pipeline for impactful content.

Step 3: Build Your Coalition

Change requires allies, and you’ve already laid the groundwork for identifying strategic partners across your organization. You’ve gained a better understanding of what is top of mind for each. Now, deepen those relationships and make collaboration an essential part of your change process:

  • Seek Your Sponsor: Build a strong relationship with a senior leader whose goals align with your communication objectives. Help them achieve their metrics with targeted plans and messaging, and they’ll gladly advocate for your plan and amplify your message when you’re not in the room. But be realistic – not every senior leader will be immediately receptive. This is where data from your pilot project will speak volumes and make their advocacy a smoother process.
  • Build Trust Through Feedback: Remember, we’ve discussed in Step 1 that change can uncover inefficiencies. Approach feedback gathering with a genuine desire to understand current systems and pain points, not as an opportunity to criticize or judge. Individual conversations will put people at ease, revealing where your team can provide another perspective and offer solutions. Remember to share and credit these insights with leadership, showing that change management is addressing hidden roadblocks to success – not just creating more work.

Step 4: Proactive Resistance Management

Resistance may be futile, but it is part of the process. Ironically, many of us Change Champions deal with resistance by resisting it! But if you can accept and anticipate resistance, you have just paved the way for sustainable change. Using the mini-personas you’ve developed in Step 2, prepare responses that speak directly to likely concerns, then frame these as opportunities rather than criticisms.

  • “We don’t have time for this!” Quantify the real cost of misaligned campaigns, inefficient handling of leads, and reputational missteps due to poor messaging. Your pilot project data will offer compelling counterarguments demonstrating the time-saving value of your plan. If your pilot project has yet to yield the necessary data, look for case studies and publicly available data to support your points. But remember, time is tied to capacity, so be honest about what’s achievable given current staff resources. “More time-efficient” is a more realistic outcome than “We’ll do so much more in the same time.” Where your plan calls for additional resources, be transparent. Frame additional resource allocation as a driver of growth as well as a benefit of growth borne of this change in prioritization.
  • “This isn’t a fundraising priority”: Nonprofits rely on strong fundraising revenue, which means as fundraising goes, so goes the organization. Drawing a clear connection between marcomm health and fundraising success is critical. We know a strong brand builds recurring donations, high-visibility media hits attract major donors, and consistent messaging builds trust. There is no fundraising without these strategic investments. But we must develop a shared understanding of these facts. Remember, the shift away from “fundraising only” may be gradual, but incrementally show how the changes you introduce positively impact awareness, recruitment, and areas outside of strict fundraising. To do this, every initiative you implement must have a data component that demonstrates its value and ROI. 
  • “Why not just DIY some tweets”: Sure, this undervalues your expertise, but it is important to recognize that this resistance is often coming from a well-meaning place. People want to contribute, and grass-roots solutions do have a place. Gently highlight the difference between amateur efforts and professional strategy. Underscore time savings, efficiency, how a well-crafted strategy maximizes limited time by ensuring marcomm activity is targeted and optimized, and marcomm dollars are spent where they generate the highest return. But let’s take it one step further. Acknowledge their enthusiasm and desire to support your work. Offer tools that make it easy for stakeholders to contribute, while also ensuring cohesive messaging and brand standards. One way to do this is to develop an internal influencer toolkit that gives stakeholders everything they need to be evangelists for the organization. (More on this later!)

These examples are by no means exhaustive. You know your culture and your stakeholder personas, so develop resistance strategies that work for your organization at this moment in time. While following this guidance is not a magic bullet, with patient and strategic responses, resistance can become a bridge to deeper understanding and buy-in. The keys are patient persistence, an empathetic stance, and enthusiasm for your plan.

Step 5: Create a Culture of Planning

To make change sustainable, communication cannot be seen as an afterthought. It is a key part of your organization’s everyday operations, and marcomm needs to be at the table when plans affecting the brand or revenue streams are being discussed.

  • Crowdsource the Solutions: You will have created some great connections with staff during the earlier steps. Don’t squander this resource. Bring this group together to develop practical ways marcomm can get upstream of initiatives (a checklist for project kickoff, a shared content calendar, etc.). This could look like a formal marcomm advisory committee, or it could take the shape of ad hoc brainstorming sessions. Either way, it sends the message that planning and collaboration are priorities.
  • Showcase ROI: Track and share metrics, whether that’s increases in web traffic, social media engagement, or donations following targeted campaigns. Announce them in meetings, emails, or on your intranet. Seeing tangible results builds excitement and trust. Discuss wins in terms of collaborative success. Gradually, you will find yourself brought into planning much earlier in the process, until eventually, it would be unthinkable to plan an initiative of any size without your team’s input.
  • Integrate Your Calendar: Talk to other teams, understand their key milestones, and proactively weave their needs into the marcomm calendar. This demonstrates proactive, collaborative support and avoids last-minute scrambles. 
  • Normalize Learning: Break down marcomm into bite-size learning opportunities. Topics like “How compelling email subject lines get opened” or “Turning website visitors into donors” equip teams to support your work and become better storytellers themselves. But avoid jargon and focus on tangible outcomes to keep everyone engaged. Another option is to initiate official office hours, a set time when staff can sign up for one-on-one collaboration or communications coaching, likewise with marcomm lunch-and-learns. Above all, make sure that the learning is always two-way. Every learning moment is an opportunity for you to deepen your knowledge and strengthen your relationships with stakeholders. 

Strategic marcomm can lighten workloads, fuel long-term impact, and attract the passionate supporters your organization relies on to achieve its mission. This change will not be instant, but with every win, you’ll transform your organization into one where everyone understands (and champions) the power of strategic communications. Celebrate those wins widely, tying communications directly to impact, and gradually the culture of your organization will shift away from seeing communications as a commodity and toward valuing it as a critical component of mission success. 


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