NOTE: This blog is an expansion of a speech I gave at “5 Minutes in Hell,” YNPN-TC’s annual event for people who want to practice public speaking (my slides are available on Google Drive and a video of the full speech is at the bottom of this post or on YouTube). For those considering submitting a speaking proposal in future years, I highly recommend it! You won’t find a more supportive practice venue.
There is no one answer to what a communications job looks like, especially when it comes to nonprofits. While large organizations can have entire teams where each person has their own subject area or expertise, small nonprofit organizations often have only one staffer (or part of one) who is responsible for getting the word out about everything the organization does.
Communicators have all kinds of duties: writing, social media, websites, emails, graphic design, media outreach, among other things. For some organizations, the communications staff is also responsible for development and fundraising, while others house these duties in separate departments.
At our core, however, all communications professionals have the same goals: We want to make sure the people who need our organization’s information get it in ways they understand, and we want to make sure our organization looks good.
These goals can mean that communications professionals care about strange things like fonts and colors and images, and we sometimes say certain words should or should not be used.
In this blog, I am sharing some of the largest “pet peeves” communications professionals have in the hopes that non-communicators can learn and work more effectively with their communications staff, and we can eliminate the communications-programs-development divide.
Lesson #1: Every time you stretch, smash, or pixilate a logo, a communication staffer cries
Your logo is the most prominent identifier of your organization. Lots of time, and probably money, went into making it, so we want it to look consistent across all of our communication.
So please, do not stretch, smash, or pixelate your logo to make it fit into a space. For non-communicators, this can seem like a minor thing, but it is a guaranteed way to frustrate your communicator no end. In fact, many of us have an almost freakish ability to spot when the logo is off in, even, the smallest way.
The good news is you don’t need advanced graphic design skills or a magic wand to avoid stretching or smashing your logo. If you simply hold the shift button while dragging from one of the corners, the image will automatically grow or shrink proportionally. This shortcut works on both mac and windows (with some variation between individual programs), and unless your file is too small, this will keep your logo exactly how it was planned.
Avoiding turning your logo into a bunch of squares (something called pixelation) is a little more technical, so if you are having problems, ask your communicator for help.
Lesson #2: We can’t use just any photo
We’ve all had those times where you see an image on the internet that would work perfectly for our current project. That doesn’t mean, however, you can simply plop it into your piece (I found two great images I couldn't use for this post).
Just like with books and movies, the creator of an image automatically has a copyright where they get to say just how the image can and can’t be used (and if they need to paid for it). This isn’t something they automatically give up if they post the image online.
You can always try to contact the owner of the image to ask for permission to use, but when I’m asked for my recommendation about where to find photos, I always suggest people try to find a Creative Commons image. These are images where the creator has freely said, yes, you can use my image in your materials, and no, you don’t need to pay me for it.
There are entire websites dedicated to publishing great Creative Commons images (some of my favorites are Pexels, Gratisophy, Morguefile, Pixabay, Unsplash, and Creative Commons Search). Other sites, including Flickr and Google Images, have created filters so you can search just for images you can reuse. Always be sure to send the image link to your communicator so they can determine if there is anything special they need to do with the image as there are varying types of Creative Commons licenses.
Lesson #3: Not all images are created equal
We’ve all seen photos in print or online where the image is basically unrecognizable because it looked fuzzy or like the image was made of blocks. This likely occurred because the creator used a “low resolution” image that was either taken by a cell phone or saved as a smaller file so it would load faster on a computer.
While these types of images are fine for social media use (or even if they are printed at small sizes), they are not the images you will want to use on the cover of your organization’s glossy marketing or fundraising pieces.
As non-communicators, you don’t need to worry about determining the exact resolution of your image, but I am sharing this so you can understand why your communicator may tell you an image won’t work—even if you think it is best image ever.
A warning about cell phone images-A communicator’s best and worst friend
Cell phone cameras a great. Under optimal settings and when people take time to learn, many smartphones can take photos that rival professional cameras. This is wonderful for communicators; it means anyone can snap a photo at an event and send it over for social media.
But, as anyone who has ever looked at Facebook knows, cell phone photos often don't turn out well. They can be dark or blurry, and this isn’t obvious until you load it onto a computer.
So, by all means, use your cell phone to take photos at events and send them your communications staff. But when you are working on an event your organization truly cares about, it is always better to invest in a professional camera and someone who knows how to use it.
Lesson #4: No, I can’t give you an editable version of that pdf
There are few questions I hate more than this: “So, I know you can make my document look great, and I want that. But I'm also going to change some things, so you can totally make it in Word so I can edit it, right?”
Look, I get it. We all want to be able to make changes in our work, and you might even think you're doing me a favor. But what you need to understand is that when communicators are asked to make professional documents, we use our professional design tools: InDesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator. With these tools, even the smallest of nonprofits can have slick and professional-looking marketing materials, and your communicator can create a piece that looks exactly like they want.
That just isn’t possible with Microsoft Word (and Google Docs is even worse). Word is a perfectly fine software program if all you want to do is type words, but Word is not a design tool. It does its own weird formatting whenever you try to do anything fancy, and I always find that changing one thing invariably makes five other things go wrong.
That’s why I have never made it through designing a document in Word, even a one-page flyer, without cursing the co-worker who asked me to do it, and I’ve never talked to a communicator who says they prefer designing in Word after they take the time to learn how to use InDesign.
So look, I know as a non-design person, you want a word doc, but just trust me, it is a nightmare for your communicator.
So unless you need a template that you are going to personalize or you are writing a document that will need to be updated frequently, please accept my pdf, and please understand that yes, I will probably need to be the person who makes changes.
One piece of good news: Adobe’s PDF reader (Acrobat) now has editing/commenting tools that you can use very similarly to “Track Changes” in Word. Although, please, try to have your document as final as possible before you give it to your communicator.
(In full disclosure, Acrobat also has tools for directly editing the text of a pdf and converting the pdf to Word; I caution against using these as things don't always save well, formatting can get messed up, and you're setting up future revision nightmares.)
Lesson #5: What you think DOES NOT matter
Ok, now we are to my biggest lesson; it is the lesson I consider as the foundation of my approach to communication: “What you think DOES NOT matter.”
What does that mean? Does it mean that you have to listen to me and/or your organization’s communicator because we know all, and you should never have your own opinion about how something should be communicated?
No. What this lesson means is that, just like they say about customer service, the opinion of the people you are communicating to is what matters the most. Whether it is a situation where your supporters say they can’t sign up to volunteer on your website or people commenting that they don’t understand the jargon and acronyms you use daily, it doesn’t matter how clear you think it is; if the people who need to understand your information are saying something doesn’t work, you need to change it.
This is one of the earliest communications lessons I learned when I was interning for Senator Paul Wellstone’s last re-election campaign in 2002. The campaign hired a number of community organizers to reach out to communities of color and immigrant communities across Minnesota, and the campaign translated campaign pieces into several languages to help.
When asked how to do organizing in Minnesota’s Hmong community, however, Pakou Hang (one of the campaign’s organizers and the primary organizer for Hmong community) proposed an additional approach. Pakou explained that, since Hmong is a primarily oral culture, the written Hmong language was not widely used. Instead of writing letters, Hmong families made cassette tapes when they wanted to send messages to family members. Pakou recommended that the campaign adopt this approach as well, and she asked that Senator Wellstone record the message.
It would have been easy for the campaign to say no; creating an audio tape was an extra expense and something that took the senator’s time during a competitive election. They agreed, however, because grassroots organizing was a cornerstone of Senator Wellstone’s political philosophy, and the campaign understood that they needed to meet voters where they were instead of expecting voters to do things their way.
In the end... We need each other
So those are the 5 things I wanted you to know so you can work more effectively with your organization’s communicators. In the end, please know that communicators ask and do “strange things” because we want you and the organization to look good.
Program staff: We aren’t trying to kill your program if we ask you to change some words. We want to make sure people can understand the value of your program, and by all means, tell us if you think there is a reason for something to be written a certain way. As communicators, we don’t always know all of the nuances of your programs, so we don’t always know if a word change matters.
Development staff: Please know we have similar goals. We aren’t trying to poach your relationships or take your job. We just want to make sure you are understood, but by all means, tell us if we are doing something that is stepping on your toes.
IT staff: Let's talk so we can both understand where communications ends, tech begins, and if/where there is overlap. It can really vary based on the skills and interests of the people involved. P.S. for non-communicators: Yes, communications staff can be good with computers, but no, we aren't part of IT. We may be able to update the website or talk to you about Facebook, but that doesn't mean we can fix your computer/printer/etc.
Finally to my fellow communicators: Let’s remember we can’t do our jobs effectively without our coworkers, but we do think differently from them. It’s important to take time to explain things like who your organization’s audiences are and how to talk to each of them. We also need to explain why brand rules exist and why we set deadlines when we do. Basically, let’s remember to take our own advice and explain the things we think are completely obvious, because (it turns out) they aren’t for everyone.
- Thank you to the communicators in the Nonprofit Happy Hour Facebook Group who offered suggestions. For more lessons that didn’t make the top five, see my list here and read the full Facebook conversation (FB group membership required).
- Feel free to contact me on Twitter or LinkedIn if you are a nonprofit communicator wanting advice or a non-communications staff person who wants to understand why we do the weird things we do.