Your Comms People Are More Than Publicity Agents

Heather Ferguson

By Heather Ferguson, Whale Communications

So here’s the thing. You are the Executive Director or CEO of a successful charity. You have the standard staff complement of Resource Development Officer(s) and Communications Officer(s). The ResDev people raise money and the Comms people publicize the cause. So far, so good.

But, there is a grey area here. Once the gift is pledged, who is the best person to spearhead your donor relations? If you have just a little leeway in staffing you can cover this gap, so how about using the person who is likely underused? If the name of the game is to keep people focused on what they do best, use your comms manager to create and run a donor relations program. Here’s why.

Taking care of donors, building on those relationships, making sure they get the reports they need, the telephone updates and invitations to events is everyone’s business. But the problem with something being everyone’s business is that it becomes nobody’s business. Each person takes on a fragment from the corner of their desk and sooner or later opportunities get missed and there is no coherence to any of it. Someone in the office has to be accountable for the bigger picture but you need your fundraisers focused on the calls that will lead to the next gift. Current donors, having given their financial support at least once, are part of a special group that demands special care.

A communications practitioner to understand the needs and demands of their audience while balancing those with possibly different needs and demands from the organization. A good comms person can design a solid stewardship plan around a high end donor that keeps the fundraiser involved, brings the ED or Board members in at the appropriate time and generally keeps the donor up to speed on the organization, its work and priorities.

In fact, for consistency of message, creating appropriate materials, and coordinating a wide range of needs, a comms person can best support this special group of current donors and help you keep your fundraisers focused on raising money.

Let’s look at an example. Jodie is a manager of major gifts and has just secured a large donation to her organization. Now she turns to Communications Manager Kent who works with her to design a communications follow-up plan for this donor. The plan might include the following:

  • A phone call and letter from the Executive Director. Kent will write the draft letter and send it to the ED for her to revise and personalize. He will also include a brief note on the background of the institutions involvement with that donor and their phone number and email.
  • An annual report on the status of program the donor supported and how their gift is being used. Kent will liaise with programming and with Jodie to obtain details and create the report keeping in mind an appropriate message and consistency of look.
  • Kent will also make sure the donor is informed of any news about the organization. Knowing that Jodie and/or the ED are the primary relationship holders within the office, he will likely alert one or both of them, write an email or news release and pass it on for them to send on to the donor. Likewise, if a board member or other volunteer is the primary relationship holder, he will alert that person and follow through to conclusion. As Jodie is the one who secured the gift, these protocols will have been worked out with her ahead of time.
  • Kent will make sure the donor is placed on invitation lists for events or can arrange for the donor to meet with Jodie and the ED for lunch or a meeting. Kent will also make sure that Jodie greets and speak with the donor at the event and that the agreed upon follow-up with the donor happens as it should.
  • Overall, Kent will take a broad strategic understanding of all current donor needs. He will strategize and offer communications advice as well as continuously check the program for consistency of message and coordination with other communications activities.

Kent’s training as a communications/public relations expert allows him to focus on things that are not directly related to asking for funds but which, over the long-term, can lead to bigger gifts. His coursework in stakeholder relations allows him to understand why Jodie needs to continue building her relationship with the donor and why it is important for the Executive Director to have a strong relationship too. Kent is really putting his publicity competencies to the service a smaller, highly targeted, mission critical audience.

Using a communications manager simply as a publicity officer is to miss the very real training in relationship building and stakeholder management their education provides. What’s more, it takes the job of donor relations off the side of Jodie’s desk and keeps her focus squarely on her core competencies. Keeping your people focused on what they were hired to do is the Holy Grail for small organizations but it’s still pretty tough when you are a large one too. Understanding what and how much your communications department can handle can help you to snatch that grail from its hiding place.

Heather Ferguson, MCM, ABC, CFRE (2003-12) is a consultant living in Victoria BC. Her expertise lies in managing key accounts as well as non-profit management, major gift fundraising and content marketing communications. She is passionate about the non-profit world and is convinced we are on the verge of a golden age of doing good. Heather can be contacted at


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