Who is your competition for that nonprofit Director of Communications job in the Washington DC job market?
When you see a job advertisement, some aspects of the job are obvious. You can envision the kind of work you would be doing, and recognize the new skills you can learn. Maybe you can even take a peek at the 990 tax filing to see the salary of the last person in that job.
But you almost never see your competition for the job, or know what truly drives the hiring decision.
That’s why we’re bringing a little transparency to the hiring process, by pulling back the curtain on the data we’ve collected from our executive searches for nonprofit Communications professionals.
What differentiates a nonprofit communications job from that of an association or private sector?
To be successful in a nonprofit Director of Communications role, you must be personally interested in the organization’s mission. It requires diving deep into the nonprofit’s mission to be a compassionate ambassador both internally and externally. Unlike an association or for-profit communications professional where collecting data and doing research are foremost, the primary responsibility of a nonprofit Director of Communications is to pull the audience in to the organization’s mission and programs. Unique to nonprofits, the ROI is mission identification.
So how will your experience stack up against your serious competitors?
Hiring requirements vary widely and are unique to each employer’s situation, but there are a few things that employers usually tell us they want to see in director-level Communications professionals:
- Have you had exposure to all levels of communications? Are you an expert at various types of content development and dissemination tools, to include public relations, digital, online, newsletters, social media, and webinars?
- Have you developed a comprehensive, overarching communications strategy? Are you responsible for crafting and implementing an integrated communications plan?
- Have you designed and executed successful campaigns?
- Do you know your audience? Do you have a process to identify your targets -- the public at large, grantors, board members, etc. -- and customize messaging to resonate with each segment?
- Are you actively raising visibility and awareness of your organization’s mission? Do you keep a nonprofit communications toolkit up to date and in place for program staff and the executive team?
- Have you developed and utilized metrics? Do you track measurements such as number of donors, click rates, newsletter circulation, donations, page views, social media retweets and likes? Can you translate the numbers into meaningful information for leadership in terms of things like raised awareness?
- Are you coordinating with the fundraising department and other program staff to repurpose content and communications across multiple channels? Do you proactively advise staff on how to position their programs to obtain funding or grants?
- Are you a prolific writer? Resourceful at multi-purposing messages? Do you know how to target, and expand or contract a message appropriately, depending on the audience?
- Do you have strong editing skills, ideally, or resources in place (a work group or a great manager who can edit) to ensure communications are consistently well-proofed and meet organization style and branding guidelines?
- Are you responsible for managing and creating production or editorial schedules?
- Are you entrepreneurial? Do you have experience pivoting in response to the ebbs and flows of funding to enable your organization to stay relevant or attract attention and funding during vulnerable times? Or to capitalize on opportunities?
- Do you manage people -- staff, vendors, free-lance writers, PR firms? Do you handle both the logistical side (contracts, work assignments) and relations?
And what might prevent you from getting the job?
Being sharp and clear in your communications throughout the application and interview process is paramount. Poorly formatted and unedited resumes, or cover letters that are too long instead of clear, concise, and to the point, give a poor impression of your abilities as a communicator.
Successful candidates for a nonprofit Director of Communications role are able to discuss specific outcomes and accomplishments, as well as explain their coordinated communications strategy. You must have real metrics that illustrate which initiatives worked, what failed, and why.
Hiring managers like to see, ideally, candidates with an undergraduate degree (at minimum) and nonprofit experience. If you don’t have a nonprofit background, you should be prepared to make a clear case about why the organization’s mission matters to you, based on research you have done. It is helpful to express an (egoless) opinion about how well you think the communications function is working, much like an executive strategist giving free consulting. Be prepared to submit relevant work samples (a few examples, not a whole portfolio) at the interview, targeted to what you think the organization needs.
If you aspire to be a nonprofit Director of Communications, how can you set yourself apart?
We recommend that you:
- Shadow your communications director to learn all facets of communications. Ask to be involved with the strategic planning for the department. Seek to understand your organization’s business plan and how the communication’s function supports it.
- Offer to manage a more junior staff person’s projects to get staff management experience.
- Find opportunities to practice multi-purposing messages. Come up with new ways to disseminate the message -- social media, webinars, newsletters, etc.
- Enhance your organization’s communications toolkit. Compile resources, checklists, and contacts.
- Work across departments to build relationships and rapport with colleagues. Do more than put out papers -- engage with internal staff daily to understand their programmatic activities. Collaborate or offer to assist with messaging and communications.
- Proactively take on communications projects such as writing board reports or helping to prepare case statements that can be universally used for fundraising and grant requests.
- Constantly improve your writing and editing skills. Take classes, find online resources, and stay fresh with the rules.
- Acquire as much exposure as you can to the operational workings of your organization. Gain an understanding of the big picture and how the communications function fits in.
- Ask to be involved in the budget process. Be resourceful -- come up with ideas for doing more with less.
- If you do not have nonprofit experience, consider doing some volunteer work at a nonprofit to gain an understanding of the nonprofit sector and how it operates.
How do you get yourself noticed by employers?
Just doing the work and developing the right skills is not enough. If you want more career opportunities to come your way, you need to make yourself visible. Highlight aspects of your background that employers will seek out most often. Frame your experience using the same language that employers and recruiters use for the job description.
At a minimum, your resume, website bio, and LinkedIn profile should reflect key concepts that help you stand out from your competition. One of the best places to find the right language is in the job advertisements that you find attractive. But to get you started, here is a short list of key phrases used in some of our recent searches:
Communications: integrated communications programs, content creation, message development, crisis communications, public policy communications, social media engagement, write, edit, blog, oversee communications materials development
Advocacy: grassroots advocacy, engage grassroots audiences, community outreach, multi-platform advocacy, external outreach tools
Media relations: influencer activation, media training, media placements, media contacts, write press releases, media outreach, media briefings, public awareness initiatives
Branding: brand awareness, organizational branding, brand marketing, visual identity, brand positioning, assured consistent branding, rebranding
Strategy: integrated communications strategy, strategic planning, media strategy, digital strategy, strategic programming, measurement tools, metrics, analytics, analyze program efficacy, identified opportunities, strategic evaluation, social media strategy
Campaigns: campaign development, digital campaigns, online conversation volume, brand interaction, detractor campaigns, public information campaigns, target key audiences
Leadership: manage communications staff, led team, supervise vendors, collaborate, provide communications coaching, oversee budget planning, budget management, develop presentations for leadership, set communication priorities, team communication
We hope you found this overview helpful.
All of our open searches can be found here. If none of our current searches are a match for you, you are welcome to send us a copy of your resume so we can keep you in mind for future openings. Please email your resume to firstname.lastname@example.org, subject line: "Keep me in mind."
As a candidate, what can you do to make hiring more personal?
What exactly improves your odds of creating a strong connection with another human being? How can you get the attention of the hiring manager and make your case? How can you get your point across even when the hiring process is trapped in the land before time? Your ability to tell the right stories about your experience is every bit as important as your experience itself.
The Staffing Advisors team has successfully completed hundreds of executive searches. We know from experience that the job search process is stressful for even the most accomplished executives. But it doesn't have to be. It’s what our Job Search Guide is for.
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