The tension between marketing/communications and those that produce revenue, membership/development, is often challenging within an organization. Equally challenging, are leaders who do not see a value in establishing and maintaining synergy between marketing/communications and membership/development. Organizations lacking that synergy often grapple with having to solve disjointed departmental communications and operations, inconsistent brand messaging, poor text heavy marketing collateral, and ineffective call-to-action campaigns that bore the community of existing and potential stakeholders. Recently, a well-educated Ivy League graduate and senior leader at a Boston, Massachusetts area non-profit asked me a question while addressing the details of my professional background:
- How do you make the leap from marketing/communications to membership?
- How do those two experiences even relate?
Any membership outreach and retention effort is only as good as its ability to communicate a core mission in a cohesive and consistent manner. You obtain that cohesiveness and consistency through building visually attractive and targeted branding; a clean “hook” or message; a personal customer focus and touch; and efficient internal processes. I believe those basic principles (simplified) will place any organization in a better position to be successful in an already saturated world of associations and non-profits.
Even after the conversation was over, I was not sure what to think about the question. I had to seek the counsel of more senior professionals to get different perspectives. I asked the members of the Linked-in group, Non Profit Message – Communications & Marketing to:
The first response came from Mr. Ken Handel, a senior communications and public relations professional with over 20 years of experience working for organizations such as Lehman College, the New School University, and The Jewish Museum. Mr. Handel said:
It depends on the particular institution – specifically the mid-level managers. In one professional experience I worked as a director of publications and the promotional writer. One of my responsibilities was to collaborate with the director of membership. When that department needed a new basic brochure, I provided them with copy. There, the relationship between marketing/communications and membership worked well.
Yet, in colleges I have experienced an almost total disconnect between development and marketing/communications. Sometimes there are temporary dedicated marketing/communication professionals attached to development. However, that only seems to exist for large projects like a view-book or annual report. Other than that, the two departments seem to rarely collaborate. At one university, I convened a meeting of mid-level administrators from the various academic divisions to regularly assess whether marketing/communications were functioning as expected for everyone.
What Mr. Handel expressed regarding the departmental disconnect is exactly what I experienced as a professional, working in the membership department for a Washington, DC based association. I noticed that my colleagues were producing membership outreach materials without consulting the marketing department. These materials, though marginally acceptable, didn’t follow the organizations basic rules of branding. From a marketing perspective, I offered to provide some input; however, at that time, I was the most junior member of the team and those with more tenure made sure to tell me that my input was not welcome and that membership had something to prove.
Internal department competition is good; however, it can disrupt the ability to accomplish challenging goals with a high quality product if ego’s get in the way. To that end, the second response came from Mr. Michael McWilliams, Executive Director of Rapporteur, an issue advocacy consulting organization that focuses on social change and environmental action.
Mr. McWilliams has over 30 years experience with organizations such as Prudential, The Foxboro Company, MassINC, and the Stockholm International Water Institute. He says:
I think that there’s a natural tension between the revenue-generating and communication/outreach areas of most organizations. This can actually be a positive thing if the tension produces good dialog and new ideas. Unfortunately, it all-to-often devolves into internal competition, especially in times like these when many organizations are in survival mode. Great organizations work hard at developing an esprit-de-corps that creates an environment where the different groups get on the same page and work well together. These generally seem to be the ones who focus on the big picture and simply resolve the less important things that make it difficult to work together. Less effective organizations tend to emphasize internal process and operations. The fund-raising and membership side tends to complain when “it doesn’t get its way” and the communications/outreach side just hunkers down and does what it must to get through the day. I’ve seen an example up close and it wasn’t pretty. Fortunately, the board took action and the organization seems on the right track now. It’s common in every sector, not just nonprofits.
Even with the natural tension and competition between departments there is hope for synergy. I saw it work well and efficiently at the Orange County Medical Association, where I managed membership and communications. Based on budget and necessity the two departments were combined. However, even without the operational needs, it made sense from a strategy perspective to have the departments together. Ms. Robbie Searcy, a communications professional with well over 20 years of experience with organizations such as the Lower Colorado River Authority, Capital Area Food Bank in Texas and WXGR 101.5 FM radio in New Hampshire said:
I have seen the two work in collaboration very effectively. In one case, the marketing vice president, who oversaw the directors of development and communications, was a passionate visionary (and has since become the CEO of another nonprofit). It’s important that all contributors, storytellers and service providers alike, understand how they can complement each other’s success by sharing ideas and resources. A little friendly competition to bring in good ideas and support can be healthy for the organization. But a shared focus on mission, rather than ego and career survival, is the keys to exponential success.
The tension between the two departments is both natural and necessary.
However, the need to understand the interwoven connections between marketing/communications and membership/development is key in establishing and maintaining relevancy as an organization. The quality of these departments synergy will determine your current and future stakeholders financial support.