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INTERNAL COMMUNICATIONS: Strategies for an Overlooked—But Critical—Communications Channel

This is a recap of a presentation given at The Communications Network’s 2016 annual conference (ComNet16) by Rodney Jordan, formerly of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and now at McDonald’s, and Mike Smith from The James Irvine Foundation. The presentation was part of a conference breakout session on internal communications.

Internal communications is like a romantic comedy (sort of). A common plot device in romcom films is the protagonist searching for love realizes that the answer all along has been a longtime friend.

In communications, we often spend hours strategizing how best to engage with external audiences around our goals and mission. Days are devoted to crafting, executing and analyzing everything from e-newsletters to social media posts.

Rarely is as much time spent on engaging with employees, although staff are inextricably linked to mission and brand. Employees can be a nonprofit’s biggest ambassadors or, at times, its greatest critics. Intentional internal communications can play a critical role not just in extending an organization’s brand but also in helping employees feel more knowledgeable, connected, and appreciated – good for both marketing and culture.

For this reason, internal communications should not be modest after-thoughts but rather should command “the same strategy, planning, and execution that go into external communications,” in the words of a Stanford Social Innovation Review article on the matter.[1]

Even if you are convinced of this view, the equally challenging issue is how to go about incorporating internal communications into the work of your nonprofit or foundation. How to give attention to internal communications activities with limited staff capacity and resources?

To answer these questions, ComNet16 hosted a breakout session on internal communications with two practitioners: Rodney Jordan, an expert in the field who is now Senior Director of Executive and Global Internal Communications at McDonald’s; he was recently the Director of Community Engagement and Activation at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and Mike Smith, the Director of Communications at The James Irvine Foundation in California.

The session started by helping participants understand and develop an internal communications framework. Internal communications can be framed around the following three components:

  • Organizational alignment
  • Employee engagement
  • Brand ambassadorship

Organizational alignment is a process for ensuring that all employees and aspects of an organization are aligned with the realization of its mission and strategy. Activities that promote organizational alignment include:

  • Rotating updates from departments at staff meetings
  • Brownbag lunch sessions to hear more deeply from a department or about a particular change in the organization
  • Knowledge-sharing tools or programs (e.g., internal e-newsletters, intranets, Yammer, videos)
  • Monthly email from the executive about key updates and developments.

Employee engagement is a workplace approach aimed at ensuring employees feel connected and committed to their organization’s mission, goals and values and motivated to contribute to the organization’s success, while enhancing their personal well-being and satisfaction. Activities that help further employee engagement encompass:

  • Q&A with new and longtime employees to forge personal connections and/or highlight expertise
  • “Why I Love Working Here” meeting starters
  • “Two Minutes With…” videos of new employees
  • Employee recognition programs, which can come in the form of appreciation at the end of staff meetings or desk awards passed on from one employee to the next

Brand ambassadorship is a deliberate strategy to equip, empower, and mobilize employees to authentically represent the organization and to raise brand awareness with external audiences. Activities that foster brand ambassadorship entail:

  • Learning Lab on key messages and elevator speeches about the mission and programmatic work of the organization
  • Sneak previews of new organizational initiatives that prepare employees to join in or start conversations, on-or-off line
  • Social media training and support for employees
  • Weekly email of content for staff to share

The session also included some dos and don’ts to bear in mind when trying to integrate internal communications into the work of your organization:

  • Commitment is not a strategy. Create a plan for internal communications just as you would an external communications plan.
  • Empower others. Your staff will have great ideas and may seek development opportunities. Provide guidance and turn them loose.
  • Think improv, not Shakespeare. Staff members should use their own voice, so focus on core concepts and not scripts.

For more tips, please see our ComNet16 session handout and PPT:

In closing, we hope you will agree with us that internal communications are as important and necessary as external communications for the long-term impact and sustainability of your nonprofit or foundation.

Please let us know how this framework and suggested activities are helping in your organization. We also would like to hear about your own internal communications best practices used in your organization. Let’s work together to draw attention to the importance of internal communications in the sector!

[1] The wider article discusses staff retention in the field, and how intentional internal communications can help. For more information, read here.

Rebecca Chamberlain-Creanga, Internal Communications Officer at the Kresge Foundation, contributed writing to this post in partnership with Rodney Jordan and Mike Smith. Let her know your thoughts — rachamberlain@kresge.org.

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