The art of communications and storytelling with a small team

In smaller nonprofits like Pillar, having a marketing and communications team or even one dedicated person may not be realistic. Over the years, we have relied on our entire staff team to contribute to our newsletter, social media and other marketing materials and some of us were learning as we went. As our team and scope has grown, bringing more structure and coordination to communications activities across the organization has become essential.

At the core of our communications and marketing efforts is a desire and commitment to share stories about our network and the positive impact our members are having in their communities. Through trial and error, we have developed a set of practices outlined below that help us to ensure that our internal and external communication will create and drive opportunities for an engaged, inclusive and vibrant community. 

Leaning on the experts

The Pillar team has worked closely with various local communication and media partners who have willingly shared their expertise and provided immense in-kind support to our organization. For example, ON Communication based in London, Ontario, supported our brand and website refresh in 2007. They have also done all of the communications and marketing for the Pillar Community Innovation Awards and led a highly talented volunteer committee through the branding of Innovation Works. Additionally, Geoff Evans, of Social Media Coach and now The Animation Studio, has led workshops for our network and provided team coaching for our staff around social media and animation. rTraction also based in London, Ontario has shared their digital storytelling and website development talents with our network and our staff. The incredible level of support we have received from these and other partners has exceeded our expectations and helped us to create a solid brand reputation. 

Maintaining brand consistency

When Pillar had a staff of three to five people, it was easy to stay on top of our branding and communications guidelines and ensure the consistency of our messaging and the look and feel of our marketing materials. When we grew to become the backbone organization for Innovation Works, we had a constellation of organizations and individuals who were involved in envisioning this program and co-creating the brand, tone and key messaging. This was an important step to ensuring that Innovation Works remained a community owned asset; however, it soon became evident that in our effort to create a new distinctive brand, the Pillar and Innovation Works brands appeared to be competing with one another and confusing our community. 

For staff, adding another brand to the mix became challenging as we were managing double the communications and marketing and navigating the overlap of timing, channels and audience. Pillar then also became the backbone organization for VERGE Capital, a collaborative program with its own distinct brand and website. This left us with many staff contributing to our collective communications and marketing efforts and no point person who held it all. We held a staff retreat to create a plan for our multiple brands, how they aligned, how we would integrate them and what our collective brand strategy would be going forward. It was then we realized that companies that have multiple brands had bigger budgets to support creating strong brands and we had to answer the question if we wanted these brands to be separate or interconnected. We decided Pillar would be the parent brand and that Innovation Works and VERGE Capital were referred to “as a program of Pillar Nonprofit Network” to show the interconnectivity.

Hiring communications staff 

While having in house communications positions may not be possible for all social impact organizations, we are fortunate to have a few in-house staff members who have helped us to better plan and interconnect our communications across the organization. First, we had the opportunity to bring on a role that provided some event and communications support to Innovation Works and the Pillar Community Innovation Awards and also shared their graphic design talents. Then, through an impact measurement and evaluation project, we had a budget for some communications activities and videos. Instead of contracting out these services we took the opportunity to create a Director, Storytelling and Impact role. 

At the core of our communications and marketing efforts is a desire and commitment to share stories about our network and the positive impact our members are having in their communities. What we have learned is to iterate and change course and needed, to not be afraid to experiment and get creative, and that while it's important to try new approaches, we can't do it all.

These two roles were significant for Pillar because they offered ongoing consistency, support and guidance to the team. While they could not possibly lead and execute on all the communications for the organization, they are able to provide strategy, ideas, social media planning, and monitor graphic and brand standards. Using funding from a regional project, we were also able to hire a Digital Community Animator to support digital storytelling and implement an online community to connect our network. The goals for this role are to leverage technology solutions to bring our community and its ideas to life and to enhance connections and collaboration to develop the social capital of our community. 

Forming a cross-cluster communications committee  

At Pillar, our team is organized into clusters of team members who work on similar projects and are led by a director. One of our staff members suggested that we create a cross-cluster communications committee that had representation from each of our team clusters. This committee keeps our communications calendar up to date and provides ongoing support and planning. Thanks to the committee, we are now able to ensure that each of our teams are being represented in our storytelling efforts. They have also helped us to maintain better brand consistency and pacing of communications to our network. Just one example of how the committee has helped to meet the needs of our network and save staff resources was taking the three newsletters that were being produced across the organization and consolidating them down to one newsletter.

Building a stellar communications plan

After developing our cross-cluster communications committee, the group came together to create a communications plan for Pillar. Along with the help of some highly committed students, the committee was able to create a comprehensive plan that was aligned with our current organizational strategic priorities. The plan was informed by a human centered leadership approach and has helped us to establish consistent processes, brand clarity and key messages for our organization. The strategy prioritizes the integration of activities that position Pillar as the parent brand, which has offered clarity to the team and our community. The plan also included an environmental scan, target audiences, program descriptions, positioning statements, social media guidelines and common language. Identifying the key audiences in our network and ensuring our communications align with their needs and their ability to interact with the information has helped us move to a more networked approach in our communications.

Experimenting with new approaches 

At Pillar, we have experimented with many different marketing and communications tools including videos, podcasts, photo journals, social media campaigns, zines, failure reports, blogs, vlogs and the list goes on. Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we have failed and had to pivot. One example of how we have improved over the years is with social media. We were early adopters in this area, and before it became as common as it is today, we held social media training and tried to convince the nonprofit sector about the value it could bring. Our whole team jumped in with two feet when it came to social media, but eventually, we realized we could improve our coordination and not just push out our own messages but also amplify our members and our network. What we have learned is to iterate and change course and needed, to not be afraid to experiment and get creative, and that while it’s important to try new approaches, we can’t do it all.

Tips for improving storytelling with a small team
  1. Form a communications committee – Creating a communications committee with people from different teams in your organization will improve the coordination and planning of your storytelling and ensure each team has a voice in what is being shared. 
  2. Keep your audience top of mind – Consider the needs of your audience and network in all of your communications and marketing and make sure that your messaging is accessible. 
  3. Develop a communications plan – Having a communications plan is foundational to the success of storytelling initiatives in any organization and even more critical when it is a shared responsibility so that all team members have an understanding of your goals and use consistent messaging. 
  4. Create graphic and brand standards – All organizations should have graphic and brand standards to ensure that logos, fonts and colours are being used correctly. Ensure someone on your team is monitoring for consistency.
  5. Be clear on your brand strategy – Pause and consider building new brands and websites. It is important to have a clear strategy on how you will minimize brand confusion especially when you have multiple brands within your organization. 
  6. Focus on impact – Storytelling is an extremely powerful tool for persuasion. Focusing on the impact of your programs or projects will help to win hearts and minds. 
  7. Make communication a shared responsibility – Staff members have the potential to be your greatest brand ambassadors. Create an expectation that every person has a responsibility to be communicators and storytellers for your organization.
  8. Mix things up – Be sure to continually evaluate the best method or to reach your audience and don’t focus all your efforts on one platform. Offering variety in how your network can interact with you keeps things interesting.
  9. Partner with experts – Working with professional marketing and communications firms when possible will help you to punch above your weight. Some organizations may be willing to offer in-kind services as part of their annual giving strategy.