Advertising, Marketing & PR, Human Resources, and Nonprofits

PR capacity is essential to nonprofit boards

August 31, 2013
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In the nonprofit sector, leaders talk a lot about capacity building. This means that nonprofit organizations seek to build their abilities and resources in order to be more self-sufficient.

One such capacity important to nonprofit organizations is public relations. But in research I completed recently, I found that while many nonprofit executives speak of the importance of public relations to organizational success, few nonprofits have board members with public relations knowledge and experience.

The study involved a survey of nonprofit organization executives in Michigan, who were reached with assistance from the Johnson Center for Philanthropy at GVSU. I presented the results at the International Communications Association conference in London this past summer to robust discussion from attendees. Recently, a fellow researcher from San Francisco asked me to contribute the study as a chapter in a book he is proposing about nonprofit public relations. I am sharing a version of the study and its implications at the West Michigan Public Relations Society of America chapter NonProfit PR Workshop in September. In other words, this business of PR and nonprofit boards is a hot topic.

 Graph 1.
Graph 1.

The study showed that in selecting board members, the 167 respondents showed a preference for individuals with a knowledge of their organization’s cause (89.3%), financial management skills (82.5%), and ability for communication with stakeholders — essentially a public relations function — third at 76.3% (Graph 1). A board member’s position in the community, management expertise, access to financial resources, and legal counsel followed in that order. In this question, respondents could choose more than one answer.

 Graph 2
Graph 2.

But things shake out a little differently when respondents were asked to pick only one capacity they sought in a board member for their organization. Knowledge of the cause remained the top choice by a long shot (40.4%) (Graph 2). Access to financial resources was the second most important (19.1%), and position in the community the third most sought capacity (13.1%). Communication with stakeholders dropped to the fourth most important board member capacity, selected by 11.5% of respondents.

I’ll get into more detailed interpretation of the results at the WMPRSA conference. But there are two key observations. One is that more nonprofit executives don’t place PR capacity of higher importance in board members because they don’t fully understand what public relations is. In the same survey, 75% of the nonprofit leaders indicated PR is equivalent to “getting the word out” as opposed to a more sophisticated understanding of relationship building with specific stakeholders for measureable management objectives.

A second observation is that organizations that are larger in terms of employees, and those with a larger board, are more likely to have board members with PR skills and experience. This is because in the natural evolution of nonprofit organizations, key concerns and management functions tend to go from financial and fundraising concerns early in and organization’s existence, to program capacity, and only then will sophisticated consideration of communication and public relations become a priority.

However, seeing public relations as a management function focused on relationship building will benefit an organization if given emphasis earlier in a nonprofit’s life. More than mere “getting the word out”, public relations expertise could help a young organization build and maintain those critical networks with donors and other publics at what is called the ‘survival’ stage. The essence of fundraising is not financial savvy, it is relationships and communication. Similarly, public relations savvy can help a young nonprofit advance its cause through partnerships, public advocacy building and other strategies.

A young nonprofit may not be able to employ public relations experts on staff or hire a PR firm, but that’s why seeking at least one board member with professional PR knowledge could be wise. Waiting to add PR capacity to a nonprofit until after the money is raised and the programs are in place will help represent the organization. But it could also represent a missed opportunity to help the organization attain a stable and mature stage more quickly.

My hope is that more nonprofit executives will realize the full meaning of what public relations is as a management function. Then, they should see PR as something to get into the board room and not merely “getting the word out.”

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