Communications & Marketing in 2021

A calendar for January 2021 showing the weeks horizontally and the days vertically across the

This past year has been difficult for the vast majority of us. I realize we’re all likely sick of discussing it, so I won’t recap 2020, or the past few weeks of 2021, in detail. But I do think from a marketing and communications perspective there are some key things that organizations are either going to learn from the tumult of the last few months, or else risk being left behind. This is doubly true for nonprofits and other socially focused organizations, given that there’s already a fairly high threshold for trust expected by the various constituencies engaged with the work we all do.

First and foremost is the anger that comes with a breach of trust. While the various actions towards a more just society are not at all new or particular to this past year, a confluence of factors came together to give a new sense of fury when the public became aware of various instances of different organizations, companies, and state sectors failing to deliver on not only promises, but on widely understood and agreed upon purposes for existing. This matters for nonprofits and social orgs which, by definition, are responding to a need in their community.

While it was arguably never enough to simply have clever marketing, a pretty story, and a well-oiled PR machine, there is a notable shift in how closely people are examining the claims versus the behaviors of all sorts of organizations from commercial to civil. Nonprofits particularly are in a tenuous place where, if they are found to be dishonest in any capacity, may lose trust and with it their base which supports them financially. This is not new, over the years nonprofits have been found out in news articles and suddenly found themselves distanced from once loyal donor, volunteer, client, and partner constituencies. But with the last few years seeing a growth in a sort of citizen journalism and investigation, where people share not only their personal stories to greater effect, but also uncover incongruities in financial documents, websites, personal social media of high level executives and staff, there is no room for putting forward one face while operating in another manner behind the scenes.

In short, your actions have to match with your purported ethics. Beyond your 990s and other financial documents being clean (and yes, many more folks than investigative journalists and IRS workers know to look for these and to treat them as moral documents reflecting the work a nonprofit/social org does), your associations for fundraising, your board members, and the staff who have decision-making power can come under scrutiny.

Which brings me to my second point: it is clear that we are now in a time when the way philanthropy functions under capitalism is being called into question more and more publicly. Why does this matter for marketing and communications? Because that’s a fairly important context to be aware of working within. There is more awareness than ever about who is behind major philanthropy, the way philanthropic works disconnected from the communities the work is happening within can do damage, and the power singular persons with major financial heft can have to sway an organization from its original purpose.

From press releases to social media posts, when naming a major gift or partnership with a person, foundation, or company there is a need for a heightened awareness about how that will read to the communities you’re working with and asking for trust from. If you are working on environmental racism, does taking money from a donor who is also publicly supporting a candidate with white supremacist ties, or a company with a record of iffy environmental stewardship reflect well upon you? Does that read as aligned with the ethics your organization is purportedly about?

I will not say here that you should eschew all such donations. I think there is an argument to be made for using funds from folks who may have caused harm to correct said harm–a sort of mediated reparation. But…

If you are actively partnering or soliciting funds and support from persons and entities which may expect silence on your part, or even major editing in order to retain that support, I would question whether you can in good conscience pursue fundraising dependent on such contingencies. Not only does that seem like a glaring probability of mission drift, but nonprofits, B-Corps, and other social orgs are inherently tied to particular ethics. Those ethics should be adhered to at all costs, in my opinion, or else the risk of the organization becoming complicit in the very social issue supposedly being addressed and corrected is too great and too likely to happen. Once that complicity become public, it can be a deathblow to an organization.

Which brings me to my final point: your ethics should not only be adhered to but announced. If this past year has taught those of us working in areas of social justice and change anything, it is that courting donations at the cost of aligning with and supporting the communities and peoples being harmed across the country and globally is a symptom of illness in the old model of philanthropy. The act of silence or fence-sitting is a habit best left behind with old notions of philanthropy as the “great and wealthy man bestowing a gift.” These days, philanthropy is and should be treated and ever adjusted to be more like the idea of community care. Nonprofits, B-corps, and other social organizations are part of their communities. You should be willing to speak up and on behalf of the communities who look to you for support and assistance; you exist because they do.

If you are not, it is my belief that your organization is of a dying breed. One which will not be missed because how will we even know you are gone when you never spoke up and out.

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