Using your SPR expertise for a career in the nonprofit sector

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Nonprofit organizations have unique needs when it comes to their public relations (PR) campaigns and strategies. Unlike for-profit businesses or even government offices, nonprofits are unlikely to have full-time, dedicated PR teams that can oversee messaging during crises, respond to fast-moving developments on social media or work on long-term communications strategy.

A nonprofit PR team brainstorming ideas.

Instead, someone in the organization is likely to handle PR functions alongside other responsibilities. For example, an executive might be responsible for handling questions from the press or drafting a press release. This setup helps many nonprofits control their staffing expenses, but it can come at the cost of their PR efficacy.

That’s because succeeding in PR today requires doing much more than sending out press releases or pitching a small number of familiar outlets. It also entails being highly responsive to inquiries and interactions across channels such as social media, creating a diverse range of original content and performing tasks that were once not viewed as PR-related at all, such as those that intersect with marketing and advertising.

By earning a Master’s in Strategic Public Relations (SPR) from the George Washington University (GW), you can prepare yourself to take on the challenges of nonprofit PR. This program revolves around a modern paradigm for PR and provides a comprehensive combination of coursework and field experience to ensure you have everything you need for a PR career in the nonprofit sector.

Nonprofit PR specialists working on a project.

The nonprofit sector at a glance

A nonprofit is any organization that qualifies as tax-exempt under the provisions of Internal Revenue Code Section 501 (c)(3). Such organizations are everywhere, with a major presence across many industries. The National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities estimates that more than one-third of nonprofits are human services organizations, 17.1% are educational institutions, 13% are healthcare-related and 9.9% are in the arts and humanities.

Now let’s turn to how such firms approach PR. The 2018 Nonprofit Communications Trends Report found that:

  • When asked to rate their organization-wide communications performance on a scale from 1 (not at all effective) to 5 (extremely effective) stars, respondents averaged 3.3 stars. That put them between “somewhat effective” and “very effective.”
  • Event-related fundraising, brand and reputation management, and recruiting program participants were the activities that nonprofit communicators felt were best served by their communications efforts. Thought leadership, position advocacy and membership were seen as the least well-served.
  • The competencies that nonprofit communicators felt most comfortable with were copywriting and creating engaging, relevant messaging. Meanwhile, analytics, photography and graphic design were ranked at the bottom.
  • Almost half (45%) of survey respondents thought their workloads were too heavy, and 17% deemed them much too heavy. However, more than two-thirds of them (68%) were satisfied with their current positions, and less than 10% thought they “had a lot to learn.”

Overall, we can see that nonprofit communicators are highly competent and confident, with many remaining opportunities for improvement, both in individual tasks such as demonstrating thought leadership through content and on a broader level in managing increasingly demanding workloads.

An earlier edition (2016) of the same report, with a different focus on obstacles in nonprofit communications, found that the top perceived challenges in the field included juggling an overwhelming number of priorities, responding to urgent problems, dealing with interruptions, coordinating with coworkers, and finding the right procedures and processes. These hurdles illustrate how working in nonprofit PR often means handling a variety of responsibilities and confronting big problems with relatively limited resources.

Becoming an effective PR professional in the nonprofit domain

The skills you will need to succeed in nonprofit PR are broadly similar to those that will benefit you in other PR settings, too. These abilities include being able to write well, plan ahead, cultivate relationships with members of the media, understand public opinion, manage crises, navigate digital platforms (such as Twitter or Facebook) and oversee a sustainability communications strategy ― all within a resource-constrained environment in most cases. Let’s examine a few examples of how these capabilities can be applied in the real world.

Social media

Faced with the 24/7 deluge of social media interactions, a nonprofit PR specialist might create detailed contingency plans to respond to a crisis or capitalize on a promotional or educational opportunity. This process could include designating a certain person to control a specific social media account at key moments or crafting templates for posts ― anything to reduce the amount of work and potential uncertainty that could arise in the fast-paced social world.

Sustainability communication

Many nonprofits operate in the environmental or public/societal benefit sectors. As such, they need PR strategies that communicate the importance of the work they do to the public. This is where the principles of sustainability communications can make a major difference. PR courses on this topic may focus on how organizations have portrayed their actions in an ethical light, in the context of corporate social responsibility movements. This coursework is relevant for nonprofits since nonprofits usually need a compelling PR campaign and overall public image to bring in donations and support.

Content marketing

Content marketing is a reliable strategy for establishing a nonprofit’s reputation as a trustworthy authority in its field. Nonprofits such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Charity:Water have both made effective use of content marketing to build goodwill and bring in crucial donations. Members of the ACLU have published articles on current legal matters in many publications while maintaining a robust, active presence on social media, while Charity:Water has produced a number of thank-you videos that have sustained momentum for its fundraising efforts.

How to become a nonprofit PR expert

The SPR program at GW offers a comprehensive modern PR curriculum along with opportunities to gain practical experience via a capstone project. One you graduate, you will have the right expertise (as well as the connections with numerous PR professionals and program alumni) to pursue in-demand opportunities in nonprofit PR. Learn more by visiting the main program page today.

Recommended Readings:
Nonprofit or public: Which work environment is best for you?
Advocacy vs. lobbying: How can nonprofits get involved?

Is a career in nonprofit PR a fit?
2018 Nonprofit Communications Trends Report
What is a nonprofit?
Modern Media Relations for Nonprofits: Creating an Effective PR Strategy for Today’s World