rss icon

Sunday, 05 July 2015 22:00

PR pros bring needed skills to nonprofit boards

Written by 
Rate this item
(3 votes)

Nonprofits throughout the state of Michigan are losing out on the benefits that can come from having people on their boards of directors who are experienced in public relations.

That’s one of the key findings in recent research from Dr. Tim Penning, an associate professor of advertising and public relations at Grand Valley State University.

Penning, who has PR experience within nonprofits, launched a study on the topic and published the findings in Public Relations in the Nonprofit Sector, a book edited by Richard Waters at the University of San Francisco School of Management.

The study revealed that most nonprofit leaders said it was important to have solid communication within their organizations and among stakeholders, but many of them identified PR experience as luxury rather than a necessity.

Specifically, 76.3 percent of the 215 responding organizations around the state identified the ability to effectively communicate with stakeholders as a trait they look for when seeking board members, but only 11 percent identified it as a candidate’s most important quality. Leading traits included knowledge of the cause, access to financial resources and a person’s position in community.

For PR professionals, though, Penning said this was all still good news — a pleasant surprise, even.

“Having (communication with stakeholders) as third or fourth isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” said Penning, who tapped GVSU’s Johnson Center for Philanthropy for assistance with the study. “When you look at boards, you need finance experience, and understanding the cause is important. If you’re a food pantry or an environmental organization, you want people that understand what you do.

“It was good to see public relations experience that high — that was all good news.”

The bad news, according to Penning, was the general lack of understanding of what real PR experience looks like and how to fully leverage it. Of respondents to the study, 75 percent defined public relations as “getting the word out,” which Penning said was the lowest form of PR.

While 52 percent of nonprofits claimed to have at least one board member with PR education or experience in the industry, that number could be significantly lower given the misunderstanding of what PR is, according to the study.


Aside from helping draft and send press releases, public relations practitioners can bring a number of benefits to a nonprofit board, Penning said.

“One important thing is understanding who your publics are — not just audience or targets,” he said. “It’s more than identifying donors; it’s paying attention to donors and staff and recipients of your services. A lot of people overlook that.”

“Nonprofits compete not just with other organizations in the sector, but against everyone trying to get attention,” Penning added. “This can be a Fortune 500 corporation. It takes more than just pumping information to do that.”

Executive directors need to find accredited PR professionals with experience and then implement them accordingly, Penning said. Too often, directors will hire a PR professional to serve as an institutional journalist, but when the person serves solely in that capacity, it minimizes his or her impact in the organization.

While many larger organizations can leverage the resources that come with working with PR agencies, it still matters to have people with PR experience serving on boards, said Rebecca Dutcher, board president of the American Marketing Association of West Michigan.

“Larger nonprofits may have staff or agency resources to do a lot of the work,” said Dutcher, who also works as director of the web division for 834 Design & Marketing LLC in Grand Rapids. “Still, you need to have people on the board who can articulate the goals of the board, utilize their own connections, resources and collaborate with any paid employees or agency resources.”

“Smaller nonprofits may only have their board to rely on for marketing and direction,” added Dutcher, who also serves as a board member of Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women and was formerly a board member for YMCA Camp Manitou-Lin. “Whether you’re a nonprofit or for-profit, building your brand, awareness for your cause and moving people to take action is all done via marketing.”

Many nonprofits do utilize board members’ PR experience, but more often, they rely on that expertise as a crutch rather than as a day-to-day resource, according to Penning.

“Having that PR capacity at the board or management level helps guide the whole organization,” he said. “A lot of ethical and strategical mistakes are made and PR is called in to clean it up. Having that savvy and ability to communicate while in the management team meeting can be tremendously important.”


An organization’s ability or appetite to recruit experienced PR professionals to its board is also based partially on where the nonprofit is in its growth cycle.

Mary Ann Sabo, owner of Grand Rapids-based Sabo PR, has worked with nonprofits for 15 years. The agency also currently advises nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity of Kent County and Hospice of Michigan.

She said that in the early stages of a nonprofit, the focus is generally on the mission.

“That makes a lot of sense. When you’re first starting out, you need to have doers on the board,” Sabo said. “As nonprofits become more established, though, they have the luxury of having more paid staff or volunteers to support their mission, allowing their board to serve in more of an advisory capacity. They recognize the importance of communicating with stakeholders and try to attract trained PR, marketing or media professionals to the table.”

Injecting that PR experience in the roots of an organization can prove to be very beneficial, too. In fact, Sabo and her firm are working alongside the Children’s Healing Center in Grand Rapids, which is preparing to open its doors in September.

“A lot (goes) on behind the scenes when it comes to identifying stakeholders, developing appropriate messages for each group, establishing a communications strategy, developing media lists, planning for the launch, setting up social media platforms,” Sabo said. “It’s much easier for agencies like ours to come in alongside a startup and help shape the communications to ensure consistency in messaging, quality and more. Not all nonprofits have the connections to have a PR professional on the board or the funds to engage one.”

Working with established nonprofits, Sabo’s experience has been mainly in contrast to Penning’s findings, as she’s observed organizations being deliberate in adding trained communications professionals to their boards.

“I have called it a trifecta of service providers: Nonprofits want attorneys, accountants and either PR, marketing or media professionals to serve on their boards and provide guidance that they may not be able to afford to have on their paid teams,” she said.

Read 4921 times Last modified on Tuesday, 21 July 2015 10:10
Jayson Bussa

Staff writer/Web editor

[email protected]

Breaking News

September 2018
26 27 28 29 30 31 1
2 3 4 5 6 7 8
9 10 11 12 13 14 15
16 17 18 19 20 21 22
23 24 25 26 27 28 29
30 1 2 3 4 5 6

Follow MiBiz