Ep 77: Navigating the Tension Between Development and Communications (with Steve Ralls)

by Joan Garry

Learn more about common tensions between Development and Communications and whether merging them under one umbrella works or muddies the water.


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Development and Communications departments in nonprofits have not always seen eye to eye. It’s more than just a lack of interaction – more than just, “We know enough about what ‘they’ do.”

There has historically been tension between the two. Staying on message is the wheelhouse of the Communications team and there are times when the development folks need the message to be different. A certain kind of arrogance maybe? Development staff might say, “We know the messaging that really speaks to donors and your branding messaging does not work – we can’t hit our goals using that messaging.”

This tension leads to silos – never a good thing in nonprofit organizations. And silos lead to competing messages. Also never a good thing.

More and more nonprofits are merging these functions under one umbrella – often called External Affairs.

I found us a guest who can help us make sense of all this. He is a career nonprofit communications professional who less than a year ago took charge of the Development function and is in fact his organization’s Director of External Affairs.

I wanted to learn more about all of this – the origins of the tensions and whether this merging works or muddies the water. And I thought you might benefit from learning about it too.

About Steve Ralls

Steve Ralls is Director of External Affairs for Public Justice, a non-profit legal advocacy organization that pursues high impact lawsuits to combat social and economic injustice, protect the Earth’s sustainability, and challenge predatory corporate conduct and government abuses. Steve oversees Public Justice’s media, messaging, outreach and development initiatives. Prior to joining Public Justice, Steve was Communications Director for Immigration Equality, a legal aid and advocacy organization dedicated to securing equal access to immigration rights, including asylum and marital immigration benefits, for LGBT immigrants and their families. He also worked for nearly a decade with Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, where he spearheaded communications for the successful campaign to repeal the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on lesbian and gay service members. Steve’s work has included national media coverage in the nation’s leading print, online, television and radio news outlets. He has placed media stories in, and been quoted by, The Washington Post, New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Politico, Associated Press, National Public Radio, CBS News, CNN and numerous other outlets. He has also placed dozens of op-eds and editorials and has coordinated coverage of impact litigation cases, and diverse legal issues, on national news magazines, including 20/20, Nightline and a groundbreaking 60 Minutes report on openly gay troops serving in the war zone.

In this episode

  • The challenge of having two functions under external affairs
  • How to communicate to a general audience
  • What happens when different departments want to talk about different things
  • The benefits of having development and communications under one roof
  • Where does the messaging buck stop?
  • How does prioritizing mission and message affect donors’ reactions?
  • What is the role of an Executive Director and how can they inspire everyone to have a seat at the table?