Young People Are Very Smart

by Joan Garry

Too often, nonprofits think that social media is “over there” rather than “right here,” core to the communications strategy. My students at UPenn saw this firsthand this semester. They taught me a thing or two. And those lessons led me to five actions you can take.

For the past four years, I have taught at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, introducing seniors to the world of nonprofit media.

This semester, teams of my students were linked to Philadelphia nonprofits, playing a role that was something north of intern and south of consultant.  The students worked closely with the communications staff of each organization to help untie different strategic communications knots.

I know I was supposed to teach them, but honestly, I got as much as I gave.

The first thing I learned is this: Nonprofits need these kids!  They are hungry, passionate, smart, and digitally savvy. It would be a shame for them to end up in banking. But I’ll get back to that shortly.

First, let me share the most important lessons I learned this year from my students.


Nonprofits are overwhelmed. Nonprofit organizations, even sizable ones, are ridiculously understaffed in the Communications area.  Most of my students interacted with staff members who were so overwhelmed and busy, that their effectivness was compromised.

Nonprofits desperately need a digital education. Nonprofit Communications staffers, even sizable ones, barely know the difference between a “tag” and a “like.”

Digital strategy is critical. Nonprofits are pressured by funders to enter the social media space without time to create a strategy.  This can lead to inflexible architecture, poor design, and the inability of staff (either skill or time) to easily change and update.  And of course if you build something like that, chances are, no one will come.

Too many nonprofits are “dinosaurs.” Nonprofits think that social media is “over there” someplace rather than “right here,” central to the work of the organization.   We might call these ‘dinosaur’ nonprofits.

Young people are super smart! College grads know from tumblr,,, twitter, etc., and are ridiculously valuable to nonprofits.  My students proved that this semester. This is their world.  Hire them on the cheap, work them hard, and let them teach you a thing or two.

So out of the mouths of students come valuable insights.  What actions might nonprofits take based on these observations?

Here are 5 suggestions:


1) Recruit every fall and spring at nearby communications schools – at places like Annenberg, Syracuse, Emerson.  If your organization can’t afford it alone, what about a collaboration?  Perhaps there’s an association of organizations in your sector? It’s time for nonprofits to leave the office and invest the time to find the best and the brightest.

My students shared with me their frustrations about recruiting. They don’t want to work at AMEX or Macy’s, but those are the opportunities they’re seeing. Have an interest in full time advocacy? Good luck. Those recruiting chairs are empty.

2) Bring in an outsider or a team of them. My students’ eyes saw things their ‘clients’ couldn’t.   A convoluted mission statement.   Organizations trying to be all things to all stakeholders.  End result?  Kitchen sink messaging.

No money for a consultant?  Again, tap into a communications school – a grad school, a nonprofit leadership program.  Ask to link with a class.  Talk to a professor.  If you call UPenn, I promise I will take your call.

3) Require every member of your staff to attend a full day workshop / webinar on the basics of social media.  Invite your board too.  Not because social media is a “newfangled” tool, but because it can enhance your communications strategy (if you have one).

For some, social media is already the hub of the organization’s communications strategy. For others, you might be there in what seems like a blink of the eye. I taught my students how to write a press release this semester. They found it valuable, but in 10 years, who will need one?

4) Be sure your head of communications reports directly to the executive director.  Not true in many places.  Often it comes under the program person, or the COO or worse yet, Development.

Here’s why. Communications is the thing. It’s critical to be able to articulate why your organization exists, and why what it does has impact. Is there anything more important than that?  A Communications Director should not just pitch interviews but prep for them. He/she should be a terrific writer. He/she should be able to craft the three big messages for an on–camera interview. He/she should take a draft and not be afraid to take a red pen to it.

5) Build a Communications plan to accompany your strategic plan. This is as important as your strategic plan itself. If you can’t communicate where you are headed, no one will care. There won’t be media coverage. You won’t engage volunteers; you won’t raise money. It’s not just about an inventory of stories to pitch, a media list, and a webmaster. It’s about developing and syndicating the ‘sticky’ messages that move people to action.

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