Public Relations for a Cause - Working for a Large

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Charitable Organization

Steve Dickinson, Vice President, Public Relations, The American Cancer Society, National Office

Many public relations professionals, either from the beginning of their careers or after having learned their craft in other fields, have discovered the satisfaction that comes from applying their communications skills to a charitable cause.

World renowned marketing scholar Peter Drucker said, "The most pressing problems facing America and the world are being tackled not by governments or corporations but by not for profit organizations."



Disease, poverty, illiteracy, crime, drug abuse, and hundreds of other social issues are being dealt with on this level. There is perhaps no more noble employment for the skills of the public relations practitioner to do work that makes a difference.

Public support for charitable causes has never been so high, and with the baby boom generation about to enter its peak giving and volunteering years, prospects for the amount of work that will be done by nonprofit organizations will continue to soar.

However, competition for donated dollars, volunteer time, and public attention has never been fiercer. Creating public confidence and breaking through the clutter to communicate messages about the organization's mission have never been more important or more challenging. Nonprofit organizations are learning that good work and noble motives are not enough. Charities are facing the reality that only through professionalism, expertise, and sound, business like strategic management can their missions be advanced.

Good Communications Can Be the Key

Because information is perhaps a nonprofit's most important product, demand for top-quality communications expertise will continue to be at an all-time high.

Media relations. Public relations. Communications. It will all play an increasingly important role in the work of nonprofit organizations which are all charged with: 1) getting their messages across to the general public, pertinent government agencies, and specific other constituencies; and 2) serving their own organization and cultivating new supporters.

Most of the activities and programs of charitable organizations are typically conducted at the community level. Nonprofits, depending on their size, are also often organized into state or regional affiliates, and are usually served and managed by a national-level headquarters. Public relations functions may exist at any or all these various levels.

Because these organizations are not funded by the revenues generated by the sale of products, or through tax dollars or corporate sponsors, fundraising is their life's blood. Consequently, public relations and communications programs are vital to creating the overall public awareness and involvement in the mission of the charity that leads to this crucial public support. Public relations and communications are also central to virtually all the other activities.

Largest Public Benefit Nonprofit Institutions of the charity public education, constituency support groups, advocacy, public affairs activities, and relationships with other ranked by revenues.
  1. American Red Cross

  2. Shriners Hospitals for Crippled Children

  3. United Jewish Appeal

  4. American Cancer Society

  5. Care

  6. United Israel Appeal

  7. Legal Services Corp.

  8. American Heart Association

  9. Catholic Relief Services

  10. UJA Fed Jewish Philanthropies Source: Forbes organizations all place communications center stage.
The public relations function in a nonprofit organization should usually have a direct line reporting relationship with the highest levels of management at the local, state, or national office  so important is the communications role perceived in organizations whose most vital link with the public is through ideas, information, education, and persuasive appeals.

The Nonprofit Culture

Nonprofit organizations are collections of people concerned about a common issue. Typically, most make great use of volunteers to set the policy and carry out the work of the organization. The paid staff at the core exists to provide professional expertise, create programming, develop materials, and facilitate the input of these volunteers. Consequently, decisions are often made with the participation of many people. This often requires real skills in consensus building, interpersonal relationships, persuasion, and management

Many of the professional staff of nonprofit organizations, communications staff included, come from the ranks of its volunteers. It might serve you well to first participate in the work of a nonprofit organization at the volunteer level. Many professional public relations people also join the staff by first performing internships often offered by these organizations.

It is also possible to join the organization's staff at the local, community level, later working up to counterpart positions at the state, regional, and national offices.

Public relations staff in nonprofit organizations are typically exposed to a greater variety of communications challenges, assignments, techniques, media, and experience than their counterparts in corporate settings. Public relations staffers in charitable organizations are generalists focusing time and attention on a variety of projects:
  • Media Relations In addition to actively promoting the mission of the organization through media advocacy, the public relations professional for a charitable organization also must serve as a credible information source for reporters seeking information about the cause you represent.

  • Public Service Advertising Many charities communicate their messages through print and broadcast advertising, which may be created pro bono by professional advertising agencies for placement in time and space donated by the media. (Pro bono, or "for the good" arrangements by many ad agencies usually require the sponsoring charity to pay only for the production costs associated with the creation of the advertising. Creative fees are donated by the agency.) The communications director oversees the concept and creation of such advertising.

  • Issues Management In today's media climate, no charitable cause is immune from tough, sometimes unfair, criticism by the press or other groups. The public relations director must handle these "crisis" scenarios with well considered strategies and defenses to maintain a positive public image of the organization.

  • Materials Production The communications department may be responsible for the creation of a variety of brochures, posters, and other promotional materials necessary for educational and fundraising programs. They may also produce annual reports, visual aids, videos, and films.

  • Special Events Planning Often, special events spotlighting the organization's mission are appropriate ways to create positive media coverage, recruit volunteers, raise money, or promote other activities. The public relations director will play a big role in the creation and public attention paid to these events

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