The Art of Communication


Being a nonprofit executive director can feel like a trapeze artist tiptoeing across a wire while many eyes watch from below. One misstep can catapult you from secure footing to a catastrophic situation.

Running from Board meetings, to speaking engagements, to pressure-packed dinners with potential donors gives executives many chances for unintended mistakes. While few errors are fatal, there are common conversational blunders that can significantly hurt your chances to earn funding.


Appearing inattentive Imagine you sit inside a cozy coffee shop while soft-pop music plays above the buzz of caffeinated conversation. Across from you sits an old friend you haven’t seen in years. Aside from swapping “happy birthday!” messages on Facebook, you each have fell behind on the intimate details of your lives. You tug your stool closer to the table, excited to share your recent big news. You launch into your story but soon notice your friends’ eyes glaze over. Your friend nods at the appropriate places but every twenty seconds their hand reaches for their phone, stealing glances at the screen.

Most people have played both roles. But only one person in this scenario feels bad. That’s the person who believes their conversation partner isn’t paying attention. There are many ways to leave a bad impression with potential donors but being distracted is a quick path to conversation Armageddon.

Talking more than listening – People don’t like those who behave in ways that suggest “my time is more valuable than yours.” Especially people who are considering giving you money. Like appearing inattentive, talking more than listening disrupts potential connections. For nonprofit executives speaking with potential donors, over-talking also causes missed opportunities to gain crucial information about a possible donors’ needs and experiences. Sometimes what’s not being said by a potential donor is the most valuable information. An overzealous nonprofit executive can miss this if they’re fascinated by their own words more than the person they’re speaking with.

Saying what you think the potential donor wants to hear – Some nonprofit executives fear upsetting a potential donor and bend over backwards to withhold their true perspective. This mistake causes mistrust if the potential donor believes they’re burying their real opinion. Trust is critical to any strong partnership and it’s especially very important between a nonprofit and their donors. Donors giving money to an organization are essentially saying “I trust you to deliver on your promise (an organization’s mission) and I believe this money will help you create more good.” But inauthentic comments and opinions from nonprofit executives can ruin the foundation of trust from potential donors. If they can’t trust you to be real with them, how can they trust you to deliver on your organizational mission?


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Organizational Self-Reflection Is An Opportunity

Pausing to evaluate your organization is an opportunity to think about how to approach your work from a new perspective.

At Fairmount a core aspect of our approach is guiding the nonprofits we work with to analyze how their organization attempts to improve the lives of their service population. This organizational self-reflection isn’t easy. Giving serious thought to one’s behavior, motives, or impact can sometimes lead to an organization to change how it’s used to operating, which can feel intimidating.

But the benefits of constructive, honest self-analysis is vast. Periodic organizational analysis creates:

1. Course-correction potential: By slowing down and seeing if the behaviors of your organization are helping to actually meet your goals, you’re creating an opportunity to modify your direction, if needed. If you’re driving with a GPS device to your desired destination but realize that sudden external factors, like an accident, have altered your initial route continuing to drive using the original directions doesn’t make sense. Taking a step-back for organizational self-assessment allows you to decide if there’s another route that can get you closer to your destination or if you want to arrive a different place.

2. Efficiency

Taking a 360-degree look at your organization throughout different points during the year allows you to identify more efficient ways to maximize or acquire the resources necessary for you to aid your organization’s service population(s).

3. Team

Inviting your staff to share their perspective about your organization builds a stronger team. Listening and encouraging multiple voices within your nonprofit to assess your organization is a sign that you trust your staff. People who feel appreciated and trusted often are more committed to the organization.

4. Culture-Building

Being willing (and perhaps excited) to take stock of your organization creates the expectation that settling isn’t okay. Consistently pushing to reach the potential of an organization, especially for those that are sustainable and routinely reach their goals, shows staff, volunteers, and your service population that the status-quo isn’t acceptable.


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Get2Know: Michelle Feldman – Executive Director of Keep Philadelphia Beautiful

A new generation of leaders has emerged to produce tangible impact across Philadelphia. This new energy is expanding economic, health, education and cultural opportunity, positioning Philadelphia as a must-visit destination and a place residents are proud to call home. Fairmount met with Michelle Feldman, the not-yet-30-year-old executive director of Keep Philadelphia Beautiful (@BeautifulPHL) in the third installment of Get2Know. This segment reveals the personal side of young change agents impacting Greater Philadelphia and beyond.

Keep Philadelpphia Beautiful

Philadelphia’s affiliate for Keep America Beautiful. The organization has worked in the beautification field for over 60 years. It started as an anti-litter organization and then built affiliates across the country. As the organization has grown, so has its scope. It includes not just litter but community beautification in all of its forms. Keep Philadelphia Beautiful works as the outreach arm of the Streets Department. Overseen by Michelle, KPB leads cleanups throughout the city and focuses on environmental education.

Fairmount: How long have you been in your role?

MichelleAbout a year and a half. It’s been a great experience.

Fairmount: What would people be surprised to know about Keep Philadelphia Beautiful?

Michelle: I think people would be surprised to find out about our environmental education initiatives. A lot of people know that we organize cleanups and spearhead other community beautification events, but I’m not sure if folks know how much focus we put towards our environmental education work.

Fairmount: What are you trying to achieve in your education work in classrooms?

MichelleWe first and foremost want students to walk away knowing that littering is not an inconsequential act; that litter has real environmental, social and economic impacts. How we deliver that message depends, of course, on the age of the students. We also address recycling and waste reduction, and have done workshops that show the importance of reuse. We try to hit on these themes in as hands-on a manner as possible.

Fairmount: What advice do you have for new and young nonprofit executive directors?

MichelleHaving a mentor was really important for me. Before I joined Keep Philadelphia Beautiful, I worked for the Frankford Community Development Corporation in the Lower Northeast section of the City. My supervisor at FCDC was an incredible mentor to me. She went out of her way to include me in everything the organization did, from finances to grants to contract administration. If she hadn’t taken me under her wing and let me experiment, learn, and try things, I don’t know if I would have been ready to take on my current position. Keep Philadelphia Beautiful’s Board Chair, Dan McElhatton, has been a great mentor as well, and taught me an awful lot. I know finding a true mentor is much easier said than done, but I’ve found it so important to have someone to look up to and learn from who really knows what they are doing and cares about your professional development.

I also try not to be close-minded or have tunnel vision. A good idea doesn’t have to be my idea! If it’s a strong idea that has the potential to be impactful and help us fulfill our mission of cleaner and more vibrant communities, let’s do it!

I have also found it useful to really ask myself that tough question of how to best use Keep Philadelphia Beautiful’s limited resources. What can we do that would create the biggest impact? Keep Philadelphia Beautiful has one full-time staff member and one part-time staffer, so part of this role has been trying to figure out how we can empower individuals and neighborhood groups. How can we be a meaningful tool and resource?

Fairmount: Any takeaways for small nonprofits to be visible?

Michelle:  I hope we have done a good job of raising our profile and brand both inside the nonprofit community and Philadelphia in general over the last year and a half. I think the first part of building your brand is being active and actually having a coherent story to tell, and the second part is doing the work of telling that story in new and creative ways. Effective communications takes time and work and dedication, which can be hard for understaffed and underfunded nonprofits. So the first step is deciding to dedicate the time and resources, and integrating it in to your daily work flow so that it doesn’t seem overwhelming or like a chore.

Fairmount: Any interesting projects coming up?

MichelleKeep Philadelphia Beautiful is launching a couple of different education initiatives this school year, which I’m really excited about. First and foremost, we’re starting a volunteer teacher program where we’ll be asking five volunteers to give presentations on sustainability, litter, and recycling twice a month. The last year and a half I’ve been giving those presentations across the City myself, and we can reach so many more students with additional hands on deck. We have a few other things coming down the pike, too, including working in depth with a small number of students to help them identify, implement, and assess a community beautification project. Keep Philadelphia Beautiful is also looking for a research fellow to help compile best practices from nonprofits working on litter abatement in urban areas. In a similar vein, we’ll also be releasing a community beautification resource guide this month that we hope will be a useful tool for individuals and community-based organizations alike.


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