Should I Stay or Should I Go..

Dear Kim,

I work for a statewide non-profit healthcare association as the communications director. I have been told by my boss that I should get out of the office more doing public relations. However, our association is deeply in debt, our fundraising director has not raised any money since joining our staff (more than a year ago), and no money has been allocated to any programs we offer (all of our budget goes into operating expenses). The media won’t cover any of our special events because they’re fundraisers and our programs are targeted to a very specific and very small percentage of the population. On top of that, my boss won’t spend the money to join any chambers of commerce. Yet, I’m supposed to promote our association. I’m at wits end as to how to and what to promote when we really aren’t doing anything newsworthy or that accomplishes our mission. Any advice would be appreciated.
—One frustrated communicator

Dear Frustrated,

I am almost tempted to see your letter as a practical joke, except that some of the themes you raise have been in other letters that I haven’t answered over the past two years. From your description, it sounds as though your organization has:

  • no programs
  • a fundraising director who isn’t raising funds
  • a lot of debt
  • a dysfunctional director (you didn’t say that, but I am surmising)
  • no communications plan
  • nothing interesting to communicate (which affects the fundraising director as well, of course)
  • a limited notion that communications is mostly about getting media coverage
  • and though you don’t mention them directly, I am going out on a limb and also assuming you don’t have the best board in the world.

And you want to know what to do.

Your organization provides a classic example of how something that looks like a fundraising problem is actually much larger than that. The organization has profound problems that will be addressed either by an audit, bankruptcy, lawsuit, or (unlikely), having a series of honest painful conversations about how to turn things around, and then making a plan to do just that. You could decide to initiate those conversations if you believe that the organization is redeemable. However, it will take the commitment and energy of the entire leadership of the organization to address the range of problems you’ve described, and you need to assess the likelihood that they will step up to the challenge. Some organizations are not salvageable and in fact, take up space that a new and vibrant organization could better fill. If this is the case here, then run, and do not walk to your next job.