✏️ Communications and Brand Introductions: Christopher Pearsall
Vice President, Brand & Communications at DonorsChoose
In This Edition
✏️ What Communications can learn from education
🏫 The impact of mission-driven communications work
🎈When Brand and Communications collaborate
Christopher leads the DonorsChoose Brand & Communications team, helping inspire donors, partners, and teachers through media, social media, events, brand partnerships, and communications design. He joined the team in 2012, and in his prior role worked with the organizations, founder/CEO and the executive team to manage a variety of special projects, including disaster relief, flash funding events, media inquiries, and the #BestSchoolDay campaign.
Prior to joining DonorsChoose, Christopher managed communications for a health services company and was a consultant for a global public relations agency, where he supported clients at brand initiatives such as the Sundance Film Festival and 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Christopher graduated from Ithaca College with a B.S. in Communications Management and Design.
What sparked your path into Communications and Brand?
As a kid, I loved the news — I felt an adrenaline rush when the breaking news music played on TV. After starting out studying news production in college, I developed a passion for storytelling through corporate communications.
I was also a huge fan of The West Wing, and I loved the role of the Press Secretary, C.J. Cregg. Between watching fictional press briefings on The West Wing, watching actual press briefings, and having some inspiring internships in comms departments (as well as on the set of The West Wing!), I really enjoyed the role of helping people and organizations get their stories out.
Can you tell us about the mission and impact of DonorsChoose?
DonorsChoose is an organization that helps connect the public with public education. It offers a channel of support for teachers who need anything in their classroom whether it’s pencils and paper to the most engaging new science equipment, musical instruments or anything else a teacher can dream of for their students. We were one of the earliest crowdfunding platforms!
We’ve helped fund over 2 million requests at 85% of public schools in the United States. We know our donors are looking for transparency and accountability. When a teacher gets a project funded, we purchase the materials and send them to the classroom. Our donors get to hear directly from the teacher. It’s a really important communications feedback loop that’s built a great connection between our donors and our teachers.
What is one project you are particularly proud to have accomplished over the years?
At DonorsChoose, we’ve spent the past five years working on the racial inequity gap in education. It’s always been an implicit part of our model to direct funding to schools that are most underserved. But, we realized we were not as explicit as we could have been in our communications about the systemic racism that drives the lack of funding for schools with predominantly students of color.
Our first concentrated effort in this area was our #ISeeMe campaign. It supported requests from teachers to help students see themselves — this included books with characters who are people of color, as well as those who identify as LGBTQ. We also supported teachers of color who are underrepresented in the field.
We took things a step further by making racial equity an explicit part of our mission and the way we measure our success. As an organization, we focused our work on driving dollars to the schools that are most often underfunded because of race and socioeconomic status. Taking this mission public, we’ve challenged the ways we typically talk about inequity, so that we’re framing our students and teachers by their aspirations while being frank about how our system is not designed to support students equitably. In an environment where schools have become so politicized, we’re trying to call our community into this work to have a productive, honest conversation.
As a Communications team, we redesigned our writing style guide and focused on the language we were using to talk about the people we support. It’s so easy for nonprofits to use deficit-framing language to describe, for example, those “in-need” without acknowledging the systems that perpetuate that need. It often means using language that is precise but perhaps a bit clunky, but it makes a difference to talk about “students from low-income households” versus “low-income students,” for example.
Our new, more explicit Equity Focus has been successful by helping us reach our new fundraising goals and driving support to the schools that need it the most. We also work with our corporate partners to lift up the people we are trying to support. This is part of the core work of how we change philanthropy in our country.
What are the skills that are most important for someone to succeed in Communications and Brand?
The two skills that are most important, particularly in the nonprofit comms world, are empathy and focus.
It’s essential to understand the needs and perspectives of the people you are communicating with directly. I’ve often heard Communications leaders referred to as the heart of an organization – they are what makes the brand human. From that perspective, it’s important to understand what your customers and audiences are going through, what they need and what they care about in order to be a good communicator and connect with them in a productive way.
Focus is also so important. With all the platforms to communicate through, and the expectations of brands to align with people’s values, it can be easy to be pulled in a lot of directions that don’t help you drive your most important goals. As a team, we are constantly looking at our top priorities to ensure everything we do checks off the priorities we set, rather than focusing on topics that aren’t aligned with our mission. As communicators, we have to be laser-focused on our overall goals.
How do you share your story internally with employees?
Our People Ops team leads the internal comms function. Often, I help edit and review concepts with them rather than creating content from scratch. At DonorsChoose, Internal Communications is no different than external communications except for the audience size — it’s a smaller and more connected audience but they still have a lot of the same themes in common — they care about our brand, transparency and mission.
We’ve applied our racial equity mission internally — from the ways we recruit and form our Employee Resource Groups to the ways we bring new minority-owned vendors to our teachers and diversified our funding across black-owned banks. We live our purpose and find it important to show our staff how we do this in a really authentic way in order to build trust inside our organization.
What do you think the field of Communications can learn from Education?
The fields are very related. Great teachers are really good at two key strengths that are relevant for communications professionals — imparting information and understanding motivation.
First, teachers are incredible at imparting information — what their audience (the students) needs to know, what they don't know and how to teach them by creating lesson plans to ensure they understand the steps along the way. It’s about breaking messages into smaller messages for comprehension and not assuming knowledge. There are a lot of parallels from the classroom to how we communicate to our audiences.
The second is understanding motivation — knowing what will make students excited is key to teaching. For students learning to read, we have English teachers who leaned on graphic novels because they better-captured students’ attention. These teachers know that students are personally interested in these stories and the visuals help build their reading skills. This approach facilitates a love of reading that translates to their schoolwork. As a communicator, it’s not only saying what is important to share but asking how to make someone care — that’s also really important in philanthropy.
How do you continue learning about the field?
I try to read PR Week, PRSA message boards and news articles about the field. One of the best aspects of being in philanthropy communications is there’s so much willingness to share among peers. We talk to our fellow nonprofits all the time!
For Giving Tuesday, we often call up our partners to ask what worked well for them. We partner with the Giving Tuesday team to share learning and data. It’s a conversation that lasts all year. Having peers sharing information is a fantastic and collaborative environment. We don’t consider other nonprofits as competition. We’re simply competing for all the other ways you might spend your money — we hope that giving will be one of those ways.
Fast forward to the future — what do you think communications at work will look like?
Communications will continue to play a bigger role in organizations. The need for good communicators will expand beyond the comms team. Just as messages are being decentralized and democratized through social media platforms, the ways we get information at work will be too.
Communicators are going to be spread far and wide and have to relinquish some of our control. We’re not going to be writing press releases and producing polished videos. We will rely on vulnerability, flexibility and speed in order to be effective communicators.
Additionally, different generations are using varying platforms for specific reasons and interacting with information in unique ways — that will play a pivotal role in terms of who we reach and in what ways we connect with them.
Thank you for reading The Switchboard. ☎️ Every edition is personally curated by me — Julia Levy. This article is based on a live interview conversation and edited for publication. Learn more about why I write. Review the Index of past posts.