What Philanthropy Taught Me About Executive and Internal Communications

5 Key Transferable Skills From Fundraising 

I’ve spent the past few months interviewing internal communications leaders to learn their stories. These conversations inspired me to reflect on my professional path.

My career accidentally began in executive communications. At the time, I didn’t realize it until many years later. When I graduated from college, I went to work for a philanthropist in New York City where I wrote speeches, prepared research briefings and learned everything I could from his career. 

Harold Tanner taught me a lot — the art of preparation, the graciousness of greeting everyone in the room, the importance of asking questions at a conference room table (especially as a woman), the level of confidentiality required to work with executives and a commitment to community that was unparalleled. 

After my two year fellowship with him, I was inspired to pursue a philanthropic path professionally. I raised funds for causes, built alumni initiatives and cultivated communities of supporters. Inspired by the stories of why people gave, I pivoted into communications where I learned about mission-driven campaigns for social media, content strategy and editorial calendars. 

Quickly, I recognized a need for all employees to connect around a common purpose and projects across time zones. I started an organizational newsletter, created culture with unique events and developed on-boarding materials. I found myself happy and at home in the familiar field of internal communications. 

When I joined a startup in the summer of 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, I began building internal communications for a remote team and also realized I was back where it all began — executive communications — as I drafted talking points for leadership, prepared briefings and made communications recommendations for employee messages.   

Rather unexpectedly, philanthropy prepared me for internal communications in numerous ways. These transferable skills are ones that I draw upon daily. I am sharing these powerful parallels because all too often when job descriptions ask for specific years of experience, some of us may already have it, but just may not realize it yet.  

From Major Donors to Executive Communications

As a fundraiser, I reached out to major philanthropists and asked them to share their time and financial support with causes. I learned to make the most of a meeting by setting the agenda with information in advance, showing the impact of a potential gift and sharing why a specific leader’s participation at an event would make an impact. Along the way, I learned to carry myself with confidence, humility and poise with senior leaders of companies. 

In internal communications, I apply these experiences every day as I work with executives and leaders to be the strongest thought partner for their communications with employees. From talking points for major company presentations to meaningful email messages on momentous occasions, I have the opportunity to help shape how, what, when and where information is shared by leadership. 

From a Portfolio of Donors to a Portfolio of Employees

In philanthropy, development professionals are each assigned a portfolio of donors. Depending on the size of the organization, donor base and giving potential, the prospects can range from less than a hundred to several thousand supporters. It was my role to get to know as many prospects as possible. My outreach activities included phone calls, coffee chats, lunches, museum visits and events. I learned everyone’s story, what inspired them, why they wanted to be involved and how they wanted to make an impact. I worked with a diversity of backgrounds, perspectives and career fields.

In internal communications, I work with a different type of portfolio — employees. It’s my role to get to know hundreds of team members from diverse backgrounds and departments to help them all connect around the organization’s mission, business goals and values. I connect individually to listen to suggestions, convene forums for conversations and facilitate meetings to share news in meaningful ways. I also help share stories to spark connection and collaboration in an effort to keep employees engaged, informed and inspired. 

From Alumni Relations to Employee Engagement

In alumni relations, I learned about my constituents to find out what inspired, motivated and connected them to the organization. Then, I transformed what I learned into engaging programming to enhance their fondness of the organization and connection to its people. This took the shape of multiple events, including panel conversations on career paths, roundtables with industry leaders, cultural experiences, learning opportunities and really fun parties with 500+ people.  

In internal communications, the employees are the core of the organization. By understanding their professional and personal interests, I create connections to keep them engaged and inspired. These experiences lead to the culture of an organization, including company milestones, holidays and employee group activities. By elevating the diversity of employees, I champion internal voices through storytelling and community-building initiatives that bring employees together.  

From Campaign Plans to Communications Plans 

In philanthropy, I developed campaign plans with strategies that engaged potential supporters, offered opportunities for participation and outlined the steps necessary to take these drafts from ideas to execution. These included multiple channels for outreach, a timeline for execution and a project management approach to measure progress and track success. In addition, I engaged different organizational leaders as the messenger, supporting their talking points, emails and communications behind the scenes. 

Similarly, in internal communications, I map out plans for communicating major announcements to inform, inspire and connect employees. I plan out all the steps from ensuring that key stakeholders are informed to developing ways to creatively engage employees. My purpose is to connect this news to their work and the organization overall. In order to implement these plans, I draw upon project management experience and leadership training. I put myself in the shoes of multiple employees to understand their perspectives and potential reactions. 

From Donor Appreciation to Employee Recognition

As a fundraiser, I learned the art of donor appreciation. This included the most important: a thank you note. It is a priority to let someone know you appreciate their time, support or suggestions. In addition, fundraisers find creative ways to appreciate supporters — it’s less about a formal gift and more about a symbolic one. Over the years, I featured a family recipe of one of our major donors in our holiday card and invited philanthropists as guest speakers at special events to see their impact first-hand.

In internal communications, I enhance employee recognition opportunities. I developed a suite of cards with the Design team, including thank you, birthday, anniversary and welcome templates. These resources contribute to an employer brand that connects team members with their peers, managers and leadership at these special moments. In addition, I partner with leaders to ensure they express appreciation on major holidays and organize special gifts at key occasions to recognize employees.  

As I look back, I am grateful for this philanthropic path and the skills I’ve gained along the way. It has helped me learn leadership skills, engage in community building and embody empathy in all I pursue.