ICology: Internal communications for non-profits

Ep #12, JoEllen Saeli-Lane with CARE

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JoEllen Saeli-Lane is currently the internal communications director for CARE, one of the world's largest nonprofits. Very few think about the role of IC in nonprofits, and probably even fewer nonprofits have someone dedicated to the role.

In this edition of ICology, hear JoEllen talk about some very not-so-obvious challenges she has as a communicator when her audience is scattered around the globe. She has to think about obstacles that few communicators do.  

Episode Transcript

Chuck: We have a great topic today because it's one that I don't think a lot of communicators in general think about. We're going to talk about the role of internal communications in not-for-profits. I think a lot of times people assume that all the resources in the not-for-profit world are focused on delivering to the mission, and that's a good thing. But, like in all businesses out there, the employees and other internal audiences are crucial to that mission, and if they don't know what's going on, it's very easy for missteps to happen. Or possibly even worse. 

And that's why I'm happy to have JoEllen on ICology today. I used to work in the not-for-profit world, and this was for the American Cancer Society a few years back. It was a great job with a great mission. Working in the non-profit world is something I recommend every communicator do at some point in their career. It really helps tie in the work you do with a greater mission beyond profit announcements and growth and revenue numbers and that sort of thing.

It really helps tie in with the goal of communication, which is connecting people back to the business. In a previous episode, we talked about the role of internal coms in a crisis. Well what if your organization often times is putting itself intentionally for good in the crises around the world with the mission of delivering aid to those that need it? I told you this was going to be an interesting episode. We're going to talk about a lot. So welcome JoEllen. She is the internal communications director for CARE. JoEllen, welcome to ICology. 

JoEllen: Thank you so much Chuck. It is such an honor and privilege to be here. I'm a big fan of the podcast, and I'm just thrilled to be here today with you. 

Chuck: Well, and it's funny how we sort of show a small world it is. I had reached out to you without ever having met because I do think you had a very interesting job for a very interesting non-profit, and it turns out we ended up sitting by each other at CorpComm Expo this last year. So we were able to actually connect face to face, shake hands, and so I'm equally as thrilled to have you on here. Before we get into the topic, I want people to sort of understand a little bit the scope of who we're talking to. So why don't you explain to the listeners who CARE is in the mission?

JoEllen. Sure, sure. So CARE is one of the largest humanitarian organizations in the world. CARE places special focus on empowering women and girls to lift their families and communities out of poverty. And so our mission is very large. We work in about 90 countries around the world doing projects like water, girls education, access to healthcare, but do all of that really through this lens of empowering girls and women and giving them the tools that they need to lift their families and their communities out of poverty. We have about 10,000 staff in 90 countries around the world, and reached 72 million people last year with our program. 

Chuck: Why don't you repeat those numbers again for me? Those are astounding.

JoEllen: Yeah, it's a huge organization. So we have 10,000 people in 90 countries around the world, and reached 72 million people last year, and our focus is really on the developing world. So the communities we are working with are populations that are living on less than 2 US dollars a day. Really the poorest of the poor, the most excluded communities in the world. 

Chuck: That is an amazing mission. Now, you've been with CARE for a long time, since early 2002, and at a time when people switch workplaces often. We're seeing it now where people sometimes less than a year, it used to be when I was younger, you at least wanted to spend 2 years somewhere. You've been there for a while, so what's kept you around at CARE? Because I'm sure you've had many opportunities. 

JoEllen: Yeah, and it's really been those many opportunities...I think any time you're at an organization where you're really able to move around and see so many areas of the business, of the organization, and do so many different things, has for me kept it really fresh and interesting. 

My background is actually not in communications. It's in political science and international development. I started at CARE 13 years ago actually doing policy analysis, and working on our advocacy programs. I had an opportunity to move into our direct programs sector and work on health programs with CDC and other organizations. I've worked on kind of the development side of things, and helping to build some of CARE's corporate alliances. I've worked really closely with our CEO, our executive communications, and then came into the role of directing internal communications about four years ago. So just having the opportunity to move around in the organization, take on new challenges, do different things, has kept really it interesting and challenging for me. 

The other part of about it that has just been fascinating is because all of our work is outside of the United States, the chance to travel to the countries where we work, to interact with the communities that we're partnering with, to meet the people who the programs have really made such a difference and an impact in their lives, has just been so fulfilling and so rewarding. That part of the job has also kept me there for quite a while. That said, I'm actually wrapping things up right now at CARE. I'm getting ready to start a new chapter and take on a new role at the Center for Disease Control in the coming weeks. 

Chuck: Well, congratulations on that, and I'm sure that CARE is certainly sad to see you go, but I know that as we continue on with our interview here, the information you share will be helpful. Then hopefully maybe in a year we can catch up with you again at the CDC. 

JoEllen: I'd love that. 

Chuck: Now, when I was doing research, and I look at people that have interesting internal coms jobs, and I came across you like, I said before we even had a chance to meet, sort of this next question is so interesting to me. So we've got a lot of communicators, I use the word complain, but they sort of have this realization that this challenge of reaching workers where people are in buildings, and they're at desks, and there are all sort of self-contained environments, but as you shared, you've got employees in not just some pretty remote areas but also very potentially dangerous areas of the world. So talk about that as a communications challenge. As a communicator, how do you...not that it's always life or death every day, but how do you communicate to them? How do you reach them?

JoEllen: Yeah, it's a huge challenge for us, Chuck. I mean, not only are our people geographically dispersed, but by the nature of CARE's work, they are in some of, like you said, some of the most challenging conflict areas, remote areas of the world. So it's not that they're just sitting in an office somewhere with connectivity issues. They might be in the rural sub-office or literally out in a refugee camp distributing rice and clean water to the people that we're serving. So for CARE, connectivity is a major challenge, places where the internet connectivity is either very slow or very unreliable.

The intranet is an important tool for CARE, but we cannot rely on that exclusively because connectivity can be a major challenge where we work. As I learned when we went through our process of launching a new intranet, we figured out that even electricity can be a challenge in the places where we work. Sometimes we'd be doing trainings on our new intranet, and all of a sudden I'd hear someone say, "Um, JoEllen? Our power has just gone out," and so what do you do, right? It's not that the internet is too slow, but in some of the countries where we operate the power will just go down and it doesn't come back on for five or six hours and that's the reality of it.

So reliable access for our people is a huge challenge. One of the things that we really try to do in internal communications at CARE is to meet people where they are. If that means that they're on their mobile device, their phone, because they're out in the field somewhere, how do we meet them there? If they're on e-mail, how do we meet them there in their inboxes? If they are in a break room somewhere, how do we use all the kinds of tools that we have to reach our folks, and not just rely on just one tool because of the nature of our work? That can be really, really challenging. 

Chuck: Yep. So let's get in to talking about the tools. So with people spread out everywhere, and you talked about...which you know, as for granted for communication, we sort of take it for granted that people are going to have electricity. And they're going to have internet capability.

JoEllen: Right. 

Chuck: Where you can't take that for granted, so. What are, would you say, from your mission standpoint, the three most important communication tools that you use? And then share some of the successes or challenges you've experienced with each. 

JoEllen: Sure. I think for us the three that have been really, really critical to CARE have been our intranet. Connecting people and ideas, because we are so geographically dispersed, so that our folks can share and innovate and share knowledge, has been really important for CARE. So our intranet is a major communications vehicle for us that we've had a lot of success in building. 

The flip side or the challenge of that like I said is really the connectivity. The fact that even if we are able to build a consistent user experience, or are trying to get there, can folks get on if their internet is really slow? Working around those challenges of trying to accommodate for that and try to give our users a consistent experience every time they log on has still been a real challenge for us. 

Secondly, video, because...especially our CC and our executives, when you work in so many places, I'd love to get them out all the time to our people but the reality is that we can't. So bringing our CEO to folks via video, translating those videos into the local languages that our people are working on, so they are seeing their faces, they're hearing them talk, is really important in helping our staff feel connected around the world. The challenge on video I think, and you have a lot of expertise in this, is for internal audiences, trying to really make it feel fresh and authentic I think can be a challenge sometimes. Staff don't want to feel like they're being marketed to, or getting external stuff. So how do you really give them something that's special and feels authentic and resonates with them is something that we're always thinking about and thinking about doing better in our video communications. 

Thirdly, global town halls for CARE are really important tool to help bring people together. Quarterly, we do them, helping folks feel connected to the mission, bringing them into major initiatives or things going on at headquarters, and helping people that are in the U.S. or another part of the organization feel connected to that mission, feel connected to what's going on on the ground, is another really important tool for us. Likewise, because of the nature of our work, again connectivity can be challenging. So in our global town halls, it's great if we can video people in, but we have to have an audio option in case the video connectivity is not working. 

We are doing surveys constantly on those to figure out what went well, what didn't work well. If the audio's going out people can chat a question in, so it's kind of thinking about all the different ways that people can participate. We record those because we work in so many time zones. There's no perfect time for a global town hall. We have people all over the world with that, so we have to record them and post them for people that maybe can't join live, and think about all of those aspects when we're planning global town halls. 

Chuck: Now, on your LinkedIn profile, I saw that you talked about doing a CEO video blog, and you mentioned the use of video. But I'm curious, was this something that your CEO brought to you, or was this something that communications went to them and said, "Hey, this is something that has value for us?"

JoEllen: Yeah, internal communications went to the CEO and she previously had a recorder written piece, and we suggested, "Why don't we experiment with doing a couple of video ones and see how that works?" It really resonated well with staff. Staff really reacted well to it. They love hearing her, seeing her. When you get great video content like that, there're lots of other ways you can use it. So we can post it on the intranet, and we found lots of other ways to put it on digital signage in the buildings, and we found lots of other ways to use that. 

Chuck: Now, I also know that you recently revised the employee newsletter as well. Is that print? Electronic? Both? How is that delivered to employees?

JoEllen: Yeah, it used to be print. It used to be literally a Word document with some little clip art.

Chuck: There's no shame in that. You've got to get the word out.

JoEllen: There's no shame, there's no shame, but when we started talking to our people, we thought we can do better than this. We really heard from employees that they wanted something with more graphics, they wanted something that was more pictorial, that was much shorter, that they could read little snippets or little sound bites. We moved from Word to a much more graphic layout. We incorporated things like dashboards that gave our employees a really quick glance at organizational health, how we're doing financially, what is our people data, where are our fundraising reports.

We moved to the CEO video blogs instead of the written piece because people really liked hearing and seeing her. We added a piece called "Getting to Know" where we highlight one of our amazing staff members from around the world and did a short interview with them. Added more slideshows and moved to distributing it completely electronically via the intranet so people kind of get a little snoozer in their inbox that they we do actually hear constant contact and then they click to read the full story through to the intranet for it. That was also really important to us too, that we could actually get some metrics, what were people interested in, what were they clicking on, what were the stories they wanted to hear or read so that we could continue to tailor it to what our staff wanted. 

Chuck: And what were some of the things that you found that either surprised you or didn't surprise you about what they liked, what they wanted to read in the newsletters?

JoEllen: Well one thing that really surprised us is that consistently one of the top hits in our banner, in the newsletter banner there was a tiny little link, we have links to CARE in the news and other things, and there was a tiny little link called Jobs at CARE that was getting like 80% click-through rate. So we realized people really care about jobs. They're interested in these jobs that are posted so we started featuring those more prominently and sending out monthly, here's the openings. Here's the roles that are open. So that was very surprising to us. 

The other thing that we saw is that we got this tremendous response to the employee feature column and the incredible stories that we were able to feature of our people. I think people love hearing those stories and also the recognition that comes with the country office or the team that is being recognized for their work. That was another area that really got a lot of wonderful response. 

Chuck: Oh, without a doubt. I mean, that's one of the things peers like to see themselves. They like to see teams. They like to see people they used to work with or work with now, see them being recognized. So, yeah, that's not surprising. It's also not surprising on the job side, too, but that's a good thing, right? People want to continue their career and look for new opportunities there. 

JoEllen: Absolutely. Absolutely, absolutely. I think on the employee staff, you're so right. People want to be recognized and I think there're so many low cost ways to do that, like featuring an employee or letting them know you posted something of theirs on the intranet. When we started that column, one of our very first getting to know a staff member was a man named Simon that worked in CARE's South Sudan office, and as I was talking to people saying, "Who’s someone interesting that we can feature?" his name kept coming up so I reached out to him with kind of these template questions that we would ask, "Why did you start at CARE?" "What is your job?" and these other things, and he came back with just this amazing rich story. This man during the war in Sudan had been captured as a child soldier and forced into jut this horrendous experience as a child soldier very young. He had escaped as one of the [inaudible 00:20:00] lost boys. He had gone to Kenya and become educated, and was able to go to school and get a degree. Now had come back to CARE, was working for the organization in these exact communities where he had once been fighting as a child soldier, working on peace building programs in these communities to help build a brighter future. These types of stories that were coming out from across the organization, of course, as a communicator, we have to tell these stories. We have to showcase this amazing work and just incredible dedication and stories that our people have. 

Chuck: Yeah, and this is where I challenge other communicators, because their story might not be quite as emotional and mission driven as the one that you just described, there are so many great employee stories that get hidden, buried, people don't think their own experience is that unique. You're right, people rally around those. They rally around that content and it sort of shows...gives them a sense of greater purpose in the organization, knowing the type of people that they're working with, not just who they’re working with. 

JoEllen: Absolutely.

Chuck: I wanted to also talk about...so in a previous episode with Paul Barton we talked about crisis communication in internal coms and how often times the employees are sort of forgotten audience. I would imagine in your guys' world, that's a weekly, if not daily scenario. I'm curious, so people get sort of an understanding, what are some crises that you've faced as a communicator that you've had that you've seen communication be a big asset in getting through? 

JoEllen: Absolutely. Yeah, you're absolutely right, Chuck. It's a huge issue for us. Unfortunately, because of the places that we work, we face a lot of crisis situations. That could be everything from our people needing to be evacuated very quickly from a country because of a political situation or a conflict breaking out to areas of the world where staff might actually be kidnapped, staff expelled from a country. CARE's number one priority is our people and making sure they are safe and protecting CARE staff wherever they are. It also is one of our biggest challenges because of some of the places where we operate. 

So from a communications perspective, really what that means is a lot of pre-planning, a lot of contingency plans, ensuring that we have communication strategy in place for all of these types of situations that can pop up really quickly or happen very rapidly, making sure we have a crisis team in place with internal communications, external communications. Our security teams that can spring into action at a moment's notice and knows their role, knows the protocol, and knows how to respond to these situations. I think you're right. I think sometimes we're thinking about the media aspect. We're thinking about what we're seeing externally, but internally our people have to be informed about what is going on, especially in situations like that where we might be moving people around really quickly and letting people know the status. Are people safe? Are they accounted for? So it's definitely a huge part of the job, and something that CARE takes really, really seriously. 

Chuck: Yeah, it's one of those words I feel like in a way we've sort of corrupted, is the word "crisis." People will talk about a rogue Tweet being a crisis. Really, your experience kind of puts that into the proper perspective for the definition of "crisis." Something I saw on the CARE's website I want to talk about is your program called CARE 2020, and I'm always curious to see when companies or organizations, non-profit corporations are looking to the future. So this is obviously a plan going forward. What role is communication playing in that process? Maybe quickly explain what CARE 2020 is. 

JoEllen: Sure. The CARE 2020 is CARE's vision for really becoming a more impactful organization, focused on innovation and sustainable development and reaching 150 million people by the year 2020. Yeah, so there're some really ambitious program goals, numbers that we intend to hit by that year, and then kind of a program strategy behind that to actually achieve that impact. Of course behind that, anytime you're trying to rally your people around a vision and meet those goals that the business has set, there has to be a solid communication strategy behind that. 

When they launched the CARE 2020 vision, the communication strategy to our people was nearly critical to getting people to understand the vision, getting some kind of conceptual to, "What actually does this mean?" "How is my job changing?" And we did that through the use of a lot of video and messages and also making sure that we were talking about the CARE 2020 vision, really incorporating that into all of the vehicles. We were talking about in town halls. We were talking about it in newsletters. Every time the CEO was messaging something, she was bringing it back to "How is this going to help us achieve our CARE 2020 mission?" and how it was going to enable us to get there. 

Chuck: That's, as you said, very ambitious, but certainly the need is out there and I have no doubt that CARE can make that happen because...I mean, you said early on, CARE is a very large organization. You've got a lot of people. But I'm curious for those non-profits that are listening that maybe aren't quite as big, what sort of advice would you have for them? What would you say from an internal coms perspective that you've learned that you could...a non-profit, maybe it's 1,000 people, maybe it's 100 people, maybe it's 10 people, that they could take back with them.

JoEllen: Yeah, really great question. Like you mentioned earlier, I do a lot of speaking at communications conferences and have traveled around the U.S. speaking about best practices in internal communications, and one of the things that people are inevitably shocked about is that the internal communications department at CARE is one full-time employee, and you're speaking to her right now. So we have...I am a department of one. I have one part-time person who is, she's just amazing, a part-time contractor, and we have interns, but a lot of folks are shocked that an organization as big as CARE with 10,000 people, that is internal coms, there.

So I would say at CARE if we can do it with a team that's that skeletal, you can do it too. I think it really comes down to being resourceful. Think about the other parts of the business. How can we leverage external communications to meet your goals? If you have a video department, how can you leverage them? How are you leveraging the IT resources that you have to achieve your internal communications goals? Our org chart, that's our team, right, one FTE and one part-time person and interns, I really think about my team much broader than that, and we even have team meetings that include external coms and IT and others because they are so important to achieving our internal communications goals. 

I would say definitely think about how you leverage those other people and distribute ownership of internal communications as broad as you can in the business. The [inaudible 00:28:26] we have really focused on is how do we make sure that across all lines of the organization people are owning the communications within their department, they have the tools that they need to do that effectively, and really think about distributing that ownership more broadly and empowering your people to be good communicators wherever they sit. 

Chuck: Well, JoEllen, I think that's great advice honestly, whether you're a non-profit or not, with communication teams. Even in large corporations a lot of times the staff numbers can be quite small, but that's really where internal coms is truly bigger than the one person who has that job title. It's being sometimes a navigator, an advocate, a cheerleader, a coach, whatever that might be to make sure the company is doing the right things in the communication world. 

I know that the advice you shared throughout, hopefully a lot of people have learned more about CARE, and maybe they don't feel as though their communication challenges are quite as steep as they once thought given some of your challenges with reaching people in truly some of the most remote and crisis areas of the world.

What's a final piece of parting advice that you’d want to share with listeners? Something for them to know when they listen to this they can carry on throughout their day or week or months.

JoEllen: Sure. I think there's three things. One is make IT your partner. 

Chuck: Good one. Yes, I agree. 

JoEllen: You can't do it without them. Make them your partner. Find out where they eat their lunch. Get them Starbucks gift cards. Whatever it is. Bring them to the table with you, because you can't do it well without your IT colleagues. 

Secondly, figure out those pain points for your business and start there. Solve those things. Whatever is bugging the heck out of your CEO and driving her nuts every day because she can't find this, or if she wants a simpler way to do that, find that pain point and start working on a couple of those. 

Thirdly, I’ve said this before, meet your people where they are. I think sometimes the communicators, we build an intranet, or we build a Facebook page, or whatever it is, we think everyone should come to that. But one of the things I've really...and I think I was there a couple of years ago, have realized is that if your people are in their inboxes, send them an e-mail. If they are on their mobile devices, think about an app. If they're in their break room, print out posters in the language they speak and send them to the offices so that they can be put up. So really think about all of those tools and meet your people wherever they are if you want to be an effective communicator. 

Chuck: No, those are great. And back to your very first point, I just did a talk recently to an IBC chapter and I mentioned I've never understood why communications and IT don't get along. Because there's so many similarities between those two groups. Their missions. Their effort. Sometimes they have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder. Where it could be a truly an amazing partnership to really help each other make the business better. So those are all great pieces of advice. In case anybody did want to reach out to you, what is the best way to find you and connect if they had more questions about wanting to be a better...not just maybe a better communicator but especially in the non-profit world?

JoEllen: Sure. You can find me on LinkedIn. That's a great way to connect with me on LinkedIn. Just search for JoEllen Saeli-Lane, and I'd be happy to connect with folks that way. 

Chuck: That's wonderful, JoEllen. Again, I wanted to thank you for being a guest on ICology. It was obviously great running into you at CorpComm Expo in Atlanta. I'm glad we were able to get this recorded. I do think it's an area of internal coms that a lot of people don't think about. I mean, they think about obviously in the corporate world, in the manufacturing world, but I think that not-for-profit is not one that's always at the top of mind. 

So you've definitely given some great advice for those people but also just communicators in general. ICology wanted to be a listening post for communicators. A place for them to hear stories from professionals like you, JoEllen, who can inspire them to be better communicators because I think we can all be better communicators. 

Please follow ICology on Twitter @LearnICology. Coming up soon we'll be launching the ICology website, which will not only host the podcasts but also other internal coms riches, because I want it to be a place for people to go and really start to gather and see some of the great internal coms resources that are out there. If internal communications is your...we're going to edit this part out at the end, so I'm going to do this over...if Internal communications is your passion, ICology is your podcast. Thanks for listening.