Spitfire Strategies

Building Communication Skills, One Aha! Moment at a Time

Mark Dessauer

By Mark Dessauer
Vice President

One of my favorite moments in a strategic communication training is when the light bulbs start to glow – when participants gain a new perspective on the power of communication. Furrowed brows transition into faces of wonder with both eyebrows and hopes raised. These moments are a sure sign that a participant’s view of communication has transformed. I had one of my own light bulb moments back in 2003 as a participant in Spitfire’s Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Strategic Communication Training. As the communications director for Active Living By Design at the time, I viewed communication as an endless list of tasks aimed at “getting the word out.” This Spitfire-led training changed my approach and helped Active Living By Design improve its communication. That light bulb moment is one of the best measures of increased capacity – a new viewpoint, training and tools to do work more effectively.

The National Council of Nonprofits defines capacity building as “whatever is needed to bring a nonprofit to the next level of operational, programmatic, financial, or organizational maturity, so it may more effectively and efficiently advance its mission into the future.” Several years after my time at Active Living By Design, I worked for a funder with a long tradition of providing capacity support to nonprofits throughout North Carolina. Much of that support was centered on helping organizations build more effective leadership. 

As director of communications, I worked with the program staff to integrate communication into our
capacity-building efforts. We included a simple communication assessment as part of the grant application and used grantees’ responses to offer very basic communication training in specific areas. We also used the assessments to develop tailored technical assistance for each grantee. The grantees translated this support into increased media coverage, more powerful stories and stronger leadership on their issues. The tailored capacity building not only strengthened the work of the grantees, but created a stronger bond between the foundation and grantees which further enhanced our ability to use strong communication to support our work.

In my current position as a vice president for learning and capacity lightbulbbuilding at Spitfire, I build the communication skills of nonprofits throughout the country and across the globe. Witnessing those light bulb moments is a regular occurrence – but it never gets old. For every training Spitfire develops, we start by assessing the needs of the participants and preparing a tailored curriculum that gives them what they need to win big on their issues. Understanding where each group is starting from – the good, the bad and the sometimes ugly – is critical to meeting participants where they are and giving them the tools and training they need to succeed.

Last week’s Executive Training Program (ETP) saw enough aha moments to light the room. Now in its 14th year, ETP brings together nonprofit leaders from across the globe. Through intense in-person learning sessions and one-on-one coaching, Spitfire helps these leaders develop the skills and strategies needed to use communication to help their organizations win big on their issues. It all starts with an in-depth assessment of groups’ current communication capacity and knowledge.

Any foundation or nonprofit can benefit from taking stock in their communication strengths and needs. Spitfire’s SmartScan™ makes it easy for an organization to assess where its communication efforts are going well and where it could use some help. This free, online tool leads users through a series of questions about an organization’s current practices and produces a tailored report with recommendations for where to focus resources to make their communication efforts even stronger.

Stay tuned for some real light bulb moments from Spitfire’s recent capacity-building sessions that are sure to inspire you to crank your communication efforts into high gear this summer.

“This is a truly transformative program and there is no question that it is preparing leaders to be courageous communicators.”

- Colleen Bailey, Executive Director, The National Steinbeck Center

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