Spitfire Strategies

The People Who Give Spitfire Our Spark: Mark Dessauer

Kristen Grimm

By Kristen Grimm
President

Spitfire’s special sauce is its people. They are tremendously talented and committed. We know they would never brag about themselves, so we are going to do it for them. This occasional series gives you a chance to get to know the people of Spitfire better. Enjoy.


Seeking the Eureka Moment

Spitfire’s training makes a lasting impression.

Mark Dessauer says a lightbulb switched on when he had his first encounter with Spitfire. Although it would be more than 10 years before he officially joined the team, he says his experience at a Spitfire training session was transformative, reshaping the way he thinks about communications.

“It was so clear what the Smart Chart was and that it was good not just for us, but for our grantees,” says Mark, who, at the time, was the communication director for Active Living By Design, a project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “We ended up having all of our grantees go through the training.”

For Mark, it was much like a “eureka!” moment in a science lab. Already a seasoned communicator, he continued using the tools and strategies he learned from Spitfire, including the Smart Chart, which guides organizations in every aspect of their communication planning. What’s more, he became an evangelist for Spitfire’s approach to rigorously researched, targeted communications.

“I really enjoyed helping other groups figure out how to bake communication in from the beginning, because strategic communication belongs up front,” he says. “When you see something that works, and you see it change organizations and change people, you want to take it to as many people as possible.” 

Given Mark’s passion for strategic communication, it’s not surprising that he ultimately wound up on the Spitfire team, as Vice President of Learning. The fact that he’s on the other side of the table now brings an important perspective to his work.

“I’m able to say, ‘I know what you’re trying to do with this grantee — I was a grantee once.’ Working with grantees is very meaningful to me,” he says. “It’s not a training, it’s a conversation with people. You really have to listen. We spend time understanding how they communicate, we talk with them and then we do the training.”

In addition to traveling the country leading training sessions for clients, Mark trains Spitfire staff, so they can deliver educational sessions, too. A self-described extrovert, Mark says he thrives on helping others learn how to listen, coach and present learning techniques.

He also develops new training tools for Spitfire. He refers to one that’s in development as a “Swiss army knife,” because it’s intended to help teams as small as one person get the most out of their communications — and their typically tight budgets. He’s also working on a tool to help collective impact organizations better harness communication resources and strategies across groups.

In all of his work, Mark believes in bringing everyone into the communication fold, because communicating and connecting with audiences is everyone’s responsibility.

“I realized when I was with Active Living By Design that our communication plan did not have to be a separate thing — it had to be tied into everything, which changed our entire logic model,” he says. “After Spitfire, I realized the communication plan has to support the policy change and everything had to be tied together.”

Spitfire’s training and tools also focus on helping organizations understand how communication strategy can increase their capacity. The trick isn’t to work harder but to work smarter, shifting the organization’s mindset so they’re communicating with the right people in the right way.

“You really have to understand with whom you’re trying to communicate and what they are about: what their values and barriers are beyond demographics, and going into psychographics and behavior science to understand what people will and won’t do,” he says. “That breakthrough — when organizations realize it’s not the ‘general public’ they’re trying to reach — changes their priorities and how they communicate.”

For instance, an organization might jettison a podcast that’s not precisely targeted in favor of working directly with a specific set of policymakers or funders. It’s the same kind of lightbulb moment Mark had many years ago, and it’s a discovery he says he’s “pleased as punch” to share with others.

And it works. As just one recent example, Spitfire provided communication training and speaker coaching to an executive who runs an advocacy group for children. The subsequent speech she delivered doubled the group’s fundraising goal for their event and tripled what they raised in the previous year, mostly in donations made after the speech.

These are the kind of results Mark sees time and time again, ever since he was the enthusiastic recipient of Spitfire’s inspiration in that training session many years ago. And lo and behold, he says, he’s now part of the Spitfire team himself. 

“I love working for Spitfire because we’re working with really amazing organizations that are trying to make the world better,” Mark says. “If we can help them be more efficient and impactful in their communications, I feel like I’ve been given the magic beans.”

 

“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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