Earlier this summer, I surveyed communicators
working for Mennonite church-related organizations. I wanted to know their thoughts
on the challenges and opportunities facing communicators today.
Below find their responses.
Amount of information. This is one thing everyone agreed about. People are overwhelmed
“The volume of news and information is staggering, and the speed
with which it just keeps arriving can be overwhelming,” said one. “The
communicator somehow needs to find a way to gain the attention, hopefully the
sustained attention, of an audience ready to interact.” “We are living in
a data smog today,” added another.
Declining budgets. Although communication is more important than ever, it’s hard for
communicators to get the resources they need to do all the things management
and boards want them to do. The pandemic has only made it harder as donations decline.
As one person put it: “An ongoing, and now amplified, challenge
is to produce quality content that is relevant to our audience with next
to no budget.
is a need for increased and varied communication in a time when financial
situations would suggest cutting expenses—but communication is
disproportionately important right now,” added another.
There once was a time when groups could appeal for money and attention on the
basis of group identity. No longer. People have choices, and just being a
Mennonite (or Baptist, Catholic, Pentecostal, Anglican or whatever)
organization or school isn’t going to cut it for many. It’s all about the offer;
what difference are you making in the world?
Diverse audiences. At one time, audiences were more homogenous. Not now. “The diversity of our audience is both a
challenge and an opportunity,” said one.
Mennonites worshipping in so many languages today, we need to think more about
translating materials,” added another. “We need to do a better job creating
connections with different racial and ethnic groups.”
aren't many resources out there for connecting in the ways that we need to
connect—across geography, culture, language, generation, etc.,” said another. “It
feels like we make our way by walking, but it can be exhausting to try to
figure it all out.”
of the groups the communicators work for are small and stretched. “We lack the
ability to produce the quality of larger, more well-funded Christian groups,”
said one. “Often their materials give our constituents the tools they need that
we can’t produce.”
Once upon a time, groups could get by with a magazine, newsletter and direct
mail. Things are different today.
demographic groups use a variety of social media, so how do we choose which
ones to engage with?” asked one person.
“Do we have the staff time to learn and
use them all effectively? How do we engage with them, knowing that each
social media platform is a culture in itself, but also that those using the
sites have different cultures (so it's not about just copying and pasting what
you do on one platform to another).”
platforms are fragmented. Facebook for Boomers and Xers. Twitter and
LinkedIn for business and news, Reddit and TikTok for younger folks,” said
hired a full-time digital communications specialist to keep up. That’s where we
have to put our energy,” offered a third.
not all are willing to do that. “Organizations are unwilling to pay what is
required to hire expert communication professionals,” stated a fourth person.
Youth. What about engaging youth? That’s a question on everyone’s
mind. “Ask them. I ask my daughters all the time to suggest pieces that I
should read or listen to or watch. I ask them to describe their media diet and
how it is changing,” said one.
exploring ways to connect with folks under 40; they are your future,” said
Involve them, said a third. “Organizations need to make space for younger voices in
leadership and at board tables.”
The growing edges of the Mennonite church are
not represented in leadership in many organizations,” said a fourth.
to harnessing the knowledge they have, while offering mentoring at the same
time,” added a fifth.
Be bold, said a sixth. “Groups need to be less worried about
offending older people and more concerned they are repelling younger people by
“Don’t be fake,” offered a seventh. “The threshold for B.S. by
young people is zero. Messaging needs to be real and honest.”
Yet all is not lost; there are opportunities today,
More platforms are a challenge, but also offer opportunities
to share stories in new ways. Social media is challenging, yet many people are
on it—all the time.
And unlike any other time, there are new opportunities for
segmenting and targeting audiences.
People saw opportunities with videos, but cautioned each
video needs a plan.
“I think it's
important to start by asking very basic questions: Why do we want to share a
message or content through a video? How often will the video be shared? Will
the video have a long life?” asked one person.
Also, “keep videos
short,” said another. “Brevity matters. A short slide show on a topic is often
as good as live action.”
and platforms have changed, but one thing that hasn’t is the need to tell good
stories disarms people and opens us up to the world of the Other,” said one. “Stories
can be effectively told in words, photos, videos, tweets, poetry, and
artwork. Focusing on the storytelling will take us far.”
there’s all the data that can be collected. “Use data to drive storytelling,”
said one person. “What are people
interested in reading or watching?”
Advice for Non-profit
I asked them what
advice they’d give an organization that wanted to reach them. Here’s what they
Tell stories. “What I'd like to hear are stories from people who have been
touched by an organization. I'd like to get to know the people who have
benefited from it. How are their lives different because of its work?”
“Storytelling all the way,” said another. “But
pay attention to whose voices are being featured and who the heroes of the
stories are. Watch out for paternalism or romanticism.”
Testimonials. “I'd welcome hearing from government officials or NGO officials
about their high regard for the organization as a hard-working, faith-based
organization,” said one.
Tell us what we can do. “How can more of us get involved? Is there work for people who
are ready to show up and contribute?” asked a third.
Find new ways to
connect. A younger person
noted that many groups she donates to only send her things in the mail. “As a younger, primarily digitally-based
person, most of the time I didn't even open them,” she said. “Diversifying
communication channels would go a long way.”
and opportunities; what do you think?
Many of the people I interviewed are members of Anabaptist Communicators, a networking and support group for communicators working for Anabaptist-Mennonite organizations.