As the communications manager for a small Bethesda nonprofit, Juliana Avery never expected to see her organization advocating for its mission in the pages of The New York Times.
But after taking part in a capacity building program for nonprofit communications professionals, Avery’s organization is proving that with the right message and approach even small nonprofits can reach big audiences.
In 2015, Collegiate Directions Inc., was one of 13 Washington-area nonprofits that began an intensive training program offered by SPIN Academy, which provides strategic communications training to nonprofits.
The training program — funded as part of the Meyer Foundation’s Children and Family Capacity-Building Initiative for Freddie Mac Foundation grantees — gives nonprofit leaders three day-long training sessions on topics like branding, message development, storytelling and media relations.
Each organization also receives six months of additional coaching support to help develop and carry out their communications plans.
The program is an example of Meyer’s longstanding effort to invest in the capacity and sustainability of nonprofits in the Washington region.
Meyer believes organizations are more effective when they are equipped with strong leadership, thoughtful strategy, and sound operations. But for many resource-strapped organizations, it is often difficult to invest in training staff in disciplines like communications and media relations.
The SPIN Academy program is an attempt to help bridge that gap for professionals like Avery, who participated in the training program along with CDI’s President, Rachel Pfeifer.
“We’ve wanted to share our message more widely and for more people to know about us, but we’ve never had much success in getting that message into the media,” she said.
Prior to the training, Collegiate Directions, which works to close the education, achievement, and opportunity gap for low-income college students, had largely focused on sending news releases to local and regional media outlets — and had received little response.
But after completing the program, Avery said she and Pfeifer learned that CDI had an opportunity to build its profile, raise awareness — and possibly gain media attention — by injecting its voice into broader conversations about the challenges faced by low-income college students.
SPIN Academy taught them a number of strategies for connecting with the media — one of which focused on having Pfeifer author submitted opinion pieces for newspapers.
In February, when the president of Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, MD made headlines for advocating to encourage struggling freshmen to leave the school to help boost its retention rate, Avery saw an opportunity to put that training to use.
With Avery’s help, Pfeifer penned a piece that challenged the the university president’s stance.
“This has been a wonderful experience for CDI,” Avery said. “We are happy to have made our voice heard on an important issue. It has energized our board and supporters, and raised the profile of the organization.”
It also helped get results. Facing public pressure, the university’s president has since resigned — and CDI has helped lead a larger discussion about the issues surrounding low-income and first-generation college students.