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How to avoid "Groundhog Day" at your nonprofit organisation

The "Groundhog Day phenomenon" refers to the 1993 film where Bill Murray's character is caught in a time loop, re-living the same day over and over again. At nonprofits, this painful re-living happens not through any magical forces, but due to poor organisational practices around documenting institutional knowledge and facilitating handovers between staff members.

In my 20 years as a digital communications consultant for nonprofits, I've witnessed the damaging "groundhog day" cycle of knowledge loss over and over again at different organisations. When brought in to assist a client several years after my last engagement, I find them grappling with the same communications challenges and missteps that previous staff had worked through – lost passwords, inconsistent branding, duplicated efforts from poor documentation. We'll put new systems and best practices in place, only for that hard-won institutional knowledge to be lost yet again when those staff members depart. The cycle then repeats with the next new hire, trapping the nonprofit in an endless loop of reinventing the wheel instead of being able to build sustainable communications momentum.

This is particularly damaging in communications and marketing roles. When a new communications director, marketing manager, or social media coordinator joins but receives little to no handover from their predecessor, it creates massive inefficiencies and missteps:

  • Wasted time and money as the new staff member has to recreate existing strategies, messages, branding guidelines, contact lists, and more from scratch.
  • Embarrassing mistakes from not understanding the organisation's voice, audiences, and existing campaigns that their predecessor had worked so hard to cultivate.
  • Lost opportunities as initiatives grind to a halt while the new person tries to get up to speed.
  • Frustration and low morale as the new staff member has to "reinvent the wheel" for a job that has existed at the organisation for years or even decades prior.

circle 311551 1280Examples of poor handover in practice

  •  At one environmental nonprofit, every new communications manager spent the first 6 months just trying to understand the organisation's 5 different program areas and identify their target audiences. Important campaigns were put on hold as the revolving door of new hires repeatedly had to relearn what their own organisation did. 

  • A cultural organisation's social media went dark for months when a new coordinator started because the previous employee's login credentials were not documented or handed over. Their hard-earned audience had to be effectively built from scratch when the new person recreated the accounts.

  • A passionate new marketing manager at one nonprofit burned through their entire annual budget in a few months by recreating print and digital assets the previous manager had created just a year before. Had handover documents existed, tens of thousands of rands could have been saved by simply reusing those existing materials.

This ongoing dynamic where no institutional knowledge is passed on and new hires are left to fend for themselves is incredibly demoralising for passionate communicators looking to propel the organisation's mission forward.

How to avoid "Groundhog Day" at your nonprofit

The solution to ending this nonprofit "Groundhog Day" nightmare is two-fold:

  1.  Organisations must prioritise documenting institutional knowledge like branding guidelines, messaging frameworks, stakeholder communications plans, process checklists, and especially account logins and passwords. Having a "virtual rubric" of communications practices also ensures consistent voice and messaging as staff turns over. *Watch this space for future resources to help you implement a virtual rubric.

  2.  Create a required knowledge transfer plan as part of every staff departure, whether voluntary or not. Allocate transition time and make expectations clear that the departing staff member shares all relevant documents, briefs the new team, and properly hands over duties and works-in-progress. Do not let employees walk out the door with years of institutional knowledge locked in their heads. But also, do not expect them to offload everything in their heads during a short notice period. Documentation should be an ongoing and regular part of their responsibilities.

With careful knowledge management practices in place, "groundhog day" can be avoided and new communications staff can hit the ground running with strategic work. The money and time invested in thorough handover and centralised documentation will pay massive dividends in the organisation's long-term communications impact and marketing success.

 Image credit: Mohamed Hassan , licensed under Creative Commons.

Ruen Govinder

Founder and Executive Director, Hashtag Nonprofit

Ruen Govinder is the founder and director of Hashtag Nonprofit. She has over 20 years of experience in consulting and managing online communications and technology for the development sector. She produced a series of e-books on communications strategies for nonprofits, and has worked with clients across Africa and in the United States.

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