MJ-school students engage Carrboro community through course on public relations strategies for nonprofits

Crowded elevators leading to sprawling rows of cubicles often fit the generic picture in many incoming and current students’ minds of a job in public relations. A common misconception stems from this image of a corporate work environment, and many students don’t realize that there are alternatives. Working for nonprofit organizations calls for equal levels of rigor, passion and skill.

Adjunct faculty member Marshele Carter saw an opportunity to expand awareness of communication positions in the nonprofit sector by offering a new course focused on the skills and experience needed to join a nonprofit team.

"MEJO 490: Special Topics in Mass Communication" courses are taught on topics of journalism and communication, varying in subject and instructor each semester. Carter wanted to spearhead a specific MEJO 490 course section that brought students into the heart of nonprofit work and further developed the introductory skills taught in “MEJO 232: Public Relations Writing.” Through this course, informally entitled “Cause Communications,” students teamed up to create public relations workshops that would teach nonprofits in the Triangle area how to utilize the tools gained in the classroom, including sponsorship fundraising strategies and approaches to digital media coverage.

“We’ve been getting a lot of deliverables that we could take to a nonprofit right now,” said junior Alexandra Smith '20, a student in the Fall 2018 course. “Here are the step-by-step ways you can do this, ways you can increase your media relations or increase your ability to storytell on your social media. … It’ll be really helpful learning exactly what to do in order to increase their public relations.”

The “Cause Communications” students collaborated in teams specializing in marketing, logistics, registration and sponsorship and social media.

The teams include:

Nonprofit Media Relations
What journalists wish you knew

This workshop is a comprehensive look at building relationships with local media and how to make your pitch stand out among hundreds of others.

Building Better Branding
Building blocks do more when they build on each other

This workshop discusses why having a strong brand builds legitimacy and credibility, but that brand must be consistent throughout all communication tactics, including social media, in order to be successful.

Because seeing is believing, and belief spurs action

The goal of this workshop is to provide attending nonprofits with adequate skills and resources to create compelling visual content with the help of examples and hands-on activities.

Maximizing Voice: Inside and Out
Maximizing the voice within

The Inside and Out workshop will help nonprofit organizations better understand the role they play in the lives of their volunteers. Special emphasis will be placed on elevating the voices of volunteers.


The workshops will be presented at a service-learning community event hosted by APPLES client YouthForward on Thursday, Nov. 29, at YouthWorx on Main in Carrboro. The course's sponsoring partner, Angel Oak Creative, will be represented at the event by keynote speaker Caitlin Clinard, founder and president of Angel Oak Creative.

Carter encouraged and facilitated open conversation in each class, leading her students through a newsroom-like environment. Students pitched workshop ideas initially for their midterm in mid-October 2018 to a panel of five professionals who gave constructive criticism before the teams moved forward and smoothed out the edges.

“For the pitches, I was looking for the 'why,'” said Sandra Cyr, Philanthropy Journal managing editor for the Institute for Nonprofits at North Carolina State University. “Why should I be interested in participating in this workshop? What is that hook that is really going to put people in seats?”

Nonprofits can sometimes be “bad” at marketing, according to Cate McLeane, director of client relations and senior marketing strategist at Angel Oak Creative, because they either do not have content or do not think they have content. The students were tasked with not only the creation of content, but also the creation of purpose. Nonprofit communication calls for clear objectives, company goals and energized writing to achieve those goals, among others.

“Adaptability, commitment, positivity and a roll-up-your-sleeves attitude are all traits we need and look for,” stated Alyson Stoffer, development officer for the Tammy Lynn Center for Development Disabilities.

“Cause Communications” aims to instill these traits and attitudes in participating students and will be offered again in Fall 2019 to continue doing so. In a time when transparency is called for in the media, adaptability will be essential to staying on top of the ever-changing modes of communication.

“We are in a moment where people are fatigued by the traditional methods of receiving information for professional development,” Stoffer added.

Stoffer believes that original content will no longer be appreciated but required, and that nonprofits oftentimes lack the funds to create top-notch marketing under tight budgets. This in turn calls for more commitment from their existing internal members. This might be news to many students seeking a job in the corporate sector of public relations; nonprofits require the same amount of energy and attention as for-profit companies.

“One of the biggest misconceptions I think people have regarding nonprofit communications in particular is that the talent and know-how simply doesn’t exist. The reality is, the talent is there, but the resources and infrastructure may not be to successfully support the position,” Stoffer said.

Carter doesn’t want this fact to faze students interested in cause communications.

“I hope my students are learning that a career in nonprofit communications demands just as much creativity and marketing know-how as public relations careers in the private sector,” said Carter. “Working for the public good is not settling for less.”

Through the course of “Cause Communications,” students have deepened their desire to positively impact their communities through nonprofit development. With assignments ranging from drafting annual reports to improving and maintaining donor relations, this course has given ample opportunities to foster a cause-minded approach to public relations. Students have taken their ideas and pitches and produced something attainable and digestible for Orange County nonprofits.

“Let’s not just dream and scheme,” said McLeane during a visit to the MJ-school on Wednesday, Nov. 14. “Anything you make for a nonprofit: make it last.”