The Nonprophet Advisor

Thoughts and observations on nonprofit management from a communications and executive professional with 30 years of experience.

Communications Plan: The Heart of the Matter

Often, organizations seek to resolve their communications problems by immediately leaping to a communication plan without first ensuring that their mission is settled and their strategy is sound. In previous posts, we've walked through these crucial first steps and now it's time to put together a communications plan.


Identifying audiences is essential (Photo credit: thinkmedialabs)

No question that preparing a marketing communications plan is the most important step in marketing communications, and understandably it involves considerable effort and time, at a moment when the natural instinct is just to get going. Resist the temptation. Instead, develop as comprehensive a document as possible. In the long run, a good plan actually saves time and effort.

In any communications plan, there are three critical components: the audiences of the organization; the message(s) that the organization needs to deliver; and the channels by which the organization will deliver the messages to the audiences. Each component must be fully developed to create an effective program.

When identifying the audiences of the organization, it's sometimes easy to focus on the revenue side. But that may ignore many other important constituencies. Better, make this process as open-ended and comprehensive as possible.

For example, on the external side: If the organization has donors, they would be an obvious audience. But what about grant-providers, the gatekeepers for those providers, and, in the political arena, the political leaders and their staff? If the organization offers services, the consumer of the services is surely an audience, but what about the experts who influence the decisions of the potential users? Looking at all of the possible audiences opens up a world of opportunities for your message.

But don't forget internal audiences: the Board of Directors not only develops the mission, but needs to be kept informed of how it's being delivered; donors (including the Board) want to know where their money is going; staff needs to understand how well they are fulfilling the mission; potential Board members and new staff recruits are more likely to join the organization if they have a positive impression of the organization.

When forming the audience list, it is better to be expansive and later pare down the list than to self-select and risk missing important targets, whose omission is subsequently regretted.

Developing messages that communicate the mission to varied audiences is not a simple task, since each message must be carefully tailored. Since the Directors are very different from the recipient of an organization's services, how the message is constructed takes serious thought and care.

It's important to re-emphasize that each message, though perhaps fit to different audiences, must be clearly tied to the mission. If messages stray from the mission in an effort to reach a specific audience, they create considerable confusion, exactly the opposite intention of the whole exercise. Discipline is essential.

Finally, the plan must identify how it will reach the audiences with the message. Today, there are a plethora of avenues and channels for reaching targets, but the competition to gain their attention is more difficult than ever. A comprehensive look at the variety of tools available, within the financial capacity of the organization, will begin to build the implementation program.

Next, we'll look at the available electronic tools.

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Mission Possible

The Thinking Man sculpture at Musée Rodin in Paris

The Thinking Man sculpture at Musée Rodin in Paris (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Too often, organizations forge ahead into plans for marketing and new businesses before clearly defining their objectives. A simple brochure or a few Tweets might provide the needed boost in donations to fund the organization or build a following on the Internet, or so the thinking goes.

Yet, leaping before thinking will likely result in disappointment, and worse, the wasting of precious resources. A good plan is required before moving to implementation, and a good plan begins with a clear mission.

Examples abound of organizations that once knew where they were going, but failed to adapt their objectives to changing circumstances. Their leadership moved into different areas, often in pursuit of funding, that departed from their original purpose. The Board lacked the insight to focus on a single purpose.

Over time, results bring almost inevitable disappointment. There are demands to change course immediately and perhaps cries for quick solutions. But without the essential element of redefining the mission, all of the effort will result in just further disappointment. A ship without a map will never reach its destination.

If the organization's leadership and staff are aligned, the efforts will bear fruit. Refining the mission is not necessarily a Herculean task. Perhaps, it's just recasting the old mission in new light and terms that are more relevant. Or the environment has changed but the organization's mission has remained stuck in its old thinking.

The amount of work needed to bring about the necessary change depends on the degree of consensus in the thinking of the leaders of the organization. If there is general agreement, a powerful mission statement can be readily developed. If the discussion surfaces deeper problems, the process requires additional resources. The fact that these problems emerge goes to the heart of the organization's difficulties, and it can't expect a change in results until these problems are resolved.

Once there is clarity on the overall objective, the job of developing a plan to market the organization gains clarity, paths open and opportunities emerge. Capturing those opportunities becomes the next step in the marketing process.

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