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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Strategic Assessment


Organizing properly is essential (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

Throughout the process of building a new communications program, the urge is to move directly to the concrete -- publishing brochures, revamping the website, issuing press releases. But the important work of putting all of the pieces in their proper place, and assessing and positioning the organization cannot be ignored. It is essential.

By surveying what other similar organizations are doing, reviewing and assessing the organization's current materials and website and divining the opportunities that may present themselves, the organization has a much better chance of putting together an effective program and executing it effectively.

If part of the needs of the organization are to raise additional dollars through fundraising, it is important to understand who is currently giving, what messages are most effective and who are the best potential prospects. A thorough evaluation of the existing database can lead to clarity in targeting and messaging. Developing colorful brochures is only the endpoint of a carefully thought-out fundraising effort.

In one situation, a religious organization had developed a large database of donors over the years, but had neglected to develop a strategy of engaging with this potential advantage, instead relying on a small group of funders, who could no longer sustain the organization. By closely culling the existing lists, the organization was able to build a reliable source of donations on a broader scale.

Alternatively, if the organization intends to build participation in its programs, an interactive website that allows community interaction is essential. By raising the interest level of the existing members, an organization can employ its best ambassadors as emissaries to engage and attract new members. Fortunately, websites now have commonly available tools that easily foster such interaction.

Additionally, while nonprofits do not like to consider themselves in competition with others, the reality is that an organization has to grab the attention and persuade the same people that other organizations are also targeting. With that in mind, a nonprofit needs to scan the environment to understand what other organizations are in the same field and how it can differentiate itself. This should not be seen as a negative, only gaining a realistic view of what is necessary for success.

Finally, with the multitude of organizations providing services, there may be opportunities for partnering and collaboration that should be considered. Independence is always a goal, but focusing on strengths makes for better organizations. Efforts such as these can bring about breakthroughs and achievements far beyond what the individual organizations might do by themselves.

By taking the time to assess the organization's strategic position, the effort to communicate becomes easier, more focused and more cost effective.



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