DIY strategic communications planning for nonprofits


A while ago I promised some advice about strategic communications planning, and my next step-by-step posts will cover that topic.

It’s timely because–while you might be able to overlook wasted communications dollars when times are good—2010 is the year to make sure you’re absolutely getting the most bang for your buck. A strategic communications plan can help you do that.

I’ll assume you’ve already done the three-part communications audit to figure out the effectiveness of your current communications and what your audiences are saying about you online. Armed with that accounting of which tactics seem to be working best, which can be abandoned, and where the holes are in your communications evaluation—you’re in a good position to start thinking about a strategic communications plan.

For me, the first step is looking at a nonprofit’s organizational strategic plan. I wish I could say that all nonprofits can provide a spot-on strategic plan, but the sad truth is not many do. The downward financial spiral of the past year hasn’t helped. It’s pushed some nonprofits into crisis mode, where the main focus is making it through next week. The benefits of longer term strategic plans appear too distant to invest energy in.

That’s kind of like focusing all your energy on how you’re going to meet your next credit card payment rather than carving out some time to consider the bigger picture of how you’re going to straighten out your finances so you can sustain yourself over time. The big, long-term picture is crucial to your organization’s future, and your strategic plan can be the map for getting you out of the woods. Not to mention that getting very clear about real-world goals is imperative for strategic communications.

Why? Because your communications plan is based on your organization’s overall strategic plan. If you  have a flawed strategic plan, your communications won’t be very effective. To start communications planning, the first question you ask yourselves is–-what do we want to happen? (That question should be answered within a good organizational strategic plan.)

It’s a deceptively simple question but one of the most important you can ask. The answer embodies your mission and theory of change, and drives your impact evaluation strategies. But be careful, because what you want to happen in the world isn’t the same as what you want to do. The former involves the actions of others, and the latter involves your organization’s actions. Don’t confuse the two.

When I ask nonprofits this question, it can take a fair amount of discussion to get to a cogent answer. They typically start out repeating their mission statement. For instance: “We want to protect land for the health of our region and for the enjoyment of future generations,” or “We want to provide world-class art experiences.” Sounds great, but that’s what you want to do. What you want to happen may be that 30,000 acres of land is protected in the next two years in your geographic area, or that your arts ticket sales go up by 20% next year.

Being explicit about what you want to happen is important because the WHAT can determine the WHO. And the next question you’ll need to answer in the strategic communications planning process is—who can make what you want to happen actually happen.

So, don’t rush to tactics. Get crystal clear about the on-the-ground results you’re after. By getting this clear, you’re also going to end up with measurable goals so you can better evaluate your progress and impact.

This may seem like an exaggeration but it’s not—spend up to 60% of your time and energy on this first step, articulating exactly what you want to happen—and 40% on the other steps, coming up with audiences and tactics. Once you know what you want to happen, everything in your communications strategy flows organically from that.

My next post will cover the “Who” question.  So stay tuned…

CC photo credit/Sumlin



6 Responses to “DIY strategic communications planning for nonprofits”

  1. Joanna Bouma Says:

    Dear Gayle,

    Thank you for this helpful article, and I look forward to reading the rest of your posts. I work in communications in the non-profit sector myself, and often find it hard to convince the people I work with that it doesn’t make sense to rush into strategies, but that we need to sit down and brainstorm/think/talk/clarify first before putting pen to paper.

    So thanks again.

  2. Jess S. Says:


    I just left a note in your LinkedIn thread, but wanted to leave a comment here as well. This post is spot-on, and organizations would do well to take it seriously.

    Both clients and communication professionals often mistake tactics for strategy, and it’s such a shame. There has to be a solid foundation to build a communications platform on, otherwise you end up with a lot of talk that doesn’t lead to the action the org really needs to see.


  3. Francis Wooby Says:

    This is a very clear, useful introduction to a crucial topic for non-profits. Thanks so much for taking the time to lay it out for our benefit.

    I work with non-profits and find myself constantly talking about the need to determine your destination before choosing a route and vehicle, or some other metaphor along these lines.

    Tactics are way too shiny and distracting for most clients, I find; whereas a mere mention of the word “strategy” brings a distinct glaze over their eyes.

    I suspect this comes from them being forced to sit through too many rambling sessions choosing fuzzy, immeasurable goals and conjuring up high fallooting yet ultimately meaningless mission statements.

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