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


Nonprofits have two missions to balance–cause and corporate

twinsBefore I start talking about strategic communications planning in coming weeks, I want to point out a fact that most nonprofits vaguely sense but few clearly articulate.

You have two missions—a cause mission to change society and a corporate mission to sustain your organization. It’s important to keep clear about these two missions, the tension between them, and the communications resources required for both.

Too often, the bulk of nonprofit communications resources are channeled into supporting  corporate mission—raising money. That’s understandable, especially in times of funding scarcity, but it’s also a little short-sighted.

Your cause mission is the raison d’etre for your organization. How well you accomplish it is probably the single most important factor in your long-term fund raising success. If you can’t continuously report impact and progress related to your cause, donors will soon find a nonprofit that can.

Nonprofit communications is not just about marketing your organization to funders, donors, and volunteers. Communications can also powerfully advance your cause mission by helping you shift public opinion, coalesce networks, and build social movements. You’re going to need to think more deeply and creatively about how to do that as you start planning. (For starters, read some of the recent posts on Beth Kanter’s blog about using social media to build social movements.)

You may believe that your cause mission depends on the success of your corporate mission (“we can’t do any programs if we don’t have money”); I believe it’s the other way around (“we won’t raise money if we can’t show program impact”). Realistically, it’s a little of both. Consider that when you’re allocating communications resources next year.


Communications audit: Step three—your digital identity



In the past two weeks I’ve taken you through the major steps in conducting a communications audit, but we’re not quite done. Do keep in mind—this entire audit is set against the backdrop of your current strategic communications plan to help you assess how effectively you’re reaching your goals.

This week I’ll cover the final two steps of an audit—your digital identity and a competition analysis.

As part of your review of the communications you produce (part one of the audit), you’ve already analyzed your current social media platforms, including ROI. Now, you’re going to take a little different approach to how your organization is represented online: piecing together your digital identity.

Your Digital Identity

Whether you know it (or like it), your organization is being talked about and judged all the time. Word-of-mouth can be the most powerful form of communication going today, so you need to know what’s being said and thought about your nonprofit and its work.

The good news is, Web 2.0 has made it much easier and cheaper to track that kind of information. Many of you already have organizational listening strategies that continuously monitor online conversations. That’s important. But for this audit exercise, inspired by Nancy White’s in-depth work with digital identities, you’re going to do online searches while pretending to be these three people:

  • a potential donor
  • a potential employee
  • a member of the media

1) Do a Google search for for your organization, including any possible abbreviations or acronyms. Read every search result-–first from the viewpoint of a donor, second from the viewpoint of a potential employee, and third from the viewpoint of a media representative. For each persona, make note of anything good about your organization that’s highlighted (and where) and more importantly, anything negative or that might raise confusing or troubling questions. Also, generally, make note of opportunities. For instance, if you run across a listing that includes your organization that you didn’t know about, don’t waste any chance you have to submit better profile information.

2) Do this same search exercise for your executive director and board chair. Does your executive director and/or board chair have a Google profile? If not, create one.

3) Do a Google image search for your organization, executive director, and board chair. Know what images are out there possibly representing you.

3) Do searches for your organization, executive director, and board chair on: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn,, flickr, and YouTube. Pay attention to what messages your avatars, photos, and videos send to these three personae, as well as what content, links, comments, and rankings convey. Note anything that could be harmful to your nonprofit’s reputation. You don’t control online conversation, but you need to know what’s being said so you can consider what kind of action might be taken to help correct misperceptions or end dissatisfactions. Be prepared—some problems may go deeper than communications to involve aspects of your programs. If there is nothing or very little being said about you on these platforms, you need to think about that, too. Is that a good thing or a bad thing vis a vis your communications plan?

4) Do searches for your organization on popular charity Web sites and directories: what information is being shared? Are you being rated? If so, what are the results? Are you missing from sites where you should be included? Here are a few sites to get you started: CharityNavigator, Guidestar, CharityGuide, InsideGood, GreatNonprofits,and Idealist.

When you’ve finished these inquires, you’ll have a better sense of what potential donors and employees, as well as reporters can (and will) find out about you online. If  you discover significant problems with your current digital identity—especially inaccuracies—address them right away. Also make note of opportunities to better represent your organization online. Those should be woven into your new strategic plan.

Competition Analysis

There’s one more piece to a communication audit that I highly recommend for nonprofits and foundations–a competition (or peer) analysis. Find out how to do one in my post from a few months ago. Be sure to include social media platforms in your review—not just websites and publications.

In coming weeks, I’ll talk about the nuts and bolts of crafting a new strategic communications plan for your organization. But rest assured, if you’ve done the audit—you’re miles ahead in understanding which of your communications need to be changed or discontinued.

CC photo credit: krazydad/jbum


Communications audits: Media Analysis



Last week I provided guidelines for assessing the communications that you control. But that’s only half of the story–especially in today’s conversational Web 2.0 environment.

This week, attention turns to what the media is saying about you, and next week—what the Web is saying about you, and what your peers and competitors are up to.

Media Analysis

You all know your local media outlets, and you should be continuously tracking coverage of your organization and issue in them through Google alerts. But for this exercise, collect all the major coverage you’ve had in the past year—online and in print. (If possible, make this exercise an annual one so you can track trends over time.)

Don’t just read through the coverage, create a spreadsheet and answer the questions below for each story. There are two ways to approach this: 1) start with the media that you most wanted coverage by and work down to the media that covered you that you didn’t aim for, or, 2) start by tracking the coverage generated by your specific media relations efforts/news releases and work down to coverage that you didn’t generate yourselves. Both of those collection methods will yield insights.

For each story:

  • Where did it appear? (name of specific medium plus whether it was print, electronic, or online)
  • What date did it run?
  • Who wrote or produced it? Do you have any kind of relationship with that person?
  • Was it long, medium, or short?
  • Did it feature a photo, or a side bar?
  • Was is positive or negative about your organization or its work?
  • Did it include a quote from your organization? Who was quoted?
  • What was the main message about your organization that came through? (state this message in one simple sentence)
  • Was that the main message you wanted to come through? If not, what was the message you were aiming for?
  • What was the genesis of the story? Your news release, a call to a reporter, etc.
  • Were any parts of your news release repeated in the story?
  • Was the issue framed in the way your organization is framing it? Did media use any of the same language you are using in your frame?
  • Was there any measurable ROI for each of your major media pushes, e.g. attendance spikes at media-promoted events, a sharp increase in website hits from a media article, a rise in donations following a media feature, etc. Always try to track tangible results for your organization during and after a media push.

Glean trends and insights

Now, look over the spreadsheet for insights into how effectively you met your media relations objectives.

  • Are there any reporters writing about your issue, especially on a regular basis, that you haven’t built a relationship with? If so—start a relationship now, when you aren’t pushing a story. These relationships are as much about helping reporters/bloggers as they are about getting a story.
  • What was the biggest source of coverage—your news releases? your phone calls? other kinds of media networking you did? partners’ media relations? etc.  (If the biggest source wasn’t your organization, think about the implications of that.)
  • How does the coverage match with your strategic communication media goals? (e.g., If you’re trying for big hits every quarter—did you achieve that? If you’re trying to up your coverage in one particular media outlet—did you achieve that?)
  • Are there any media “holes” that you need to focus on: media popular with your key audiences that aren’t covering you at all.
  • Did your photos end up being used? (If not, consider why that may be. Are they of high enough quality? Are they compelling and relevant? Do they include human beings, especially faces? Do they tell a story?)
  • What’s the ratio of negative to positive stories? If there were negative stories you think were unfair and inaccurate, try to analyze what happened and consider how you can improve your credibility with those reporters.
  • Is there a recurring negative message or meme out there about your organization or work or issue you need to be aware of and try to correct? Is there a recurring positive message you’d like to reinforce?
  • Are the positive messages that appeared actually the most important messages you would want people to hear about your organization and its work? If not, you need to work on your message platform so you’re repeating the most important positive messages every chance you get.
  • Who is most often interviewed from your organization by the media? Does that person do a great job every time, or could they profit from media training?
  • Is your frame is gaining traction?  Are your language and metaphors being used by the media.
  • Were the correlations between media channels and ROI what you wanted and expected? e.g., did smaller, niche media deliver more than mass media? did online perform better than print? did TV disappoint?
  • Does the media seem more interested in some topics than others? Ask yourself why that might be and how you can use that knowledge.

You may even want to write a little summary of the image of your organization as it’s portrayed in last year’s coverage to clarify what you need to focus on changing. This whole analysis gives you a rich context to start planning the media relations component of your next strategic plan.

If you have additional ideas for things to watch for in a media coverage analysis, please add them below!


First step in strategic communications planning: Communications audits



If I had one piece of advice to give any foundation or nonprofit communicator in this new financial paradigm of thrift, it would be to develop a strategic communications plan. It may be your biggest conservation tool. If you already have a plan, the second half of the year is a good time to revisit it for fine-tuning or mid-course corrections

Some people quake in their boots at the words “strategic plan.” The trick is doing it step by step, and not rushing to tactics. If you spend 75 % of your time getting strategy right, you’ll only need to spend 25% of your time figuring out tactics—because they grow organically out of your strategy.

For this series of posts, I’m assuming you don’t have money hire a firm or an external consultant to help you with a plan, but you still want to do as much as you can internally to improve the effectiveness of your communications. I’ll try to keep my advice realistic and doable.

This week, I’m going to talk about the first step in the process—communications audits.

If you’re planning on redecorating your house, you don’t just go out one day and buy paint and furniture willy-nilly. You first look around and see what you already have. That helps you develop a vision for what you want, and exposes what needs to be changed.

That’s what communications audits do. You need to know where you are to figure out where you want to go next and how best to get there. Audits assess your current communications practices and products, and highlight areas that need improvement. There are lots of ways of doing them, but I’m paring it down to what I think can help you the most and not overwhelm you. (But it will take an investment of your time. No way around that.)

Make a list

You’re going to be gathering and analyzing all of the communications you currently produce. So, the first thing to do is make a list of them all—from your Facebook page to your annual report, from grantee announcement letters to the voicemail message on your organization’s main telephone line, from the signatures on your emails to donor thank you cards.

Don’t think just in terms of print or written communications—include all your digital communications and social media platforms as well. Even include your signature special events and small group meetings if they’re important communications tactics with external audiences.

What you’re trying to get from this audit is a complete picture of the panorama of communications tactics you’re currently using, and a sense of the cost/effectiveness for each.

Once you have this list, add some details for each item (create a grid):

  • Time frame  (e.g., annual report—March; enewsletters—Jan, April, August, Nov.)
  • Audience/Purpose (who you’re trying to reach and what you want them to do after receiving your communication)
  • Reach (e.g. how many publications are printed and distributed/how many you have left in your storeroom; how many facebook fans you have; how many people receive your email newsletters; how many twitter followers; web visitors, etc.)
  • Cost (real cost, not what you budgeted)
  • Staff time (note whether staff time investment in this communication is intensive, moderate, or small)
  • Any known return on investment/ROI  (through your strategic planning you’re going to get better at measuring this, but put down anything you know right now—total donations through facebook page, results of reader surveys for major publications, how many website downloads, etc. What you’re trying to discover is which communications best lead to people taking the action you wanted them to take.)

Analyze this information in several different ways.

  • Look for duplicate efforts; maybe you can eliminate the tactic with less ROI.
  • Notice where you have no idea about ROI; you’re flying completely blind there. You need to build in evaluation.
  • Notice any correlations between cost, reach, staff time, and ROI–the ideal communication causes the most people to take the action you want them to take and costs the least amount of money and staff time. Are you spending the most staff time and money on communications with the largest reach to key audiences and biggest ROI?
  • Are you inundating any of your audiences? Ignoring any ? Are your communications choreographed to arrive at optimal time intervals with each audience? Are you leading audiences into a deeper relationship with your organization with every communication?
  • Are there important audience actions that aren’t covered in the “purpose” of any of your communications?
  • What’s the balance you’re striking between print, digital, and face to face communications? Are you too heavy into print? Are you slighting face-to-face? Are you spending too much time on social media?

Gather samples

Now, gather as many actual samples of all your printed pieces as possible—including your letterhead and business cards and print-outs of your digital landing pages. Lay them all out on a big table or tape them to a wall. (For clearer insights, arrange them horizontally according to when they occur during the calendar year and vertically according to audience.) Overall, what you’re looking at is your visual identity. Notice how things cohere and reinforce each other (what you’re striving for) or how different they all look (uh-oh).

Some questions to ask while reviewing these items:

  • Is your logo/wordmark/tagline and contact info on every piece? Does your logo/wordmark look identical, except for size, everywhere?
  • Are you using a limited, consistent, easily recognizable palette of colors?
  • Is there some kind of design consistency throughout, even though every piece doesn’t have to be identical? Would someone easily recognize these pieces as all being produced by the same organization?
  • Is there design consistency between our printed and digital communications?
  • What three adjectives do you think people would think of when looking at your current visual identity? (Be honest. If you don’t trust yourself, ask some friendly strangers from the next office to come in and offer opinions.) Are these the three adjectives you want people to think of when they think of your organization?
  • Does everything look professional—even if cheaply produced?
  • Is there a warmth, a “human being” sense to your communications, or are they cold and institutional?

Now study the content of your communications.

  • Are they immediately engaging for the reader? Are there high quality compelling photographs that reinforce main messages? Are headlines meaningful, informative, and attention grabbing? Do you use subheads, captions, drawn quotes, and sidebars to layer information for skimmers? Is the content really interesting to your audiences, or is it just something it was easy for you to pull together?
  • Are you conveying your one or two main strategic messages throughout our communications mix?
  • Look for conflicting messages; if you’re messages contradict each other you’re confusing audiences.
  • Are you providing easy cross-referencing  for audiences to all your channels—Are there links to your latest newsletter and social media pages on your website home page? Is your web address front and center in your printed materials? Are your publications featured on your social media pages, and vice versa?
  • What’s the quality of writing? Is your web writing just like your publication writing? (It shouldn’t be. See my free ebook about best practices in nonprofit website design.) It is it in plain, easy to understand English, or full of complex sentences and jargon? Is your writing too long?
  • Do you include other voices in your writing, or is it always you talking about what you’re doing and why it’s important?

By the end of this part of the audit, you should have a pretty good idea of 1) how your products and practices are either hitting or missing the mark and 2) which ones are the most cost/effective in light of your communications goals and your institution’s strategic plan. Make notes about all the weaknesses, opportunities, and improvements you’ve discovered, and record any ideas and insights. This will all help set the context for your strategic planning.

Next week I’ll cover three other parts of a communications audit—media coverage analysis, digital identity, and competition analysis. In subsequent weeks, I’ll get into the actual planning process.


CC photo credit: joebeone