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Getting Started With Communications Planning

This Communications Planning Guide was created for nonprofits institutions and foundations. It is designed to help the staff and volunteers of organizations that are just getting started with supporter communications and engagement planning.

First things first

Before you can create a communications plan, you need to be clear on what you are communicating about!  While non-profit and membership organizations share many common challenges (e.g., limited staff and funding resources) and may even be competing for attention with similar audiences,  each organization has its own distinctive mission or unique value proposition (in sales terms: Unique Selling Proposition). So before you start establishing communications goals and objectives, it’s important that you take the time to step back and make sure you are clear on what differentiates your organization. 

Do you have a plan?

You may not be surprised to hear that more than half of the non-profits surveyed recently had no formal communications plan. If you are in this group – you’re certainly not alone. Many organizations do an amazing job of offering programs and serving their communities, but struggle to effectively or consistently communicate with their constituents in a structured way. 

While you may have been avoiding this type of planning due to a lack of resources or time, it doesn’t need to be a daunting task. And a little planning might go a long way to ensuring that your limited resources are strategically focused – rather than simply responding to communications opportunities as they come at you or automatically doing what’s been done before, without knowing why. This planning process also helps get buy-in from all of the pertinent stakeholders and ensure consistency of message across the organization. 

Start by auditing your communications resources and environment 

Before you get started, it’s important to do some background research to get the lay of the land in terms of your current environment and your target audience. In issues management, this is called “situational analysis.” 

Here are some things to review: 

1.   Internal Scan – Communications Resource Audit/Inventory:

The person spearheading this planning process (e.g., the Communications Chairperson, the Outreach Volunteer, etc.) could start by conducting an audit or inventory of current communications-related resources the organization has, e.g.:

  • marketing or communications plans that have been developed or started in the past by another group of volunteers. You can gain insight from this information and any lessons learned.
  • in-house or volunteer expertise or talent in terms of communications, PR, graphic design, etc.;
  • existing communications vehicles such as a newsletter, member bulletin, etc. 

This information, in combination with your communications budget, will offer a snapshot of your existing resources so that when you develop your plan, you can identify any gaps in resources. 

2.   External Environment Scan:

It’s also good to have an up-to-date picture of how your organization is perceived within the context of the sector or environment you’re in.  For example, it would be good to know:

  • What are the key issues facing your sector right now?
  • How visible is your organization?
  • Are there any competitive or like organizations?
  • Do your members/supporters feel you offer value? 
  • What about prospective members/donors? Have you identified all of your potential audiences so you can determine their perspective on your organization?

Where can you gather this type of information?

  • Has the organization conducted a member, volunteer or supporter survey or focus group recently?
  • Do you have a member’s or volunteer forum, chat or blog?
  • Do you monitor websites of other organizations in your sector?
  • Is there a LinkedIn group for your sector?  

Check out the issues raised through these media and also see what’s going on in your sector through an online scan. Have a look at what other similar organizations are doing by checking out their websites or any emails you’ve received recently – what’s working and what’s not? 

Who should be involved in your communications planning?

If you already have a communications committee in place, this group can work together to develop the plan, with the support of the board and other pertinent volunteers (e.g., fundraising, events, etc.). While these high-level volunteers will be able to identify your communications goals and objectives, it would be helpful to have a communications strategist involved in developing the strategies and tactics necessary to realize these goals.

This type of planning may seem a little overwhelming for those volunteers new to this process. It might help to divide the planning into manageable steps or chunks and even consider having a different person responsible for achieving each step.

What’s involved in developing a Strategic Communications Plan? 

Many of you, especially your keen, action-oriented volunteers, may want to jump right into the tactical communications planning – such as conducting an e-mail campaign – to get some immediate results. But it’s important to spend the time identifying or confirming your audience, creating effective key messaging and reviewing communications channels before you dive into the actual materials execution. In addition, by setting thoughtful, specific objectives, you can keep your plan on track (regardless of volunteer or staff turnover) and measure outcomes at the end of the process. 

If the process seems a little overwhelming to your team, approach it as a series of steps and divide the work among groups or individuals. Here are the components that are usually included in a Strategic Communications Plan: 

1.  Goal(s): What are you trying to achieve?

Of course your communications goals will be dependent on the nature of your organization (e.g., non-profit fundraiser versus professional association, etc.), and whether the focus of your communications plan is based on organization-wide or campaign/issue-specific goals.

For example, you may establish organizational goals, such as:

a) Increasing membership by 15% over the next year.
b) Becoming recognized as the leading advocate in your field.

You may be creating campaign-specific or issue-related goals, such as:

c) Convincing a key decision-maker to introduce a new Bill.
d) Raising $10,000.00 through a six-month fundraising campaign.

2.   Communication Objectives:  Why are you mounting a communications campaign? 

Objectives are the outcomes that signify you’ve achieved your goal. There may be a number of objectives in order to support your goal. To be effective, objectives should be specific and include a measurable outcome; a timeframe and a clearly defined audience. Most people suggest you use the SMART theory for objectives: Specific, Measurable Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound. 

3.   Identification of your Target Audience(s):  Who are you talking to/trying to influence?

To create effective messaging and choose the right communications channels, you need to understand your audience – who they are, what is important to them (their needs, expectations, values, etc.) and their media habits. It’s also important to think about the stage of engagement of this target group. For example, do they know your organization? Have they participated in an event?  If you don’t have a lot of information on your audience, consider conducting an online survey to find answers to specific questions you have.

4.  Definition of Key Messages:  What words or ideas will resonate with your audience? 

This is the “what” part of your planning – what is the key point or points you want to convey? 

You want to summarize your key message as briefly as possible (1-2 brief paragraphs). Depending on your communications objectives, this may mean summarizing your mission or your more immediate goal. You need to think about your message from your audience’s perspective – e.g., why should he/she volunteer, donate, join, etc.? 

If you haven’t gone through this exercise before or in a while, it is helpful to brainstorm based on the following questions:

  • What short phrase captures your message?
  • What is your “hook”? What will get your audience’s attention?
  • Is your message short & succinct – e.g., could it fit on a bumper sticker? 

When you move from the brainstorming phase to formulation of key messages, be sure they are: 

  • Brief / simple
  • Authentic
  • Persuasive 

5.   Strategies & Tactics:   How exactly will you accomplish your objectives? 

This is the “how” part of your planning.

Strategies are specific, actionable plans and tactics are the specific communications vehicles or channels (e.g., online surveys, news releases; blog posts; e-newsletters, videos, etc.) that you’ll use to implement your strategies. Once you’ve created your high level communications plan, you can develop a specific, “Tactical Plan” that outlines the what and how of your communications plan (see Developing Your Tactical Plan below). Remember, you may decide that you’ll use a number of strategies to meet one objective. 

6.  Timelines:

Not surprisingly, this is the “when” part of the planning. Your timelines will be dependent on external factors – e.g., activities that you’ll plan to coincide with national holidays or communications strategies that will need to be launched prior to a government budget issue, etc. There are also production timelines that need to be factored into your scheduling. This may mean that you’ll need to map out a work-back production schedule or critical path for a number of activities before you finalize timelines on your communications plan.

7.  Measurement & Evaluation:

If you have set measurable objectives at the outset, you’ll know if you’ve accomplished your goals. But there are further evaluation measures that you should consider so that you can identify what worked and what really didn’t so you’re able to build on your success in future communications plans.

What can you track or measure?

Of course some metrics are easier to gather than others.  For instance, you can measure outputs such as:

  • the number of media mentions
  • open rates on emails and click-through’s to your website
  • the number of daily visitors to your website; page views
  • the number of subscribers to your blog and the number of comments left by blog readers
  • the number of fans or friends on your Facebook page 

You can collect data through website tracking (e.g., Google Analytics).  But what you measure or track will depend on your objectives. For example, if your goal is to increase members, you can track the number of opened emails in a direct mail campaign to see if the campaign meets its objective. But the critical measure of whether you achieve your ultimate goal would be the number of new members. 

Establish a baseline:

However, whatever form of measurement you use, you need to set an initial baseline in order to assess results. For example, if your objective is to increase subscribers to your blog, your baseline is your current number of subscribers. If your objective is to influence opinion, you’d need to conduct an initial survey or focus group, then, at the end of your campaign or once your tactics have been implemented, you’ll need to conduct another survey or focus group to gauge effectiveness. 

8.  Budget & Resources:

Once you’ve identified the strategies and tactics you believe will achieve your objectives, you need to determine what these will cost. To establish the total cost of each item on your tactical plan, you’ll need to think about:

  • Resources: Who will handle each task: staff, interns, volunteers? Estimate the time required and the costs involved.
  • External fees: e.g., facilitators for focus groups; consultants for direct mail campaigns; designers and writers for materials, etc. If you are using external experts, be sure they provide a budget estimate.
  • Cost of tracking/measurement: software cost; monthly fee for online services, etc.
  • Travel: Will the planning or the execution require travel? 

After  you’ve developed a rough estimate of what your tactical plan will cost, you may need to step back and do some prioritizing. 

Developing Your Tactical Plan

Once you’ve clearly set your strategic communications direction from your plan – e.g., defined goals and objectives, consensus on organizational characteristics and competitive environment; and identified target audiences – you can develop the specific tactical plan to outline how you’ll execute against your strategies. It’s been suggested that you think of this as your “master to-do list” – where you identify the activities or steps you’ll take; the channels you’ll use; the timing, etc. 

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