Question & Answer
Q: How do I create a communications plan?
By Betsey Russell, president of WordOne, LLC. This article first appeared in and has been adapted from Interchange, the newsletter of the Southeastern Council of Foundations.
Whether you realize it or not, your nonprofit organization communicates with a number of diverse audiences every day. From board members to professional colleagues, from potential partners to potential donors—everything you say, mail, fax, hand out or post on your Web site makes an impression.
Too often, however, nonprofits send multiple and conflicting messages, leaving those who interact with them feeling confused or alienated. Worse still, some barely communicate at all, allowing those they touch to develop a host of misperceptions about the organization's purpose and personality.
At a time when budgets are shrinking and our society is becoming less trusting of those who ask for or control large sums of money, clear communication has become more important than ever.
Fortunately, a good communications plan can help you deliver clear, consistent messages while allowing you to budget and spend more strategically on communications efforts. Much as a strategic plan provides a guide for your organization's programmatic efforts, a communications plan serves as a roadmap for developing and disseminating all materials and messages from your nonprofit to achieve clear goals.
What a Good Plan Contains
A Definition of Audiences: Whom are you trying to reach? What interest moves them most? What do they already know about you?
Key Messages: What are the most important things your target audiences should know about you? Defining three--five key messages helps crystallize all of your organization's communications efforts. These messages should be the core of all communications activities, and should be internalized and used (although not necessarily verbatim) by all staff, board members and other representatives.
Clear, Simple Communications Goals: Why are you communicating? What do you expect communications to accomplish for you? Some of the most common goals are to increase awareness of your nonprofit among a specific audience and for a specific purpose, to overcome misperceptions, or to pave the way for donor, volunteer or partnership recruiting efforts. Broader goals can be broken down into a series of objectives.
Strategies: How will you accomplish your goals? This is the meat of any communications plan. Strategies should be directly relevant to each goal and to at least one of your target audience groups. Quite often, brainstorming strategies will help you discover current program or staff activities that can be harnessed to support communications.
Tools: These are the workhorses that put your strategies into action. Print pieces, Web sites and e-mail tools all fall under this category, as well as activities such as media relations, events and speaking engagements.
Obstacles: In a perfect world, your key messages would be instantly received, processed and understood by your target audiences with no hiccups. However, there are always obstacles to work around.
Your communications efforts will be competing with a number of worthy adversaries—everything from audience ignorance and misperceptions, to messages from other nonprofits, to just plain bad timing. Some obstacles you can work around, others you can't—but outlining and discussing them in the planning stages will pay off down the line.
But Wait, There's More!
While communication plan basics are listed above, you may also choose to incorporate the following:
Priorities for tackling strategies and assignment of staff/board roles and responsibilities.
A competitive analysis of other organizations that are competing for your target audiences' attention.
An image and style guide that provides rules and templates for using your organization's logo, colors, typefaces and other visual elements in print and on the Web.
Recommendations for training, such as a workshop on dealing with the media for foundation leaders or a seminar on desktop publishing to make in-house materials in line with communications strategies.
Evaluation measures to chart the effectiveness of your communication efforts.
What To Avoid
Stopping at 10,000 Feet: Don't let your plan stop with the big picture. Make sure every recommendation includes ways to get the job done. The ideal plan gives anyone, at any level of your nonprofit, a clear picture of the steps to take to achieve communication goals.
Unrealistic Goals: A communications plan filled with high-level strategies may sound great, but it's worth nothing if your staff or your budget can't support their implementation. Pay attention to your budget, available time and staff capabilities.
Guessing Games: If you don't know an audience, don't guess. There are a number of inexpensive ways to find out about them, if you are willing to invest a little time and creativity.
Use basic market research techniques such as a quick poll for anyone who comes through the door, or a free online survey tool like SurveyMonkey.com. For more inexpensive market research ideas, check out Cheap But Good Marketing Research by Alan Andreasen.
Communications is nothing new to nonprofit organizations, and there are a number of nonprofits that employ well-planned, highly effective communications practices. It's no coincidence that those same nonprofits are leading the field in other ways, too.
After all, they're telling their stories clearly and effectively, and that means everyone can benefit from their work.