What are the first steps in developing a strategic communications plan?

You want to raise awareness and funds for your cause. To do that, you need to get your message out, to engage and motivate your audiences. But how do you cut through the information clutter to ensure your voice is heard above the rest? In today’s competitive market, your approach to communications is key.

Thinking strategically about communications will help you tailor your activities to meet your constituent needs. It’ll help you budget for the tools and strategies you’ll need to use. And, it’ll help you link communications to your goals and mission, to ensure you’re getting the right results.

Without exception, effective communications strategies are built on a solid foundation of research and planning.

Research to get a true picture and establish a baseline for measuring success.

Research is critical to getting a clear picture of who you are as an organization and where you want to go. It’ll also help you learn who your audiences are and more clearly see the landscape in which you operate. Getting this kind of insight is necessary to develop a plan based on fact rather than assumptions.

To start, you’ll want to conduct an audit of your organization. Take an objective look at your mission and goals, and your current communications activities. Who are you? How are you perceived in the market? Who are your donors and why do they give? Is your mission clear? Are your goals in line with your mission?

Outline the communications activities you’ve implemented and the results you’ve achieved. Ask staff for input. Tap constituents, board members and other keys stakeholders for an outsider’s perspective.

Once you know who you are and how you’re perceived, you’ll want to look at your organization in relation to your peers. What are peer organizations doing well? What challenges do they face? Whom do they serve? And what makes them unique?

Knowing how you compare to others that serve your mission will allow you to unlock your specific strengths and communicate the unique value your organization contributes. This will help you drive a clear, focused mission that will resonate with your constituents and allow you to stay relevant to them.

Here are four tools you can use to make research easy and cost-effective:

  1. Surveys. Use web survey tools like SurveyMonkey and Constant Contact to develop and disseminate questionnaires to staff and constituents about specific issues. Use phone surveys to elicit even more revealing results.
  2. Focus groups. Conduct short sessions with donors, volunteers, colleagues, board members and other key stakeholders to test the effectiveness of your communications materials and get in-depth information about how others perceive you.
  3. Communications audits. Generally conducted by a consultant, an audit is typically an in-depth analysis of your current communications strategies. It provides feedback to help you identify gaps and learn which activities are working and which aren’t.
  4. Secondary information sources. Already existing nonprofit-related research, such as statistical reports, news items, trend reports and the like, is readily available (often online) and usually free. This kind of sector-specific information can help you better understand the nonprofit landscape and your competitors.

Once you’ve completed your research, here are eight questions to answer:

  1. Do you know your mission and goals?
  2. Are your communications strategies oriented toward your goals?
  3. What communications challenges are you facing today?
  4. What marketing and communications strategies are popular in your service area?
  5. Who are your audiences (constituent groups, partners, funders)?
  6. What do your target audiences know about you?
  7. What is your staff skill-set?
  8. Does your budget adequately support your communications activities and can you afford to hire additional resources if needed?

Create a roadmap to guide you to your goal.

Once you know who you are and where you want to go, you’re going to need to develop a plan of action. Now, the business of writing your plan begins. When writing your communications plan you’ll want to:

  • Outline your objectives and goals. Think general and specific, short and long term. Link goals to your mission to keep you on track. Make objectives measurable and achievable.
  • Identify your audiences. You may have more than one. (Consider constituent groups, potential partners and funders.) If so, segment and prioritize them.
  • Highlight your unique position among your peers and tie this to your constituent needs. What makes you stand out and why is this important to your audience?
  • Identify key messages that resonate with each audience. Think of the most important things you want your audience to know about your organization and what it does to help them.
  • Describe the strategies and tools you’ll use to reach your goal. Will you focus on creating partnerships to get your messages out? Will you use social media or direct mail? Donor cultivation and fundraising? If you’re unsure of your options, do an Internet search for nonprofit marketing or communications strategies for ideas.
  • Outline your budget. You’ll want to look at the output you have available for communications activities, upgrading staff skills or hiring additional resources. If you’re low on dollars, you’ll also want to describe how you’ll find the funds to implement your plan.
  • Describe your implementation plan. What’s your timetable? How will you prioritize the launch of each strategy?
  • Develop a strategy to measure success. Identify what success will look like and evaluate your progress as you go. Determine what’s working and what isn’t. Then, you can modify and refine your strategies to make the most of your resources and budget.

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