Experts say communications plan key to successful strategic planning

by Roger Sametz for Nonprofit Business Advisor

Developing a strategic plan to help focus your nonprofit’s goals and objectives is a critical first step in ensuring long-term sustainability. But simply having a plan doesn’t guarantee success. Actively putting it into practice and measuring progress toward those goals is just as crucial. To that end, experts say, nonprofits need a formal communications plan that is designed to support the strategic plan as the organization puts it into play—something that many charities don’t quite understand.

Nonprofits need a formal communications plan designed to support the strategic plan as the organization puts it into play—something many charities don’t quite understand.

By their nature, strategic plans are “big picture”— they cover everything from succession planning and developing fundraising and donor engagement programs to investment strategies aimed at achieving long-term financial stability—not to mention mission-related components that keep the organization on track and headed for success. According to Roger Sametz of Boston-based Sametz Blackstone Associates, communications touches on it all.

“For any of that stuff to happen, you need people to think and act in your favor, both internally and externally. And this often doesn’t happen unprompted—you need to connect with people and drive them to action,” he said.

While many charities have general communication plans in place, they typically are focused on a small slice of the organization’s activities—for example, fundraising and donor engagement. When looking at communications in terms of a strategic plan, it’s much more comprehensive, Sametz said, involving numerous stakeholders—or audiences— that will require different levels of engagement and information. Your communications plan should be designed to speak to each of these audiences, with messages tailored as appropriate, he said.

You don’t want to get too fragmented, he said, but you do need to identify the broad categories of constituencies you are speaking to.

“A simple approach would be to categorize them as internal and external groups,” he said. For example, your staff would be internal, your board would be right in the middle and your donors or association members would be external. So would other stakeholders, like community groups or government agencies you are hoping to partner with on some program or policy initiative.

“Your communications should project the qualities you want to be associated with. This will make it easier to make the connection with your audience that drives them to think and act in your favor.” Roger Sametz

The next step is to shape the message you want to communicate to each audience, and do it through the most appropriate and fitting channels. At this stage, Sametz said, it’s important to craft any content and materials with your organization’s brand in mind.

“It doesn’t have to be a formal ‘brand,’ but they should have an idea of how they want to be viewed and what they want to be known for,” Sametz said.

“Your communications should project the qualities you want to be associated with. This will make it easier to make the connection with your audience that drives them to think and act in your favor.”

As your organization implements the strategic plan and marks progress toward goals and objectives, it’s important to keep your core audiences apprised as well, he said. However, the frequency of these communications should depend on the level of the audience’s involvement with the charity— how close they are to the group, Sametz said. The more involved they are, the more frequent the communications and updates.

Crafting a formal communications plan doesn’t have to be an overly expensive venture. According to Sametz, consulting firms that specialize in this sort of work can offer different levels of service, and some will put together basic packages and show the organization how to take it from there.

“You can negotiate the scope of the work, so you can benefit from the expertise without a huge investment of time and resources,” he said.

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