Making your communications successful

Every organization aspires to have successful communications efforts. Successful communications build support for your mission and attract people and resources to your organization.

But what does successful communications look like? Generally, we can think of success in terms of two basic qualities: effectiveness and efficiency. In communications, effectiveness means that our messages reach our audiences in ways that advance our programmatic goals, and efficiency means that we get the biggest impact with the least investment of resources. Communications that are effective but not efficient are unsustainable in the long run, and communications that are efficient but not effective will not get you the results you want. We want our efforts to be successful in the short-term but also sustainable in the long-term.

Unfortunately, many organizations struggle to maximize the success of their communications efforts. This is sometimes due to a lack of time and other resources, sometimes it is due to a lack of institutional understanding about the role and importance of communications, and sometimes it is due to a lack of clarity about how to utilize communications to their fullest effect.

In my experience with organizations, many fail to engage in successful planning for their communications. Good planning helps to focus your efforts, use your resources more effectively and efficiently, and establish a common understanding with others about what you will do and how it will get done. A good plan covers four areas:

  • Purpose. What is it we are trying to achieve and why?
  • Direction. What is our approach for achieving our goals?
  • Action. What will be done, by whom, and by when?
  • Evaluation. How will we monitor progress and measure success?

We sometimes don’t invest in planning because we think it takes too much time and we have an urgent need for action. However, plans need not be elaborate nor time-consuming, and failing to plan can lead to inefficiency and ineffectiveness. While a robust plan can yield strong results, even learning to simply articulate the purpose, direction, action, and evaluation of your communications effort can be used to build support and keep things moving towards success.

To learn how to design quick and practical plans for your communications efforts – from an annual plan to a one-time event – check out the upcoming workshop at The Foundation Center in San Francisco, Easy and Effective Communications Planning, on Tuesday, July 12th from 9:30am to 12:30am. Register today!


Is your strategic plan strategic?

A strategic plan is the guiding document for an organization, describing the approaches and actions the organization will take over a certain time period to achieve a set of agreed-upon goals and objectives. It provides a framework for staff to focus their annual and shorter-term work, and for the Board and leadership to measure the organization’s progress and success.

Every organization has a strategic plan, but is that plan actually strategic?

Being strategic means acting with a specific end in mind. It means take steps towards a clear destination. It means being intentional, so that every action serves a purpose.

Many of the strategic plans I’ve seen are a laundry list of activities to be done. Activities that are all thoughtful, all important or valuable, and all mission-aligned. But it isn’t clear how those activities were selected, or how they will collectively move the organization towards a specific outcome. There doesn’t seem to be any intent behind the actions, as if someone thought of things to do without thinking of why to do them.

Good strategic plans are grounded in strategy – thoughtful approaches to achieving a desired aim. What this means in practice is first deciding what you need to do in the time frame of the strategic plan to achieve your mission, before deciding on goals, objectives, and tactics. That way, every action you take is clear, focused, and purposeful.

When I work with clients on strategic planning, I usually pose the following questions:

  • What audiences do you need to reach first?
  • What geographies are your top priority? Why?
  • What is the best approach to growing or expanding your work to reach more people?
  • What barriers do you need to overcome in order to succeed?
  • What can you reasonably achieve in the next five years (or timeframe of the plan)?

There are many possible ways to approach the work, but an organization must decide what path it wants to walk. This is why strategic planning usually begins with a SWOT analysis – to first consider the organization’s competencies and the opportunities and challenges it will face.

When investing in a strategic planning process, make sure that your plan is actually strategic. It will help your organization to act with a clear understanding of the intent and thus bring greater focus to your staff and Board.


Live your values

An important part of strategic planning is defining your organization’s values. If you look, the values of many companies are external-facing – how they treat customers, how they provide products, how they deliver services. Their values demonstrate the quality of their offering and their approach to offering it. (In other words, their values communicate part of their value to customers.)

But an organization’s values are not just for marketing. While values certainly lay the foundation for how an organization delivers to its customers, those values should also dictate how they operate internally. After all, what you provide customers is a reflection of how you operate.

Values are the things you care about as an institution – your core beliefs and what you stand for. They lay the foundation for your organization’s culture and social norms – not just how you treat customers, but how you treat one another on a daily basis. They should guide your decisions for strategy and programs, as well as your day-to-day operations. They should set the tone for how your leaders and your employees behave. And they should help establish your organization’s personality and identity.

Your values determine your choices, and your choices reflect who you are. As Professor Dumbledore said in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” Who we are determines our choices, and what we value determines who we are.

When developing your organization’s values, consider how they would affect how your employees behave on a daily basis. Are you treating your customers differently than one another? Or do you truly apply your values to all aspects of your work? If you want to be your best for your customers, you should start by living your values within your organization.