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!


Does your solution align with the problem?

When making the case for your organization’s work, it’s important that you can clearly and convincingly articulate the problem. In my experience, most organizations can paint a vivid picture of what’s wrong (though some struggle to talk about why it matters) but a common mistake I see is a misalignment of the problem and the solution.

Misalignment of the problem and the solution occurs when the solution presented does not clearly solve the problem as it’s described. For example:

  • The problem is defined as hunger in a city due to a lack of housing and employment options. The solution? To provide food through a food bank. This is a short-term, immediate remedy but it doesn’t address the housing and employment issues stated in the problem.
  • The problem is defined as widespread deforestation happening as a result of the advancing agricultural frontier, displaced communities, and encroaching industries. The solution? To engage local communities in planting trees. This solution adds trees back to the forest, but does not respond to the larger issues driving the problem (nor does it do so at the scale of the problem).
  • The problem is defined as a declining interest by children in science due to the way schools and assessments direct educators to teach science-related subjects. The solution? A project-based curriculum that teaches students about science in a more engaging way. This solution does provide an alternative that achieves the intended goal, but it doesn’t take into account the factors that are preventing teachers from using the same approach in their classes in the first place.

In these examples, you can see how the problem could be well-described in a compelling narrative. And the solutions – all of which are good, necessary ideas – could be clearly explained in terms of goals, strategies, and execution. However, the linkage between the solutions and their respective problems is weak or missing.

When you describe the problem, you should frame it in a way that sets up your organization’s solution. Make it clear to the reader or listener why your solution is necessary, appropriate, and logical. Ideally, with a theory of change and a clear strategic plan, you can clarify both the problem and your organization’s response. But another quick-and-dirty fix is to work backwards: take a look at the work you do, and think about what problem it is directly responding to. The work is done to solve a specific problem, so make your problem statement a description of what your work is designed to achieve.

The work your organization is doing is important, but you have to be able to articulate it to others if you want the support you need to get it done. Learn to align your problem statement with your work so others can easily understand the value of what you do.

Are you planning for change?

Change is a natural and even inevitable part of an organization’s life cycle. As the organization grows, learns, and adapts, it will be necessary to alter your strategies or even shift your mission. At a minimum, most organizations create new strategic plans every three to five years. 

The successful implementation of those changes and plans will require the cooperation and commitment of the whole organization – from entry-level staff to your Board. After all, everyone plays a role in the success of the organization

But change can be hard. Some people fear what such changes mean for their jobs. Others worry if it’s the right decision for the organization. Some like things the way they are and don’t want things to change. Some people just naturally are creatures of habit, finding comfort in the familiar, and they have a hard time with change. Change can create stress, anxiety, and dissatisfaction and disengagement. All of this resistance will make it harder for the organization to implement any change and succeed in making a shift. 

Most of the time, strategic planning happens with a focus on producing the deliverable without fully considering the process or how it affects others. Any good planning process should assess potential resistance and proactively respond to ensure successful implementation of the plan. This takes a little more effort, but done well, it makes organizational changes so much easier. 

Here are a few ways to reduce resistance and improve acceptance of and commitment to the new plan:

  • Consider potential concerns from the start. Survey the employees to get an understanding for how people are feeling and to identify both those who will resist the changes and those who can help promote them. What specific concerns do people have? How can you alleviate those concerns and send a positive message that resonates with staff?
  • Communicate a clear vision and value. If you want people to get on board with the changes, they need to understand the purpose and benefits of such changes. Why is this change so important? Why now? What will things look like with the changes? How will things be better for the organization and everyone who works there?
  • Involve people in the process. Reach out to key people in the organization who can help implement the changes and help build a coalition of support. Empower the staff to be proactive and help solve any problems that may arise in the process. Keep channels open for ideas and feedback that can improve the changes or their implementation. 
  • Provide regular updates. Keep people informed about the process, key milestones, critical decisions, and opportunities for staff to provide feedback or engage in the process. Also, updates are a good way to reinforce the vision, value, and enthusiasm for the forthcoming changes.
  • Offer support during the transition. While you want to provide opportunities for people to provide feedback and be involved in helping the organization change, you also want to make sure employees are supported by the organization. Have someone who can advise employees that are struggling with the transition, and consider making someone involved in the change process serve as a liaison to answer questions or just listen to concerns. Some organizations also offer additional time off to help people deal with stress, or allow flex-time to help them balance personal priorities when work gets too stressful.

Once the changes are in place, be sure to reinforce them with incentives and by demonstrating how such changes are leading to positive outcomes for staff and the organization. 

Change is hard, especially when it can mean venturing into the unknown. To make the transition easier, planning for change should include planning for implementation, factoring in others’ feelings about the change into the process. When you need to change an entire organization, you need the entire organization standing with you.