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.


Take care of yourself first

There’s a concept in Judaism called tikkun olam that describes acts of kindness to perfect or repair the world. Though it has religious underpinnings, the idea is often more broadly applied to social policy and social justice issues. Tikkun olam is about healing the world, but the process begins with the individual: you must heal yourself first before you can heal your family, your community, your state, and eventually the world. The first step to fixing societal problems is to look inward and make sure you have the strength, well-being, and capacity to help others.

This concept is helpful for individuals (particularly those who push themselves to their limits and forget about their own self-care) but it is also useful for organizations.

When organizations look at their goals, they tend to be focused on the external ones – what sort of impact the organization wants to have on the world and the strategies needed to achieve that impact. Organizations like to think big and work hard to make a real difference and have a lasting impact.

But in order to achieve those big goals, it’s important to also look inward and think about what the organization needs in order to be successful. What capacity does the organization need to have to implement its plans and what capacity will it need to create? What are the resources – human, financial, technological, and institutional – that must be in place if the organization is to succeed and remain resilient? Are you growing the organization to meet the coming challenges or are you pushing its limits and reducing its effectiveness?

As you strategize for external change, think about strategies for organizational growth and development to achieve those goals. This is done at the strategic plan level, but also at the level of annual planning, team planning, and individual objectives. How are resources being acquired and allocated? How are teams structured and managed for greater productivity? How are individuals developing their own competencies to achieve their objectives?

The first step to helping others is to take care of yourself. Make sure your organization has the strength, resources, and resilience it needs to achieve great things.