Non-Profit Communications Strategy Starts Here

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Time to get strategic folks: I’m currently working on a communications audit with a large church client. Our work is particularly relevant for those of you working in similar non-profit, ministry based settings, where often strategic communications is not a priority. This is the reality not for want of good strategy or even because of a lack of understanding about communications, but for want of time, person-power, and resource support.

Too often in busy, lean organizations that are fueled by passionate people pursuing a mission, we have a tendency to jump right to what I’ll call tactical work instead of taking time to really chew through the strategy that needs to provide the foundation for the work. This is understandable for many reasons. 
Two primary ones:

  1. Tactical work is evident, you can point to it and say, “see, we’re doing something!”
  2. Tactical work is fun. It’s more fun to launch a blog, develop a neat promotion, or distribute parakeets to all of your clients than it is to discuss more formative pieces.
The problem is that left to run its course, a tactic-driven organization is usually left in a more reactive state, as opposed to a proactive/visionary one. This style of comms operations also usually has the effect of draining the comms staff, and generally creating a sense of “we never catch up” that can really frustrate a team.As we started our work at this large church client, we began with an audit because that process truly illuminates what’s missing when strategy is left out of the communications process. Comms audits (and I, like most, really don’t like that word) are really best thought of as a snapshot and a blueprint:

Click: This is what our comms landscape really looks like.

Hmmm: This is where we need it to go.

The audit does many things. 4 key goals are:

  • To provide an assessment of the effectiveness and credibility of current communications tools and media including publications, websites, meetings, face-to-face interactions, and other internal and external communications activities.
  • To present a review of existing communications policies, publications, and vehicles and indicate the strengths and weaknesses of each.
  • To deliver a summary of comments from interviews conducted as part of the audit process.
  • And finally, to offer practical (that’s a killer, key word!) recommendations for strengthening communications strategies and programs (in the case of this client, our next step is writing a totally fresh strategy and then launching a new brand development … and the fact that all of this will be rooted in measurable data will really improve our chance at success!)
The best part, in my opinion is that this work is most often conducted by a trusted outsider. I can share with complete experience that the level of transparency and non-defensiveness on the part of leaders and key team leads is dramatically reduced when everyone is bending the ear of the likable consultant. And – in my experience – they receive the critical feedback more openly as well. This is good, and helps focus everyone on the goal at hand, which is of course, amplification of the mission!

There are many methods and procedures that can be used to capture an accurate snapshot and build a great blueprint. ONE of those tactics (and as a point of reference, this audit we are currently engaging used 6 different methods to gather data) is a careful assessment of critical strategic communications practices.

This format is adapted from a paper by Julia Coffmann for the Communications Consortium Media Center. It’s an easy read, and well worth your time!

The Assessment presents 16 strategic communications behaviors, and invites the organization to be assessed on each using a practice maturity scale. The 16 behaviors are segmented into three groups: strategy behaviors, implementation behaviors, and support/alignment behaviors. It’s a simple grouping that helps the organization, even those unfamiliar with comms-jargon get the progression of skills.

The practice maturity scale is useful – it creates a sort of matrix approach to scoring your proficiency on each of the 16 skills. That’s great for people because it puts a more detailed analysis to the often-soft perception of comms work. And, once you can get people NOT to view it as a grading of A-F on comms ability but truly as a tool for growth (easier said than done, right?), you’ve got yourself in a great place.

I invite you to consider the five levels of the practice maturity scale and consider, on a macrolevel, where you think your organization would fall (and granted, I didn’t share the 16 behaviors here … watch for that in a future post …) What does your gut tell you? And if you’d like more information, or the chance to talk this process through in more detail, I’d be glad to do that with you. (Just shoot an email to

Here are the levels (again, credit to Julia Coffman here!):

Level One: Ad Hoc

The communications practice is ad hoc and unorganized. Few if any staff and financial resources are dedicated to it. Success is based on the competence and efforts of one or two “heroic” individuals. Despite this chaotic environment, however, the communications practice may be implemented successfully. But because it is uncoordinated, efforts are often inefficient and go over budget and schedule. Quality may also be variable because different people perform the practice over time.

Level Two: Planned

The practice is planned and deliberate as opposed to being performed on a reactive or “as needed” basis. Resources are allocated to the practice, responsibilities are assigned, and the process is managed. The practice does not occur regularly, however, and may still be performed by one or two individuals.

Level Three: Institutionalized

The practice is routine and part of the organization’s “fabric.” The organization has qualitatively determined the “best” way to approach the practice and has institutionalized it. Practices are known and coordinated within and outside the organization.

Level Four: Evaluated

The practice is evaluated and analyzed. Measures of performance and progress are collected and analyzed. Often a quantitative understanding of success is known and tracked, and the organization has a better ability to predict or estimate performance.

Level Five: Optimized

Because of its recognized importance to the organization, the practice is continuously reflected on and improvements incorporated.

Distinctions between levels one and two are based on the degree to which an organization is reactive and disorganized (level one) versus purposeful and proactive (level two). At level three, the practice is performed regularly, consistently across staff members, and has been performed enough that the organization has gained a certain level of proficiency at it. At level four, the organization has committed to tracking the practice for purposes of better understanding how to improve performance. The organization is monitoring the quality of the practice. Level five demonstrates an even higher level of organizational commitment to the practice, as the organization cares enough about it to learn from and improve performance over time.

The primary goal is, of course, growth. This requires both honesty and a willingness to listen to what you do well, so that you can figure out how to leverage that to overcome what you need to do better.

Breaking from a focus on communications competency (skills and tactics .. writing that great brochure, preparing that fun Tweet) to involving a deeper and more penetrating emphasis on communications capacity (vision and strategic thinking) will revolutionize how your organization relates with people. Give it a try – see where it takes you!For more information about strategic communications and audits, specifically for non-profits, check out: Strategic Communications for Non Profit Organizations, by Patterson and Radtke.


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