Strategic Communication Starts with a Plan
By Melissa Monahan

Melissa Monahan
Melissa Monahan
With fall just starting, for many nonprofits the holiday season is already here and they’re gearing up for their busiest and most critical fundraising period of the year.

This period presents great opportunities for nonprofit organizations to be proactive and strategic in their communications to donors, volunteers, board members, advocates, and their staff.

Strategic communications planning is necessary for several reasons:
  • Nonprofits are expected more than traditional businesses or corporate entities to be completely transparent, and, therefore, open and consistent communication is critical;
  • Nonprofits have the opportunity to be proactive rather than reactive, which is often the case.
  • Nearly all the activities associated with nonprofits have a communications element #147; volunteer recruitment, public policy, fundraising, point of service #147; and it is important that consistent messaging is used in all interactions;
  • Likewise, consistent outreach to public officials is a critical exercise that can play a key role in the funding of an organization, and help to establish relationships with officials who can be compelling advocates when the organization needs a visible supporter.
  • The goal of any communications plan is to reflect and support an organization’s business and development objectives. The elements that need to be considered in strategic planning include information gathering to fully understand an organization’s position in the marketplace, internal and external communications initiatives, and crisis planning.
Information Gathering
The first step an organization should take in preparing a successful communications strategy is to analyze and explore the overall issues and trends that could influence its standing with the media, business and political communities. This process allows an organization to position itself in the most effective manner with its target audiences and to recognize possible challenges and opportunities.

Message Development
The key to developing a successful communications strategy is meaningful messaging. Organizations should develop a few core messages that clearly and consistently define the organization and its importance. These messages are the foundation upon which a communications strategy is built and should be incorporated into all communications efforts and used to frame all media and public outreach. Establishing these messages early and using them in all communications will ensure that an organization is speaking with a consistent voice.

Communications with Internal Audiences
When developing a communications strategy, it is of primary importance to consider your internal audiences, which include staff, donors, volunteers and board members. Given their importance to the success of the organization and the fact that they are an organization’s best ambassador, internal audiences should be fully apprised of current successes, progress and strategies to ensure that they remain vested, excited and optimistic about the future of the organization.

External Outreach
Media Relations

On any given day, an organization could have multiple stories to tell the media, whether it is about a new initiative or a personal story about the impact of the organization. Members of the media are widely perceived as providing objective, third-party commentary, and therefore their endorsement can give an issue the clout and exposure that a paid advertisement can not. Consistent, targeted media outreach can help an organization secure ongoing coverage. This includes offering reporters broad trend stories in which the organization can play a role, targeted outreach regarding your organization’s milestones or initiatives, and having an opinion piece published on behalf of the organization on a topic that demonstrates the nonprofit’s commitment to the community.
Public Outreach

In addition to media relations, organizations need to consider and plan for communication with external audiences, such as public officials and community leaders. Successful communications with these high-profile leaders work toward raising the profile of the organization and increasing its visibility within the community. It is crucial that an organization introduce its concept, mission and goals to public officials who are involved with issues of interest to the organization. In addition, an organization’s active engagement in the community provides a foundation for the organization’s future interactions with community leaders.

Crisis Planning
No one likes to think about a crisis affecting their organization. But as we see daily in the headlines, crises do occur and the organizations that survive them are most often those that are prepared for them. In the event of a crisis situation, such as loss of funding or impropriety by an employee, an organization that has developed a communications strategy will have the necessary tools to communicate quickly and effectively with stakeholders. Identifying possible situations that would result in a crisis situation and preparing messaging to address the controversy ensures that an organization is able to control the message and protect the organization’s reputation.

While the development of a communications strategy can be time consuming, it is a worthwhile investment that can position an organization for continued success.

Melissa Monahan, senior vice president of Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications, implements media, community, and government relations tactics for nonprofit and other clients. Call her at 617-443-9933 or email to