Why you need a nonprofit communications strategy

Second in a series: How to create a nonprofit communications plan

Why do you need a nonprofit communications strategy?Inter-relationship of different communications strategies

If you want to use your precious resources of time and money for maximum impact, you need a nonprofit communications strategy. Just as how your strategic plan guides how your organization is moving into the future and guides decisions on what you do and how you do it.

Your nonprofit communications strategy is critical to how effectively a social profit organization strives for its vision and delivers on its mission.

Don’t find yourself doing what you did last year or have always done without thinking about why you’re doing it. Don’t do what other charities are doing just because they are without asking if it suits the people you are trying to reach. Don’t get distracted by “shiny objects” aka the latest, greatest hottest tools.

I’m confident that we’ve taken a more strategic, professional approach to how we operate. Let’s do the same with how we communicate.

Doing so makes sense. As with everything else we do, our communications should help us achieve what is important to our organization. Decisions on how, why and what we communicate need to be made based upon if they help us to achieve organizational goals and objectives. In fact a major criteria for success of a communications strategy is whether it can be shown that it has helped the organization achieve its goals and objectives.

What is communications? Here’s what I mean when I use that term.

Communicating for the sake of communicating is not good enough. You need to be able to evaluate whether our communications have played a role in your social profit’s success.

How to do so is not usually easy but it’s necessary. Making that link is important to having communications receive the funding and respect it needs to be an organizational priority.

When do you need a nonprofit communications strategy?

I strongly recommend having a communications strategy for your overall communications effort.

Taking this big picture approach helps you to think about what you are doing, how you are doing it and why you’re doing it. Most importantly to me, it helps you to see how all the pieces work together as one integrated whole to achieve your goals and objectives.

Creating a big picture communications strategy takes time. Even before you start, you’ll want to take time to observe and to understand your organization including its culture and history especially if a communications strategy is new or you are new to the organization. The better you understand the status quo, the better you are able to identify how to improve upon it. You’ll also need time for consultations and research. More on all of this in a future post!

What time period should your nonprofit communications strategy cover?

If you’ve been thoughtful about your strategy, you should be able to use it for at least one year if not several years. The norm used to be that your communications strategy was expected to cover 3 – 5 years. But with the pace of change, that is more difficult to do. Look at how many tools and strategies are being used today that would not have been considered 3 – 5 years ago–if they even existed.

Rapid change though doesn’t need to be the enemy of a long range, comprehensive nonprofit communications strategy. If the foundation and framework of your strategy is sound, you can determine if something new can be added. You’ll have enough information in place to guide you to decide if a new tool or strategy is consistent with your strategies philosophy and able to help you to achieve its goals.

Flexibility is key. Your nonprofit communications strategy should be a living document. Regular annual or semi-annual reviews allow you to make changes. Not only to add but to make other changes such as to stop what isn’t working or delete other elements that would strain the available time or money.

Change though needs to be justified. The purpose of having a strategy is to have a firm direction including making careful decisions on tools, audiences and messages. Avoid being so flexible that your strategy changes every time the Executive Director, a board member or anyone–including you!–has a great idea. Some of those ideas may be worth pursuing but they should be considered as how they fit with the whole of the strategy.

Keep in mind that exceptions do exist. You need to be ready and able to seize opportunities. Again though, your strategy guides whether you seize the opportunity and how you handle it.

Parenting expert Barbara Coloroso compares this approach to a backbone. It provides structure and support but has enough flexibility to handle changing needs and unanticipated events. Taking a strict yes or no approach is likened to a brick wall that has no give whatsoever at anytime. While a jellyfish has no structure and so moves and changes easily and continuously without any predictability. Don’t be a jellyfish or a brick wall in handling your strategy, take the flexible, structured approach of a backbone.

Can a communications strategy be shorter or more specific?

While I’ve been covering longer term, comprehensive nonprofit communications strategies, they are not the only kind. There are plenty of other times when you might want to have a communications strategy–and many of them cover shorter periods.


I consider an annual plan for communications as more of an outline for implementation rather than as a strategy but if you don’t have a longer term strategy, I’d suggest taking a more strategic approach. Here’s how I distinguish between a plan and a strategy.

FOCUSED communications strategies

You may want to develop a communications strategy for a subset of your communications that could benefit from more indepth analysis and planning. Examples could be a digital media strategy, a social media strategy or even something more “traditional” such as a media relations strategy. Often this occurs when it is something brand new or there’s a desire to take a new approach. While this can occur without the overall strategy, it’s better if it can be incorporated into one.

Task specific communications strategies

You may also create communications strategies for specific tasks such as an awareness campaign or when communicating a change in programs, services or policies.

The Marketing Round answers why?

Dietrich and Livingston’s book was written to encourage an integrated approach to communications rather than treating different communications functions as silos with their own goals, objectives and definitions of success. They advocate for an integrated approach that considers the best interests of an organization as a whole and has coordinated, informed approach to reaching audiences and delivering messages.

Exactly how I’ve always defined a nonprofit communications strategy!

What are your thoughts on the importance and use of nonprofit communication strategies?

Second in a series: How to create a nonprofit communications plan