Nonprofit Communications Strategy: Research Phase

research questions to help create a communications strategy for nonprofits

Research is the first and possibly most important step of creating a communications strategy for nonprofits.

What you are trying to do is to gather all the information necessary to make strategic decisions about audience, messages, use of resources and tools. Be thorough yet avoid getting so bogged down in research that you never get started creating your strategy.

How you research probably depends upon who you are, your preferences and your training and experience. Your organization and its culture may also influence how you research and what it is possible to learn. What I’m saying is that I don’t think there is a single way to conduct your research. Take some time to think about what you need to make your decisions and figure out how to pull together that information.

What follows are some ways that I research communications strategies in positions I’ve held and for clients:

Listen. Observe. Absorb.

I prefer to come in to a new position or working with a new as open minded as possible. Unless that’s what you’ve been mandated to do, I think it’s counterproductive to effectively implementing change to come in and push through changes no matter what. As my tagline says, I prefer “Genuine. Organic. Change.” which is often incremental and based upon what already exists. Though there are times when dramatic, quick change can be described that way.

I like to listen carefully to what others are saying and paying attention to what they are doing–often in ordinary everyday ways. By paying attention to what is happening you get a sense of culture and dynamics. You’ll likely get insights this way that you may not using more formal processes especially from front line staff.

Absorbing this information is important because by internalizing it you can develop a strategy that is authentic to the organizations–even if it means change.

Reading a variety of materials and attending meetings that are not a must (such as a board meeting) but that are open to you are great ways to learn information, listen and absorb.

Given enough time and opportunity, I can probably write a strategy largely informed by this approach but I realize that best practices require more.

Communications Audit

Gather together communications materials that are current or recently used. You can conduct a more formal audit but even an informal one by a skilled eye can be extremely useful.

  • What materials and tools are currently being used?
  • What are the primary audiences?
  • What is the size and importance of the audience?
  • How is it being distributed?
  • What time and resources are required?
  • Is branding (both messaging and visually) consistent? If there are differences, do they make sense?
  • Is the professionalism of the material appropriate?
  • Are any tools missing?

Essentially, what you’re doing is figuring what is currently being done (or historically done) and if it is working and worth the time and resources. You’ll get a sense of what should be continued, scrapped or revised. You’ll likely have some ideas on tools to add.


I like to hold one on one meetings with key people inside the organization. Usually about an hour long and preferably outside the distractions of the work environment–maybe even over lunch.

I think that it helps me to get a sense of what that person thinks about the organization over the past, where it currently sits and where it’s going or should go. People will talk more and with greater candor than is possible in a group setting.

I typically take a SWOT analysis approach (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats). I’m looking for that person’s perspective based upon their experience, role and responsibilities of the organization’s communications.

I tend towards staff with leadership roles but I also like to get a variety of perspectives that are relevant. Sometimes that may be done in group situation such as by talking to staff with communications job functions who work for different sections.

Ask lots of questions. Listen.

Many communicators might list this first and believe it’s most important. Not me. But maybe it should be for you.

As an introvert by nature, I prefer to listen, observe and absorb. That helps me to reflect and think about the organization and its communications. It informs the questions that I want or need to ask such as in those one on on meetings I mentioned earlier.

Don’t get me wrong. I value the importance of questions. I just may not ask some because I have obtained the information in another way. Even then questions are important for getting a different perspective to take into account or avoiding making poor assumptions.

Asking questions is also important for involving people in the process especially larger, dispersed groups that may include staff, participants and key audiences. This input can be critical to a well-rounded understanding of the context for your communications strategy and how to stiver for the vision for your organization’s future. An online survey tool can be one excellent way to acquire this information.

How do you research a Communications Strategy for Nonprofits? What do you recommend?