What’s a Plan Got To Do With It?

By Sommer Smith | Co-founder & Creative Director
February 14, 2019

Alright, I’ve had Tina Turner’s 1980’s pop hit wonder “What’s love got to do with it” stuck in my head for a couple of weeks. Besides it being catchy as all get-out, she poses questions that we humans have grappled with for eons. The meaning of love, how to do it, “Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken.” Good stuff. But, those metaphysical topics are book-worthy. Not the stuff of blogs. Instead of grappling with an age-old inquiry (I’ll do that in my free time), let’s get into a question MediaDesk can have some answers to: What’s a plan got to do with it?

Before we start, a small note: at the end of the article, I re-write Turner’s lyrics. Just sayin’, might be worth checking out.

Okay, here we go.

At MediaDesk, we love the plan. Time and time again, we’ve seen our highest performing clients catch new strides through communications planning. From accessing new funders, to successfully launching new programs. Their success might look “automagic” – but it’s not. There’s a communications strategy behind every high-performing nonprofit.

When it comes to communicating, two things are paramount: story and strategy. Every nonprofit has an amazing story to tell (often a few). It is the strategy that either stunts those stories, or gives them the running room they need to gather momentum and create change.

Before we get too far along, let’s get some definition. What is communications planning?

Communication planning focuses on getting the right messages in front of the right people at the right time. Every organization communicates – whether that communication is intentional or not – to inform, shift attitudes or move people to action. A communications plan ensures that the time, talent and resources invested in communicating will power the most positive change and progress as possible.

Communications in the nonprofit sector can sometimes feel vast and pathless. Questions like “Should we be posting every day on social media?” “I guess we should have a e-newsletter?” and “Did we ever do that annual report…” linger around, keep you up at night, get stuffed under the rug. A plan makes sure you don’t trip over the minutiae or waste time and effort on activities that don’t support your broader mission.

Communications planning, frankly, requires focused and consistent effort, but not a whole lot of it. Plus, the returns are significant. In fact, the Stanford Social Innovation Review found that, “[Non-profit] organizations that excel at communications are stronger, smarter, and vastly more effective.” Successful organizations, they say, share four communications essentials (and we agree wholeheartedly):

  • a distinct and strong brand
  • an organizational culture of communication
  • the decisiveness, agility and capacity to take action
  • a strategy – a clear idea of how to turn ideas into action

Successful, highly visible organizations are not that way by chance. Good fortune takes preparation.

Step One: The Goals

Plans always start by identifying measurable communications goals. These communications goals should be in service to broader organizational goals. When it comes to communications goals there are a few adages to live by:

If you can’t measure it, it’s not a goal – it’s an idea.
If you lack the resources to achieve it, it’s not a goal – it’s a hope.
If it doesn’t have a purpose that is specific to your organization and its mission, it shouldn’t be a goal.

A good communications goal might be: To increase program participation by growing my organization’s visibility on social media.

A great goal would be: To increase program participation by growing our social media following by 10% each quarter and by posting at least three times a week.

Step Two: The Who

Now that you have your goals, it is important to consider exactly who it is you need to/want to engage. These are your target audience(s). We have another adage for audiences. It goes like this:
If you are talking to everyone, you’re speaking to no one.

No one wants a canned speech. All of us thrive on personal connection, and in today’s oversaturated world, attention is a commodity and customers are always asking “what have you done for me lately?” Good communications planning helps you really dig into who you’re talking to and what they might want to hear. From there, it is possible to clearly identify the tactics (where and how) to reach them.

Here’s a cringe-worthy audience: People who live in Albuquerque and are old enough to vote.

What would a better audience look like? Maybe something like: People in Albuquerque between the ages of 18-28 who are interested in (sports) (the outdoors) (LGBTQ rights) (insert issue related to your cause).

Why is the second audience better? You’ve identified their interest area, which will lead you to a clearer idea of where to find them and how to capture their attention with imagery, messages and tactics.

Step Three: The Opportunities and Challenges

You may not know entirely what the future holds (the world is, after all, an unruly and often unpredictable place) but planning and research can help guide your organization to targeted outcomes.

At this stage in planning, it’s time to review the next six to 12 months. What opportunities exist for you to reach your goals? Is there a major anniversary coming up or a national conference? Take a look at your organizational calendar as well as those hosted by partner organizations and national groups to identify opportunities to build connections and forward your goals.

When it comes to challenges, we can’t foresee every barrier or bump in the road, but we can do our best to anticipate, correct course and adapt the approach based on the reality. A final step in communications planning is identifying the barriers to reaching your goals. This is the moment to hold the mirror up and honestly look at what may stand in your way. Sometimes it is you: limited time, limited staff or limited resources. Other times it is them: your audiences might not trust you yet, they might not be aware of the issue, they may be misinformed.

You’re Done! (Psych!)

When the planning work is done, strategic communication doesn’t just happen. Not on its own. After planning is complete, it is time to put it into practice. This is that “organizational culture of communication” and “decisiveness, agility and capacity to take action” that Stanford was talking about. Like communication between people, it takes work, listening and adapting along the way.

Communications planning clarifies where effort is best spent, and defines the “why” you do communications activities at all. Then it is time to just do it.

The promised lyrics:

You must understand though the depth of your plan
Makes my pulse react
That it’s only the thrill of story & plan
Opposites attract
It’s beautiful
Only logical
You just can’t ignore that it means so much more more ooo

What’s a plan got to do, got to do with it
What’s a plan but a key to their devotion
What’s a plan got to do, got to do with it
You need a plan when your story can be your tokennnnn


You’re welcome.

Want a hand with the process? Contact us — this is one of our absolute favorite projects.