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What is a communication plan and why it’s important: a guide

December 14, 2022
This nonprofit professional is enacting a communication plan by calling supporters.

For nonprofit organizations, a communication plan is a holistic approach to strategizing, documenting, and implementing marketing, outreach, and communication practices across an organization’s departments and teams.

Communication plans define what information should be communicated, who should receive that information, when that information should be delivered, where (e.g., email, social media, mail) communication will be shared, and how those communications will be tracked and analyzed.

In this guide, we’ll look at the benefits of a communication plan, the steps for making a plan, and a template to get you started.

Top 7 benefits of communication planning

Nonprofit communication plans have many more benefits than a single outreach campaign could bring alone. An effective communication plan helps your team:

  1. Clarify your goals and objectives. As your communications roadmap, your plan tells you where you need to go and how to get there.
  2. Articulate the relationships between audiences, messages, channels, activities, and materials. The communications planning process will help you identify who you need to reach, what you want them to know, and how you will reach them. You will find that each of your audiences has unique characteristics, needs, and motivations. As you plan, you will discover the most effective ways to communicate with them.
  3. Identify and implement a variety of communications activities. Since there are an infinite number of ways to spread your message, a communication plan helps you determine which activities will yield the best results. 
  4. Clarify staff member and stakeholder roles. For effective communication, everyone needs to know what they will contribute and what they are responsible for. A well-articulated plan will help stakeholders get on the same page, feel a sense of ownership over their work, and articulate a consistent message.
  5. Find creative, collaborative solutions. Involving staff, stakeholders, constituents, interns, and junior staff members in the planning process will bring in a number of diverse perspectives to reach your audiences more effectively.
  6. Incorporate stakeholder input in the communications process. Asking for stakeholder and community feedback on your plan will show that you value their input and adjust your plan to be as impactful as possible.
  7. Evaluate your plan’s successes and growth areas. Organizations will often do a mid-course review to determine strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Then, they can create and implement new approaches. Develop a unique evaluation strategy to consistently gather the information you need to improve your plan.

Now that you’re familiar with the many benefits of communication planning, you’re ready to begin the process of making a communication plan for your organization.

How to make a communication plan: 8 steps

Ultimately, building a communication plan now will save you significant time, energy, and resources in your communications down the road. For ease of use, we’ve broken this planning  process down into eight simple steps:

  1. Audit your existing strategies and materials. You likely don’t need to start your communication plan from scratch. Evaluate what’s working and what isn’t in your current communications with volunteers, donors, and partners. 
  2. Set SMART goals. Based on the results from your audit, determine goals for your communications. For the greatest impact, your goals should always be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART). 
  3. Identify your target audiences. Based on your SMART goals, determine your communications’ target audiences. For example, if your goal is to increase annual fundraising, you might focus on potential major donors with wealth and philanthropic indicators that suggest they could give more. 
  4. Establish your communication methods. Once you have a good sense of your target audience, consider their communication preferences, such as the channels and platforms they use most. Then, focus your communication efforts on those channels.
  5. Determine communication cadences and timelines. Depending on the goals, audience, and medium, the frequency of communication will vary widely. For example, while you’ll likely post updates on social media multiple times each week for maximum engagement, you might decide to send a more in-depth physical or digital newsletter once a quarter.
  6. Assign roles to team members. Determine which departments and individuals are responsible for delivering each message. For example, a board member might be responsible for communicating with major donors, a development officer might be responsible for communicating with recurring donors, and a program coordinator might be responsible for communicating with volunteers.
  7. Document your plan. You only have a plan if you remember to document it. Record your plan in a digital format that can be easily shared and updated.
  8. Share your communication plan with stakeholders. Distribute your documented plan to relevant team members and stakeholders with instructions on how to use it. As a result, everyone will be on the same page, and your communications will be clear and consistent.

Rather than being a linear process, communication planning is, in fact, quite cyclical. Once you implement your plan, track and measure both quantitative and qualitative metrics such as views, click-throughs, and conversions to determine strengths and weaknesses. Then, adjust accordingly!

An easy-to-use communication plan template 

Keeping a detailed, up-to-date record of your communication plan is crucial to its success. Doing so creates continuity and consistency within and between departments. 

Although there are numerous ways to document your communications plan, the simplest approach is often the most effective. A communication plan template, like the one below, can be specific and easy for everyone in your nonprofit to follow. Reference the information sourced in the steps above to answer each question in the form below:

Goal. What do you want your communication to achieve?

Content. What information or call to action will this communication contain? 

Timing. When and how often will you deliver this communication?

Channel. Where will you share this communication?

Methods. What tools/platforms will you use?

Audience. Who will receive this communication?

Owner. Who is in charge of sending out this communication?

While you may also want to develop an in-depth communication plan for your communications team, for the majority of stakeholders, this short template will be more accessible, quicker to update, and easier to reference than a lengthy guide.

Once you have your plan down, pair it with a robust, all-in-one fundraising solution that helps your team quickly identify audience segments, target them with engaging content, track results, and effectively implement changes.

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