Confused when it comes to strategic planning? We’re here to help.

by Anne Nicholls
10 February 2023

Working with tight budgets and limited resources, many communications professionals in  the not-for-profit sector find little time to step back from daily tasks and do any ‘big picture’ strategic planning. This is a particular issue for those of us working as sole practitioners, freelancers or in small charities where we are expected to handle everything from managing the website and social media, to stakeholder engagement, branding, events, media relations and general trouble shooting. To provide some insight into strategic planning – how to do it and the pitfalls to avoid - the Not-for-Profit sector group arranged an on-line panel event with contributions from across the sector. Here are the main takeaways.

Why do you need a communications strategy or plan?

This may seem an obvious question, but it’s surprising how many people question the need for one.

“A plan is incredibly important as it provides a sense of direction, but with some wriggle room”. (Advita Patel, MD of internal communications consultancy Comms Rebel)

“A plan provides you with a ’clear north’, focusing on the organisation’s values and mission.” (Jacqui Musson Communications and Engagement Manager, Green Economy)

“You need to focus on outcomes. It’s hard knowing what your return on investment is unless you have a plan.“ (Helen Deakin, freelance communications consultant specialising in the not-for-profit sector)

“Think of the plan as a tube map that helps to find your way around but doesn’t tell you about the geography of the area.” (Steve Shepperson-Smith, CIPR President)

“A plan enables you to step back and take an umbrella view.” (John Clegg,  Chair of the Not-for-Profit sector group).

How do you go about creating a strategic plan?

Start by setting out your objectives, but keep them to just one page. Then decide on your audience and messages, what channels you need to bring it all life and over what timescale. This can be done in a couple of days if it’s kept simple. There are numerous templates and guidelines that are useful – all available online. The OASIS model (Objectives, Audience Insight, Strategy, Implementation and Scoring) created by the Government Communications Service is a useful one. This goes through five steps. What are we trying to achieve (O). Who are we trying to reach and with what messages (A). What is the overall approach we should adopt (S). What tactics, channels and actions do we need (I). How can we evaluate and measure success (S). Everything needs to link back to the organisation’s objectives, whether this is to attract more income, reach more customers or service users, get the ear of politicians or simply stay afloat. A strategy should be a live document, not an elaborate spreadsheet or just something that sits on the shelf gathering dust. But it needs updating in the light of uncertainties. When Covid turned the world upside down organisations had to change the way they communicated with their audiences overnight, even if their objectives remained the same. The big difference post-Covid is the timescale. In the past having a three-year communications plan was typical. Now it’s more sensible to think of plans in terms of 90 day sections.

How should you keep focused on communications objectives?

It’s so easy to get sidetracked on tactical work, just churning out “stuff” and becoming a postbox without any idea of why you are doing it. How often have you been asked to produce a poster, send an email or post content on Facebook just because a client or member of staff has asked you to? There is a constant pressure for comms professionals to prove their worth which often means just producing content.  You need to learn how to say “no” to demands from clients, staff or trustees. This could mean saying “What do you want me to stop doing so that  I can do xyz?”.  Another is to demonstrate how a different approach can help achieve their objectives. For example some people may come to you asking for help producing a flyer. Instead of producing the flyer, you may be able to help them find an alternative solution that works even better.

How can you evaluate success?.

All activities should be measurable. This means having SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely) objectives that everyone can buy into. Bring teams together to discuss the strategy. Learn from what’s gone well in the past … or not so well.  Be willing to try new things, but test how effective they are. Sometimes little things can have a big impact but you need to measure them.

How does it all work in practice?

Steve Shepperson-Smith described how a team of volunteers and CIPR employees planned celebrations to mark the Institute’s 75th anniversary. The committee began by brainstorming ideas. that helped to create an initial plan. The next step was to agree a budget with the CPR's CEO and then re-cut the plan. Steve highlighted the importance of accountability in major projects and that it is important one person is responsible for actions and not multiple people (not the same person for everything!). He also recommended piloting new initiatives and then scaling them to reduce risk and to embed early learnings. 

Summing up … the three most important takeaways are

  • keep the plan short and simple so that anyone can see where you’re going
  • make sure your plan is flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances
  • have clear, measurable objectives.

Low cost and free tools for strategic planning

Suggestions gathered from panellists.

Networking and learning from others

  • Comms Rebel app – a brand new app for a growing community of internal communicators
  • CIPR Connect app – connect with other CIPR members and share ideas with members across the not-for-profit sector

Campaign planning

Project management

  • Consider Microsoft Workplace Tools for not-for-profits
  • Google Suite – use Google Docs to easily share and collaborate on plans
  • Try these different web-based project management tools for to-do lists and project plans:

Campaign measurement

CIPR training