Optimizing nonprofit communications for an organization with no communications staff

Mar 3, 2021

In early 2020, I started working with AlphaPlus, an organization that helps adult literacy education professionals in Ontario to incorporate digital technology in their work. With a relatively new strategic plan in place, AlphaPlus’ Executive Director Alan Cherwinski was looking to undertake a communications audit and assessment as the first step in redeveloping their communications plan.

“Our small nonprofit had limited resources, misaligned expertise, and limited confidence and capacity to communicate clearly and effectively,” explains Alan. “Addressing these communications challenges was a strategic priority, but there was limited consensus on the most feasible approach going forward and the priority actions.”

Starting with a communications audit to optimize nonprofit communications for a small organization (case study) #NPMC Click To Tweet

A collaborative approach to a nonprofit communications audit

Working with Alan and one of AlphaPlus’ Organizational Development Consultants, Christine Pinsent-Johnson, I kicked off the process by taking stock of the channels and tactics the organization had been using over the last six months to a year. We conducted an inventory of any activities that fall under communications, exploring and assessing those activities together over a series of consultations plus one meeting with the full AlphaPlus team. Next, I conducted one-on-one communications self-assessments with each staff member to evaluate their capacity, roles and confidence.

Alan and Christine’s willingness to get deeply involved in the audit, sharing insights, background and context made this exercise much more than a simple inventory and assessment. This process allowed me to provide a comprehensive SWOT analysis – including a picture of current communications processes – which informed my recommendations and implementation plan.

Building a foundation based on existing strengths and resources

It became clear that AlphaPlus had been doing a remarkable job delivering communications, despite having no dedicated communications staff. The lean team of adult education and digital technology experts share responsibility for communications, focusing on email and social media channels. However, defined communications objectives, a messaging framework, and clarity around roles and responsibilities were all needed to support the team’s efforts.

I provided several recommendations based on my audit and analysis, identifying opportunities to strengthen AlphaPlus’ communications, including:

Alignment of communications with organizational strategy
Among my recommendations, I provided five new communications objectives aligned with the organization’s strategic priorities and goals.

A defined brand messaging platform and clarified audiences
I identified a need to clarify and strengthen the AlphaPlus brand positioning and the steps needed to leverage the updated brand in all communications. I also identified a need to prioritize and define communications audiences (by creating personas).

Improved digital communications
I recommended several steps to strengthen and unify the organizations’ primary communications channels: digital. I recommended a new or redesigned website, advised on ways to focus on the website as a hub for all digital communications, and suggested a revised approach to the blog and email newsletter.

Clarified communications roles and responsibilities
While building on the existing shared approach to communications, I recommended realigning and assigning communications roles and responsibilities. I recommended tools, systems and internal communications practices to create clarity, confidence and leverage team members’ strengths and interests.

“This approach aligned new realistic communications goals with the existing critical organizational strategic goals,” says Alan. “Marlene’s extensive real-world experience with and knowledge of communications best-practices, combined with her pragmatic nature and her empathy for the nature of the nonprofit sector guided our leadership and team to clearly identify the gaps and opportunities.”

After the audit: ongoing implementation support

The recommendations and implementation plan that I provided outlined a scheduled set of steps and activities for a 12-month period. Alan approved and immediately started implementing the recommendations and also extended our work together so that I could help to:

Together, we’ve laid the foundation for an approach to communications that leverages a newly redefined AlphaPlus brand and taps into team members’ strengths and interests. I’ve continued working with AlphaPlus to develop a website content strategy and editorial calendar for their blog and newsletter while the team implements the remaining recommendations.

Despite being newer to communications, Alan and Christine have enthusiastically jumped into this new domain: they have been thoughtful, decisive and open to learning about and delivering on our ambitious plan. It has been eye-opening – and impressive – for me to observe what a small nonprofit organization with no communications staff can accomplish. I’m very excited to see where they will take their communications, and I’m thrilled that the experience has been positive for Alan as well, who kindly shared the following:

“Marlene’s work has guided the team through the development of rigorous new (clear and streamlined) practices that leverage our limited resource towards stronger mission-driven communications. She knows what needs to get done and gracefully helps to make sure decisions are made on time, while boosting the organization’s self-reliance.”

Do you need my help with optimizing your nonprofit’s communications?

Would you like to clarify where you’re spending your time and effort, which communications activities are working, and what you need to change? Have a look at my Communications audit service for nonprofit organizations; if it seems like a fit, set up a consultation with me.

Where do you start with optimizing nonprofit communications when you have no communications staff? (case study) #NPMC Click To Tweet

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