How does strategic planning impact communications?
No matter what you are working towards in your organizations when approaching both strategic planning and communications it’s important to know what is unchanging, and what is variable. Ally Dommu, director of strategy, sits down with Sarah Durham to talk about developing communications in connection to a bigger organizational vision in this episode of The Smart Communications Podcast.
Sarah Durham: Welcome to The Smart Communications Podcast. I am Sarah Durham and I am joined today by one of the members of Big Duck’s leadership team, Ally Dommu, our director of strategy. Welcome back to the show, Ally.
Ally Dommu: Thanks Sarah. So good to be here.
Sarah Durham: For those of you who don’t know Ally personally, or I’ve never met her through the podcast. She’s been on the Big Duck team since 2013, and she is a really smart strategic thinker who has contributed a lot of great content to our blog, regularly gives webinars, and works with a very wide range of organizations here at Big Duck. Before she joined us, she worked at an organization called Sanctuary for Families in New York City, where she managed the communications and led fundraising efforts to expand their programs, ensuring the safety and self-determination of LGBTQ immigrant and low-income victims of domestic violence and their families. She has a degree in Nonprofit Management from The New School where she was the co-founder of the university’s first social innovation competition and the recipient of the Dean’s award. It’s just great to have you back on the show, Ally.
Ally Dommu: My pleasure.
Sarah Durham: One of the things that’s really fun about what Ally does is she gets to work with a lot of different organizations and observe patterns or see what organizations are doing across the same moment in their life cycle. But she’s seeing it happen for multiple organizations constantly. And in particular, at our work at Big Duck, a lot of the projects we’re working on are happening during strategic planning or right after strategic planning. And so I asked her to join me here today to talk about that. To talk about the relationship of strategic planning to communications. So Ally, when you’re working with organizations who are in, or just out of a strategic planning process, what do you observe? What’s the tendency for those organizations to do?
Ally Dommu: Strategic planning looks different for every nonprofit some approach it, you know, really rhythmically and every four years you’re taking a step back bringing key stakeholders around the table and, and really setting a blueprint for the future. Some organizations manage strategic planning a little bit more iteratively, a little bit more of an adaptive approach. But I have definitely observed thinking about the relationship between strategic planning and communications. that there is not necessarily always connective tissue between the two, Meaning that when a nonprofit organization establishes a new organizational plan, a new mission, a new program plan, an outlook for the future, they’re not necessarily consistently thinking about what are the implications for our communications function. What do we need to achieve with our communications? What are we trying to take on? What needs to change? What do we need to build with our communications in service of this bigger organizational vision?
Ally Dommu: So I wrote this blog post titled “Six key questions to ensure your communication strategy aligns with your strategic plan.” Basically, as a call to nonprofits to say, hey, when you’re doing the work of strategic planning, you are really taking a step back. You’re really thinking about the future that your organization is working towards. Make sure that you create space for communications to really think about what are the implications for how we write, how we speak, who and how we reach the community, and how we get our voice out there. What needs to change in order to make sure that the work that we’re doing on a day-to-day basis from a communications and marketing perspective is really driving change at the organizational level.
Sarah Durham: Thinking about the situations you’re describing that I’ve seen a lot of times too like there is so much changing when a strategic plan is going on. Oftentimes there might be a change in leadership happening like a new executive director is coming in or is departing. There might be turnover on the board, turnover in the leadership team of the organization. And so often it does seem like organizations come out of that process really just trying to manage change in these very fundamental ways you’re talking about, or, you know, organizational infrastructure, programs realignment, all that kind of stuff. So I’m excited to unpack this a bit more. And the blog that Ally is referencing, we’re going to link to in the show notes, as she mentioned, it’s called “Six key questions to ensure your communication strategy aligns with your strategic plan.” So Ally, why don’t you quickly walk us through those six key questions for folks who haven’t read your piece yet?
Ally Dommu: Sounds good. So we start at the highest level with goal setting. So the first question is, does our strategic plan suggest that we need to establish new communications goals or objectives? Do we need to be doing something different, reaching different milestones with our communications? From there, we ask about audiences, does our strategic plan suggests that we need to be reaching different, or new audiences? Do we need to be changing who we’re trying to reach? Does our current brand strategy or our brand identity, things like messaging and visuals need to change to align with what our new strategic direction is? How about strategies and tactics? Do we need to be using different types of communication, strategies, tools, channels, in order to advance our goals at the organizational level? Are the tools we’re using for communications still the right ones in line with what we’re really trying to take on? How about things like infrastructure? So potentially rethinking our resources for communications. Do we need more or different people power? More staff or volunteer power? How about financial investment? Do we have enough resources to be able to drive the type of communications function that we are envisioning as a result of our strategic plan? And then finally tools and processes? Do we have the right things in place, especially to be able to reflect and assess our progress? Are we creating a system where we’re reflecting on the impact that we’re making?
Sponsored by Fresh Research, a NonProfit Times Podcast: Fresh Research is a podcast from The Nonprofit Times, that takes a look at some of the latest findings around the charity world. I’m Mark Hrywna, and each month I talk with authors, researchers, and thought leaders about some of the most impactful and provocative research in the nonprofit sector. Whether you’re a fundraiser, c-suite executive, or financial manager, we look for practical information to help you do your job, as a nonprofit professional. In past episodes, we’ve looked at the effectiveness of thank you calls, the coming boom in estate gifts, and how donors and volunteers respond in a crisis. You can follow the podcast on social media with the hashtag #freshresearch, find us wherever you get your podcasts or visit nonprofittimes.com/freshresearch
Sarah Durham: You know, I’m struck as you read these questions, how closely they aligned to the strategic framework, that’s in the ebook that our team produced about nonprofit strategy. And that’s another thing we can link to in the show notes. A lot of times we find people might confuse the difference between goals and objectives, or strategies and tactics, and that ebook will help you get those terms straight if they’re a bit confusing. But what you’ve done here is you started at the biggest picture from a communications point of view, and then really gotten into the details of, you know, how do you actually bring this thing to life? And as you talk through those questions, I was thinking about an organization we’re working with currently that is just at the end of strategic planning, a very large organization. And they’re going to be going through a pretty significant programmatic restructure, as a result of the new strategic plan. And their communications team is kind of waiting with bated breath, I think to see where all the dust settles from this reorganization and realignment. Do you think that a comms team should go ahead and make a new comms plan at the end of the strategic planning? Or do you think there are other things that have to happen first other dust that needs to settle before they can effectively do so?
Ally Dommu: I approach these questions very linearly, and I actually don’t think that that’s always right. I’m always kind of trying to intentionally, here at Big Duck, we’re trying to question sort of a waterfall approach to change and strategy. Now, once something is done, then you can start the next thing. And then the next thing, and that’s not always realistic, especially in the context of nonprofit work when variables inside and outside the organization are always changing. So my recommendation would be to not say to wait necessarily because there might not ever be a perfect time. What I would call for is to be intentional about making connections between the communication strategy and the work that you’re doing on a day-to-day basis with communications. Making sure it aligns with the bigger picture, vision, and direction of the organization. But also just getting started and being comfortable with getting work started without a prescriptive plan. And maybe having something like a lighter framework, or maybe a set of a few intentions for communications that do align with what the organization is trying to take on in the bigger picture. But you could always, down the road again, reflect back and make sure dots are connected, if not, all of them are connected in the very beginning.
Sarah Durham: Yeah. I love your helpful reminder to not be so waterfall. And as you mentioned, we’ve been talking about that here a lot. And we’ve also been talking about how sometimes perfect is the enemy of the good, right? Like that, we’re striving to do things in the perfect order and the optimal way or something like that. And that really does slow us down and get in our way. So these kinds of experimental practices you’re talking about are not only potentially healthier, but I think they’re also really pragmatic. That, you know, they might be a lot more realistic for organizations to try to tackle
Ally Dommu: Just to make this conversation really relevant to the moment. And the times that we’re in. With COVID, so much change happening in the nonprofit sector and so much unknown, a lot of nonprofits don’t know what’s ahead for them. From a funding perspective, a political perspective, with the economy. Strategic planning for nonprofits today needs to be responsive and iterative. Planning that is rooted in one moment in time, just can’t endure the types of changes in the context that every nonprofit will be going through. And same with communications strategy. We need to make sure that our communications work is in line with what we’re trying to achieve as an organization. But it also has to be responsive to the context. So I do think that maybe a silver lining of all of this craziness this year will be a recognition that the old way of waterfall strategic planning, or waterfall communication strategy, where you do the work in one big push, and then you just keep coming back to it year after year. Maybe that’s not the right way for the future. And maybe there’ll be more of a seismic shift in the nonprofit sector to realize great strategy actually is iterative and responsive and alive. And maybe if I were rewriting this post right now, I would say six key questions to ensure your communication strategy is living and aligned with your strategic direction.
Sarah Durham: I love that. And one of the resources I know you’ve talked about a lot that maybe we should link to in the show notes and recommend is David La Piana’s book, The Strategy Revolution.
Ally Dommu: The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution.
Sarah Durham: Which talks all about strategic planning and the notion of creating a strategic framework or something like that. That can be used as a lens or a filter.
Ally Dommu: Absolutely.
Sarah Durham: One final question before we wrap up. So if some of our listeners are embarking on strategic planning, how would you encourage them based on all of this thinking, to think about communications? What advice do you have for them?
Ally Dommu: I think that it’s helpful to think about fixed points and unfixed points with communications and strategy at large. If your organization is thinking about really taking a step back and changing the focus in the future, what are the fixed things that you know that you’re working towards–the things that no matter what are unchanging? Things like, maybe your organization’s values, or who your community is, or what your mission is. There are certainly other things that are fixed. Potentially, you have a great staff that you want to really make sure you’re leveraging. And really taking stock of those strengths and challenges or other things in the context that are fixed. And similarly with communications, what are the things that you’re working towards that you know, no matter what are unchanging, and what are the things that are variable? And making sure that you have flexibility in place with your communications to be able to move around those fixed points, but also take advantage and respond to the things that you can’t quite predict right now.
Sarah Durham: Great. Ally Dommu, thank you for sharing your insights with us. We appreciate having you back on the show.
Ally Dommu: Thank you.
This podcast has been sponsored by Fresh Research, a NonProfit Times Podcast.