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April 21, 2021

Is it strategic?

Is it strategic? Strategy is the practice of defining what you want to achieve and identifying the best ways to achieve it. Sarah Durham and Laura Fisher unpack terms like goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics and offer background and examples of how they intersect.  Listen in as they answer a few questions frequently by nonprofit communicators, and apply these terms and pressure test for strategy.


Sarah Durham: Welcome to The Smart Communications Podcast. I am Sarah Durham. I am the CEO at Big Duck, and I am joined today by Laura Fisher, who is one of Big Duck’s senior strategists. Welcome back, Laura.

Laura Fisher: Hi, happy to be here.

Sarah Durham: So for those of you who have been listening to our podcast for a while, you might recognize Laura’s voice. She has been a contributor to other episodes, including one of our most popular episodes about what is strategy, which we recorded a couple of years ago and just re-released. She’s also the author of many great pieces of content, blogs, and other articles on all kinds of topics. But particularly today, I invited her to join me on the show to talk a little bit more about real-world situations that come up in strategy. For those of you who don’t know Laura, she joined the Big Duck team about five years ago in 2015, she attended UNC Chapel Hill, graduated with degrees in journalism and information science, and actually came to join our team not long after that. So she’s been here for a while. So welcome back, Laura.

Laura Fisher: Thank you.

Sarah Durham: One of the things we did a few years ago was we collaborated in the Big Duck team on an ebook, and we will link to this ebook in the show notes it’s free, and you can download it anytime at, but the ebook was called Achieve more: Putting strategy to work for your nonprofit. And in the ebook, we defined and unpacked terms like goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics. And we did that because we find that sometimes those terms are used kind of interchangeably and without real clarity about what they mean. So before we get into some of the real-world situations that come up where you might want to pressure test an idea with goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics, can you just walk us through those terms very briefly to make sure we’ve got some sort of shared definition?

Laura Fisher: Sure. Happy to. And I’ll also share an example of each just to sort of articulate it and kind of paint a picture so it’s easy to understand. So a goal we think about as a big picture statement of what you’re trying to achieve, what you’re trying to do with your communications. An objective is a more measurable outcome that indicates you’re making progress towards that goal. You might have a number of objectives that support one big picture goal. The strategy is really how you’re going to achieve that goal. What is the specific approach that guides your actions, the decisions you make in service of that communications goal? And lastly, as a tactic, it’s an activity or an action that you take to carry out that strategy and it, like objectives, might have a number of tactics to help you carry out a strategy.

Laura Fisher: So just to give a sort of big picture example of what this might look like, let’s say your organization has a goal to maybe change the narrative around a key issue that you’re working on with your community. You want to run some sort of narrative change campaign and sort of shift the way or reinforce the way folks are thinking about something. That might be one big picture goal, changing the narrative. An objective could be mentions on social media of this campaign. Maybe you want to see a percentage increase in the mentions of that campaign on social media, across different platforms. And you have specific numbers associated with that. A strategy to kind of build this narrative, raise awareness of this issue could be to encourage prominent activists to share content with their communities. So maybe you’ve identified partners and activists who can really raise awareness of this narrative. A tactic to enforce that strategy is maybe some sort of toolkit. You give activists and partners a way to share content on social media, with their communities to make it easy for them to get the word out.

Laura Fisher: So that’s just a quick example to kind of help you see how goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics fit together. And one thread throughout all of this that I’ll just mention too, is audiences. It’s not exactly in the strategic framework of goal objective strategy tactic, but your audiences should be threaded throughout all of those things. You need to make sure that when you’re setting a goal, defining an objective, creating a strategy or a tactic, you’re thinking about who your community is, how they like to hear from you, and that sort of thing. So they’re kind of a through-line throughout all of this work as well.

Sarah Durham: Great. Okay. That’s a really helpful background to kick us off and now we will get into the fun part. We have brainstormed in preparation for this podcast. Some of the questions we get asked a lot by nonprofit communicators, where we think there’s a real opportunity to apply these terms and pressure test for strategy. So we’re going to take the three questions that we get asked a lot that we think come up for you a lot, and we’re going to unpack them a bit. So Laura, the first question that we hear a lot is something around audiences. Like how do I reach a younger or a more diverse audience? How would you tackle that?

Laura Fisher: This is definitely a very common question. A lot of times we hear, we want a more diverse community of donors of activists. And that could mean, as Sarah said, age, geographic diversity, racial diversity, or something else. So in my experience, I think the way that I would tackle this question is first think a little bit about goals, to go back to that framework that I just used questioning is this something that is going to advance goals you have internally? Maybe it doesn’t advance diversity, equity, inclusion goals. Does it advance an organizational goal in your strategic plan? Oftentimes I have run into situations where this is something that the board wants to see, or it can come across sometimes as a more performative goal, as opposed to something that is strategic in response to what’s happening in the news and things like that. So making sure that this is actually a goal that supports what’s going on in your organization and supports the communities that you work with as well.

Laura Fisher: And then building off of that, if you do decide that this goal is going to be something that supports your organizational goals, think about how to make it explicit. A lot of times we hear organizations say something like we want to reach a diverse community, but then when asked a little more specifically about what that means, does that mean specific age ranges, specific races, or ethnicities? There’s not always a response. So make this goal and audience as explicit as you can, because that’s going to inform the strategies and tactics that you said, just saying, reach a diverse community doesn’t actually mean much a person can’t be diverse. You should be as explicit as you can about what you mean by diversity and how it’s different from your existing community.

Sarah Durham: I heard a great podcast recently. It was an interview that Joan Garry did with Neha Sampat, who is a consultant who runs a business called GenLead | Belong Lab. And in this podcast she talked about, you know, diversity is really about demographics, and getting a little bit beyond just sort of talking about demographics to be explicit is really important. And in particular, I think that’s what you’re saying about goals. What is this really in service of? Let’s be really explicit about who we’re trying to reach and what reaching them is going to achieve for the organization.

Laura Fisher: Exactly. And one other thing to think about an implication of reaching a more diverse community is thinking about your team internally and how representative of the folks you want to reach they are. Not to say that your team has to be totally representative of your ideal community, but thinking a little bit about if your team is representative of the folks you want to reach, and if there is internal work that you all need to do if you’re not representative of those groups, get perspectives to make sure that you are thinking about how to best reach diverse communities. So just to be explicit about that, sometimes we speak with organizations who have entirely white development teams who want to reach donors of color. That might mean you should have some conversations internally about what an entirely white development team means in terms of how you set strategies and tactics. Are there other perspectives you should be bringing in to do that work well and intentionally? So just thinking about that too, as sort of an implication of asking this bigger picture question of, should we reach more diverse communities?

Sarah Durham: Great. Okay. So the next scenario that we’re going to talk about is one that I get asked all the time and not only do I get asked this all the time, but I pretty regularly read strategic plans that have baked this in as a goal. And the goal is to become a household name. The question I get asked is how can my organization become a household name? How would you apply a strategic framework to that?

Laura Fisher: I think a lot of times we see becoming a household name as a goal for an organization, but I actually think it’s really a strategy to support a broader goal. That broader goal might be awareness. It might be a larger community, you want to get in front of more people. And the strategy is really becoming a household name, making sure that your name is something that people, the general public maybe, recognize. So how to decide if this is a strategic approach for your organization. I think there’s a few different questions that you could ask. One thing to say before I get into that is that becoming a household name can be an expensive endeavor. And it’s something that we hear a lot from organizations that perhaps don’t need to use that strategy to support a broader awareness goal. So what I mean by that is if you work with more niche communities, for example, let’s say it’s a rare disease organization. That’s a great example of an organization that perhaps doesn’t need household name awareness. They have a niche community of people that are trying to reach and having that broader awareness may not be necessary if you work on a wider spread mission, racial justice, hunger, more widespread missions, I think can start to ask this question of whether a household name recognition would support their broader awareness goals. So thinking about the work you do, your audience and your community and how big it is before you decide if this is a strategy for you.

Sarah Durham: I think that’s such a great point. I just want to underscore what you began with because I do very often see organizations that focus on a niche community and they want to become a household name, but yet they haven’t fully reached awareness within that niche community. So if you’re, for instance, trying to reach a community that is affected by a rare disease, you know, before you’re going to become a household name, hopefully everybody in that rare disease community would be aware of you first. Right?

Laura Fisher: Exactly. And I think the second thing to think about is if your organization has strategic and organizational goals, that really require that broader awareness, sort of to your point, Sarah. So if you need to run national narrative campaigns that require a strong name recognition behind them, if you have major, you know, national grassroots fundraising goals or policy, the goals that really require a broad basis of support, things that lend themselves to larger-scale awareness, those might be times in which you, you want that broader name recognition. But again, to Sarah’s point, if you have goals that are more within a more niche community starting there and starting smaller is going to be less of a lift on your team, less expensive to undertake, and in the long run, probably more effective than trying to reach at this broader audience.

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Sarah Durham: It’s fair to say, Laura, that when an organization says we as an organization, want to become a household name, that becoming a household name is a perceived strategy to reach some other goal. For instance, I’m thinking about one example of an organization we worked with a few years ago that did have a fairly broad-based mission, but it was a mission that was largely going to appeal to people on the kind of anti-capitalist, progressive end of the political spectrum. And they had a goal to become a household name, which may or may not have been pragmatic. I mean, there are probably a lot of people who are not going to be interested in their core mission, but the goal of becoming a household name for them, I think, was to reach a broader base of activists and get them to take action on behalf of their mission, or perhaps reach a broader base of donors and get them to support the mission. So becoming a household name, I think in that case becomes a strategy. Is that correct? How do you see it?

Laura Fisher: That’s exactly how I see it. That a broader goal, as you mentioned, awareness, increased donations, increased activism. Those are really your goals. That’s what you’re trying to achieve as an organization to push forward your mission. The strategy for doing that, for getting a broader community base of support, is becoming a household name. And there’s a lot of tactics that could fall underneath that strategy. A lot of times we hear household name recognition tied to ideas around the brand of the organization, but it’s also about how you carry that brand into the world. So there’s tactics around awareness campaigns, social media presence, all sorts of different tactics that could support the strategy of becoming a household name and kind of getting the name of the organization out there a bit more.

Sarah Durham: And a tactic that’s a little bit more backstage than some of those things is to benchmark your current awareness. So I guess that would really be in service of turning that strategy into something that’s a little bit more measurable. So if, for instance, we have a client that wants to be a household name nationally, we might use public opinion polling to do some sort of study of how well known they are and to quantify how well known they are in some measurable way so that we can then go back and repeat that poll in a year or two years after those, some of those tactics you talked about like, public awareness campaigns, have been out in the field and see if we’ve actually moved the needle.

Laura Fisher: Yes. That’s definitely a really important starting point for gauging if you’re actually successful in your strategy of becoming a household name.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges with the household name thing is like, you gotta measure it. You gotta have a way to define it and measure it to know if you’re doing it.

Laura Fisher: Yes. Awareness is one of the broadest skulls out there. So making sure you figure out if you’re thinking about a goal around awareness, finding ways to benchmark that is really important because it can get kind of murky as a goal.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, I hear you. Okay. So the last question that we get asked pretty regularly, and we get asked this basically any time there is some sort of new, popular kind of social media that emerges is somebody will call us up and they will say, Hey, you know, TikTok is a really big deal. Should my organization be using TikTok? Or Snapchat or, you know, 10 years ago it was Facebook. So how do you help an organization use a strategic lens to determine whether or not they should use whatever the newest, latest, hottest social media is?

Laura Fisher: That’s a great question that comes up very often. So I think this is really a question of tactics. It’s asking about a new and emerging tactic and the response is what strategy does it support? So when you’re thinking about specific tactics, even beyond social media channels, they should always layer up to a bigger, how, how are you carrying out your communications in a way that supports your overall goals? So thinking about TikTok, does it ladder up to a larger strategy? Maybe that strategy is to go where the youngest audiences are because you have an overall goal of reaching a younger audience base. So making sure that you’re really thinking about how that new social media channel will support a strategy that supports an overall goal. And I think some other things to really consider outside of the strategic framework, when you’re thinking about investing in a new social media channel as well, does somebody on your team know that channel or have the time to invest in it?

Laura Fisher: A lot of times people will just start an account and kind of go from there, but it’s important that it’s well understood, so it could be well used. A lot of times organizations are coming to these channels after they already have a large audience base who expects a lot about what they see on those channels. So making sure that your organization can really put out the right kind of content, the right pulse of content also, can you invest in creating that good content or even advertising on those channels? Because if you’re trying to get in front of new audiences, that could be important. And then do you have time to invest in this new channel and also maintain the channels that your existing audiences kind of know, know you for, and expect you to be on? So those are some additional, questions about implications and a good lens to think about if you’re considering the tactic of using a new channel.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. I think it’s so important to be clear that any new channel or tool is often a tactic and that the nonprofit communicator spends most of their day drowning in tactical obligations. You know, I mean, there’s so many things that if you manage day-to-day communications for a nonprofit, you have to stay on top of the social media email, keeping the website up to date a lot, a lot of tactics. You began by saying, what’s the strategy that supports the use of this tactic? Because committing to that tactic is going to be one more lift on your capacity as you’ve noted. Another thing that I find myself talking about when people ask me this question is who are the audiences you are trying to reach just to go back to that initial question and are they there? You know, if you are an organization that is trying to engage young people and you know, in a mission that maybe might involve getting them to take action or to move or something like that. Yeah, TikTok’s going to be great. Cause there are a lot of young people there and there’s a lot of stuff that might be related to your mission going on there. But if your audience isn’t using that channel, then that’s a good indicator that there’s probably not a strong strategic advantage to using that tactic too. Do you agree?

Laura Fisher: I do agree. And I’ll just add that one, a lot of times when we have conversations about channels with different organizations, another common question we get is how do we figure out what channels people are actually on? And so just some quick things to think about in that regard is doing a bit of audience research. Sometimes you can do short surveys or interviews with folks to ask them the channels that they use for folks in your existing community. And another thing to do is if you’re thinking about reaching a new community, looking to see if there’s any secondary research out there about what kind of channels they’re using. I know like at least Pew Research does a lot about channels, younger people are using. So seeing if you can at least get a little bit of a sense of where folks are spending time before you make that investment.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. That’s a great point. And the last thing I want to add to this question about, should I use this social media is to surface a point that George, who is the CEO of Whole Whale made years ago when I interviewed him for this podcast. And he talked about something else that I think is important, which is a kind of credibility table stakes. If your organization has forever avoided being on Facebook, let’s say, or forever avoided being on Twitter, but everybody else who’s in your movement is using Twitter and using Facebook, there is a sort of credibility piece to showing up there and having some sort of voice in that world. Even if you’re not totally convinced your audiences are there. So that’s perhaps, you know, something to chew on and see if that relates to your organization too. Laura, thank you so much for joining me. This is a lot to think about, and I think there are a lot more of these questions. If you are listening to this podcast and you have similar questions, you’re wondering about, you can always email us [email protected] and send us your questions. Send us your feedback to the podcast in general. And as always, we will link to related articles and things we’ve referenced in this podcast in the show notes. Thanks, Laura.

Laura Fisher: Thank you for having me.

This podcast has been sponsored by Bloomerang