Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash
October 14, 2020

What is strategy? A refresher.

Whether you consider yourself a pro at setting communications strategy, or you are just getting started, this podcast, back by popular demand, offers useful insights to help you get a sense of the terms: goals, objectives, strategy, and tactics from a nonprofit communications perspective. 


Sarah Durham: I’m Sarah Durham. Over the years, we’ve noticed that folks sometimes use the terms, goals, objectives, strategy, and tactics interchangeably. So we wrote an ebook that defines those terms and it provides nonprofit communications examples. Our goal really was just to provide something really useful, something that would help people get clear. Not long after that ebook came out. I also recorded a podcast with two of Big Duck strategists who coauthored the ebook so we could all talk about it. And at the time we wondered if folks would find this content useful and it turns out they did. This ebook has been downloaded more than any of the other eBooks we’ve ever produced. And the podcast has been downloaded and listened to over 2000 times too. So pretty popular and I hope useful stuff. So whether you’re an old pro at setting communication strategy or just getting started, I think you’ll find that this podcast, which originally aired in January of 2019 is really clear and really helpful. And so we’ve decided to relearn it again now as a refresher, and I hope you enjoy it.

Gil Mejia: Hi, Sarah. I’m so happy to be here today. My name is Gil. I’m a Junior Strategist here at Big Duck.

Laura Fisher: Sarah I’m Laura Fisher. I’m a Strategist here at Big Duck as well.

Sarah Durham: So I of course know these fabulous people because they work here at Big Duck, but I wanted them to introduce themselves to you today because they and other members of our strategy team have collaborated on an ebook you can download for free about nonprofit communications strategy. And I invited Gill and Laura on our show today to talk about it because nonprofit communications strategy is a kind of ill understood or underutilized thing in some contexts. So today we’re going to unpack that a bit. So first Gil, what is nonprofit communications strategy?

Gil Mejia: Strategy, the way we think about it, it’s sort of a practice. It’s an approach you want to sort of define the things that you are set out to do and sort of develop a plan on how to get there. So whenever there’s a situation you’re facing, if you’re asking yourself those two questions, you’re on the right path to developing and creating some strategy to move forward.

Laura Fisher: Sometimes I’ll define strategy, or I think about strategy as problem solving or opportunity seizing. So figuring out what it is that you need to do, as Gil just said and how you’re going to get to solving that problem or seizing that opportunity.

Sarah Durham: And in the ebook you guys, I think very usefully define the terms, goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics. And it’s funny, you know, those terms are all used so often, but often I hear people use them almost interchangeably. I think for a lot of people, what those terms actually mean is not so clear. So can you just unpack for us those definitions or read us what’s in the ebook? So we’ve got that handy.

Laura Fisher: Sure. So we can define a goal as a big picture idea about what it is you want to achieve. It should feel specific, but it might be a little bit abstract. Something like increasing participation in a program could be a goal. And objective is going to be a little more specific. We want it to be something you can measure something you can take action on something that’s realistic for you and something that’s bound by the time in which it needs to happen. That’s a smart objective. There’s an acronym for you that you can read about in the ebook. And an objective is going to be more specific. So if your goal is increasing participation in a program, a objective might be get 25 more participants in a program by the end of 2018. So it’s something that directly relates to a strategy or a tactic that you might carry out. A strategy is again, a little bit bigger picture than something like a tactic. It’s how you’re going to achieve that goal. It should be actionable and it should lead you to answer the question of, you know, what might I actually do to carry out that strategy. And that’s what a tactic is. It’s the direct day to day things or channels or messages that you’re using to carry out a bigger picture strategy.

Sarah Durham: So I’m curious as we talk about goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics in some very specific ways and also some very abstract ways, but how does, how does the audience shape that or influence them?

Gil Mejia: Oftentimes when you set out to apply and communicate your strategy, you have to be careful to think about the ways on how to build relationships with the people you want to communicate with. What are the best ways for you to engage them? So taking stock of who they are, what are the things that they’re motivated by the ways in which they are used to hearing from you or not hearing from you are useful tools to make sure that your strategy is actually in line with how they want to be communicating with you

Sarah Durham: In our work here. I often see you guys and other people on our strategy team, developing tools like audience profiles or audience mindsets to really kind of get under the skin of who the audience is. So you can develop a strategy that really speaks to them, right?

Gil Mejia: Yeah. When you have a situation or a problem, you know, you’re thinking strategically or, you know, you’re setting up strategy when you start thinking about, so what does success look like? How can I see myself out of this problem? Right? And oftentimes that picture of success is informed by your audiences, the people who are going to be sort of helping you reap the benefits of communicating. So starting there is usually a great step.

Sarah Durham: I heard a lot of discussion on our team and with a lot of people in the sector about why nonprofits struggle with strategy, like why is this something that doesn’t come to life every day for every organization? Laura, what do you think?

Laura Fisher: I think that strategy can be seen as something that is really thoughtful and proactive in the day to day life of a nonprofit communicator or anyone who works at a nonprofit is often very reactive. And so sitting down and thinking about strategy, thinking about your goals might feel like something that you can’t use on a day to day basis or in a reactive way. But in reality, when strategy is defined, well, it should be a tool that you can use both proactively and reactively. So you have an opportunity to seize. You should be able to think strategically about how to take it on, but if there is sort of a fire, you need to put out, if you have the strategy laid out, you can turn to it to figure out the best way to respond. But I think sometimes because strategy feels like this really thoughtful thing that you have to sit down and think about it a lot to actually implement it. Doesn’t feel like something you can use day to day when in reality, it’s actually your day to day, your quick thinking is going to be more effective if you apply a strategic thinking framework.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. This may be just a different way of stating what you said, but I often find that the day to day communicator is really, really busy with tactics because a lot of daily communications require just, you know, getting people to sign off on things, review things, get this done, you know, look at the SEO, look at that. It’s very tactics intensive. So the work of developing a strategy and particularly articulating the larger goal or the objectives requires taking yourself out of the trenches and getting to a bigger picture perspective, kind of seeing the landscape.

Gil Mejia: And I would just add, I think that strategy also has a usability problem because I’m sure all of you are thinking, well, these people are talking about objectives, tactics, goals, like what is the order of operation with all those things. And sometimes if you get too caught up on like, which one comes first, that could be a barrier to keeping that picture of success in mind. And thinking about that plan that you’ve already developed to set you in the course of action. So it’s not always so rigid about where you start. And I think that if you shift your mindset on that, it’s a useful starting point to apply your strategy and take some action.

Sarah Durham: So don’t feel you have to always start with the goal, then go to the objective, then go to the strategy, go to the tactics. Start with whatever feels most tangible and most pragmatic?

Gil Mejia: Correct. That’s why we talked about, you know, sort of taking stock, who are your audiences? What are the assets that you have flexibility within your organization? And those are useful starting points so that, you know, what’s the best starting point for you.

Sarah Durham: Can you give me an example of something that might be a place where you come into the problem from a different vantage point?

Laura Fisher: Sure. So a recent client project I worked on the sort of goal of the project was to increase engagement with the program that the nonprofit runs and they defined their biggest goal as increasing engagement, but in learning more about it and, and asking them questions about it, I found that there’s two sort of underlying problems with that. One is a lack of new participation in the program. And another is a lack of continued participation or retention of current participants. So in order to achieve that goal of increasing engagement, generally they had to develop two different sets of strategies. One that was really focused on bringing in new people. And one that was really focused on getting those people who have maybe heard of them once before to come back and deepen their engagement. And that led to totally different strategies. One strategy is, you know, going out in the world and talking about yourself. And one strategy is really talking to those people who already know you and figuring out the best channels and messages to get them to more deeply engage. So sort of overarching goal can lend itself to different objectives, which lend themselves to different strategies, which lend themselves to different tactics. And to Gil’s point, maybe that’s the why it’s hard to remember strategic thinking all the time. But I think the most important thing is remembering what it is that you’re trying to achieve and what you’re doing to get you towards that goal.

Sarah Durham: We used to have a graphic designer on our team who was a big fan of trying to write a one sentence brief, like, you know, our goal is to reach XYZ, get them to do blah, blah, blah. So that blah, blah, blah, we often end up writing project briefs, which are, you know, usually a few pages long to capture all of that. But I think when you write something down to, even if it’s really simple, that goes a long way to, you’ve got something you can tape up on the wall and remind yourself when things go haywire, what you’ve set out to do. So I want to wrap up with two things. The first is I want to be clear where you can find and download this ebook for those of you who would like to read it. It also has in the back a worksheet for these things that could be the basis of a project brief you could use. If you want to try to exercise these muscles, you go to our website, which is Big Duck,, and then you click on the insights area. And if you click on eBooks, you’ll see a number of eBooks and this one is called Achieve More. It’s free. You can download it and it’ll give you all the definitions we’ve talked about today. A bunch of examples and a worksheet. The other thing I’d like to wrap up with are just any parting tips that you both might have for people in the communication space, who are developing their muscles around using strategy.

Gil Mejia: I dunno if there’s so much of a clear tip, but I definitely want to encourage you all to, you know, as we talk about strategy, don’t see all problems as a dead end, when you have a circumstance or a situation that you’ve never confronted before. Instead of thinking that that’s something that’s going to hurt your progress, see that as an opportunity to apply strategy, see that as an opportunity to engage your team, to really ask meaningful questions so that you can collaboratively paint a picture of success and develop a plan to move forward.

Sarah Durham: This is one of the things I love about working with you Gil, is that you love to wade into these kind of meaty meaty topics and unpack.

Laura Fisher: Mine is a little less meaty, but I think my tip would be as much as you can learn about your audiences, because I think the most informed strategies that I create or tactics that I create or plans that I create are really baked in understanding your audiences, who they are, what they need, what they want from you as an organization. And I think that step of learning about your audience in small ways and big ways can really help to inform some strategies and tactics and ways that you might not even think about, because we don’t always pause to think about who we’re reaching and what we’re communicating with them about what they want to hear from us. And that kind of insight can I think be really valuable to creating a really informed and effective strategy.

Sarah Durham: Definitely. I think pretty much every project we’ve ever done, where we do research into the perceptions of the target audience, it’s like a game changer in terms of the outcomes. My tip is to keep it simple and state the obvious, because a lot of times we focus on something that might be almost secondary instead of just saying like, actually our goal here is to get more people into our program or our goal here is to raise more money. So by being explicit about really what success looks like, even if it feels like kind of a duh, you help your team align around it. So once again, you can download our free ebook, if you would like at, you can just search for strategy ebook, or you can find it in the insights area of the website and Gil and Laura, thank you for joining.

Laura Fisher: Thanks Sarah.

Gil Mejia: Thank you for having us.