January 2, 2019

What is “strategy?”

In this episode of the Smart Communications Podcast, two members of Big Duck’s strategy team, Laura Fisher and Gil Mejia, define strategy, unpack the differences between strategic goals, objectives, and tactics, and offer tips for nonprofit communicators looking to develop their strategic thinking.

If you want more resources on strategy, download our free ebook, Achieve more: Putting strategy to work for your nonprofit.


Sarah Durham: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast, I’m your host Sarah Durham.

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

Laura Fisher: Hi, 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 in 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. I invited Gil 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.

Sarah Durham: So today we’re gonna unpack that a bit. So first, Gil, what is nonprofit communications strategy?

Gil: The strategy, the way we think about it, is sort of a practice, it’s an approach. You wanna 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: In the eBook, you guys I think, very usefully, defined 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 maybe 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 wanna achieve. It should feel specific, but it might be a little bit abstract. Something like, increasing participation in a program, could be a goal. An objective is, going to be a little bit 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.

Laura Fisher: An objective is gonna 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.

Laura Fisher: 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, “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 abstract ways. But how does the audience shape that, or influence them?

Gil: Often times when you’re 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 wanna communicate with. What are the best ways for you to engage them? So, taking stock of who they are, what are the things 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 wanna 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 kinda get, under the skin of who the audience is, so you can develop a strategy that really speaks to them, right?

Gil: 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 often times, that picture of success is informed by your audiences, the people who are gonna be sort of, helping you reap the benefits of communicating. So, starting there, is usually a great step.

Sarah Durham: I’ve heard a lot of discussion on our team, and with a lot of people in the sector about, why nonprofits struggle with strategy. 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 abour 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’s sort of a fire in you to put out, if you have this strategy laid out, you can turn to it, to figure out the best way to respond.

Laura Fisher: But I think sometimes, because strategy feels like this really thoughtful thing, that you have to sit down and think about 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’s gonna be more effective, if you apply a strategic thinking framework.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, and this may just be 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 getting people to sign off on things, review things, get this done, 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: And I will 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. What is the order of operation with all those things?” Sometimes if you get too caught up on 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 a goal, then go to the objective, then go to the strategy, go to the tactic. Start with whatever feels most tangible, and most pragmatic.

Gil: Correct. That’s why we talked about, sort of, taking stock, who are your audiences, what are the assets that you have, flexibility within your organization. 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. They defined their biggest goal as increasing engagement, but in learning more about it, and in asking them questions about it, I found that there’s two sort of underlying problems of that. One is, a lack of new participation in the program, and another is, a lack of continued participation, or retention of current participants.

Laura Fisher: 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, 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.
Laura Fisher: So, a sort of overarching goal can lend itself to different objectives, which lend themselves to different strategies, which lend themselves to different tactics. To Gil’s point, maybe that’s 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, “Our goal is to reach X, Y, Z. Get them to do, blah, blah, blah, so that, blah, blah, blah.” We often end up writing project briefs, which are usually a few pages long, to capture all of that. But I think when you write something down too, even if it’s really simple, that goes a long way too. 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.

Sarah Durham: So, I want to wrap up with two things. The first is, I wanna 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 wanna try to exercise these muscles. You go to our website, which is, and then you click on the Insights area. 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.

Sarah Durham: The other thing I’d like to wrap up with, are just any parting tips, that you both might have, for people in the communications space, who are developing their muscles, around using strategy.

Gil: I don’t know if this is so much of a clear tip, but I definitely wanna 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 halt 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 topics, and unpack them.

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. I think that step of learning about your audience in small ways, and big ways, can really help to inform some strategies and tactics, in 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 wanna hear from us. 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 into the target audience, it’s like a game changer, in terms of the outcomes.

Sarah Durham: 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, “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 the, “Duh,” you help your team align, around it.

Sarah Durham: So once again, you can download our free eBook, if you would like, at bigduckny You can just search for strategy eBook, or you can find it in the Insights area of the website. Gil and Laura, thank you for joining me.

Laura Fisher: Thanks Sarah.

Gil: Thank you for having us.