This is the fourth part in a series about communications plans, which are crucial tools for nonprofits and businesses. Check out part I, part II, and part III for more!
A communications plan lays out a comprehensive picture of an organization's communications goals and offers executable steps for how to achieve them. It can be created or updated annually to align with the fiscal year, or it can be developed as a companion to a 1-, 3- or even 5-year strategic plan.
In earlier posts, we offered an overview of communications plans, along with information about two crucial components of well-designed plans: clearly articulated communications objectives, and a comprehensive map of communications channels.
In this post, we're covering another important piece of a communications plan: a detailed breakdown of messaging strategy.
There are many ways to conceive of messaging strategy, but we think of it as a way to generate and manage subject matter for routine—but discrete—communications, such as blog posts, newsletters, and social media posts.
Often, these kinds of high-frequency communications are executed without a big-picture strategy in mind. That equates to a lost opportunity in reinforcing organizational vision—and it also puts the writer in the position of having to routinely scramble to source new content.
As comms managers know, that scramble can feel relentless ("What to tweet about this morning? This afternoon? Next week?" "Who's got something I can include in the newsletter this month?"). It's also super inefficient, in terms of brain space and organizational workflow. Plus, it can lead to unwanted repetition and inconsistency.
A lot of these issues can be solved with a messaging strategy. When a messaging strategy is developed as part of a communications plan, you ensure that these routine communications on-brand and aligned with important events and campaigns.
When thinking about messaging, develop general categories that can be mined for content: fundraisers, outreach, personal and organizational profiles, relevant current events or research, calls to action, quotes, thought pieces, etc. In developing those topics, think about your communications objectives: What will resonate with your target audiences? Garner stakeholder engagement? Strengthen your SEO?
As the above screen shot of the messaging section of a communications plan shows, you can then break each topic down further into subtopics that line up with what's going on in the organization.
From there, topics can be broken down even more granularly, to be scheduled on an editorial calendar*: A future event may be an occasion for multiple communications—an invitation and reminder, a thought piece from the ED exploring how the event reflects the organization's mission, an after-the-fact report of the event's success and thank you to everyone involved, links to press coverage, etc. Similarly, a volunteer recruiting push could lead to an ongoing series of new volunteer profiles and an end-of-year report celebrating volunteer-related outcomes.
Creating a messaging strategy takes a bit of up-front work. But it's ultimately an enormous time-saver that leads to more consistent, more meaningful, and more effective communications.
*If you haven't yet heard the gospel of editorial calendars—another critical tool that a communications plan sets out—now's the time to be saved!
As we discussed in a recent post, before applying for a grant, you need to apply to apply for a grant.
But then. Then! After you’ve written the Letter of Intent and received an invitation and RFP to apply, it’s time to actually write the grant.
Surprisingly, the grant writing at this stage is easier and more straightforward (though because it’s longer and more detailed it’s also more work): Not only have you received instructions in the form of the RFP, but you’ve already written your template in the form of the LOI.
In some ways, the grant proposal is the LOI, but more. Whereas the LOI is about 2 pages, the grant proposal is more like 8 to 12 pages. Whereas the LOI provides a snapshot of your organization and its program objectives, the proposal spells out in more (and repetitive) detail your organization’s background, needs, program model, goals and objectives, methods, evaluation and tracking, timeline and work to date, and organizational information.
To write the right proposal:
Proposals can be onerous and overwhelming. Many organizations want to break the project down, assigning various elements to various staff members. Resist this urge! Instead, assign the proposal to your organization’s strongest writer (who, ideally, practices extreme attention to detail), and provide that writer with vigorous support.
And if this is your organization's first effort, consider spending the money on training your writer in grant writing or on hiring a grant writer. The outlay might hurt your organization’s wallet in the short-term, but the final proposal will pay long-term dividends (even if it doesn't win the grant) because it will be the basis for future—winning!—proposals.
Let's take a quick mental tally: In the past month, have you received a tone-deaf email from a colleague and were left to ponder what he actually meant? A memo so full of jargon that it required two or three reads to decipher? A set of instructions poorly written enough to require its own manual? A rally-the-team note from a manager or the c-suite that fell completely flat because of insipid or vague writing?
If you answered yes to any (or maybe all) of those questions, you're not alone.
It's not breaking news that Americans spend a lot of time communicating at work. But unfortunately, a lot of that time is wasted.
To be more precise, as Josh Bernoff reported in the Harvard Business Review, 81% of businesspeople say that poor writing wastes a lot of their time. All those vague emails, poorly organized presentations, and jargon-laden reports add up—and take a major blow to an organization's productivity.
Of course, it's not just the internal workings of an organization that suffer under a culture of bad writing. Bad writing filters out to customers, clients, partners, and stakeholders, too. It signals a lack of professionalism, lack of organizational self-awareness and integrity, and lack of respect for your audience. We can probably all agree that those are un-good signals to send.
So what's an organization to do?
Small steps can make a difference, if you're willing to commit time (and possibly money) to improving your organization's writing.
1. Make sure you've got polished templates and models for anything your employees routinely produce, such as project reports, slide decks, or blog posts. Templates not only save time, but they ensure that materials are consistent—and consistently well written.
2. Model good writing from the top. Management sets the tone and the standard for team members to rise (or fall) to. Even casual emails from a team lead or a department head (not to mention the ED or CEO) should be thoughtfully and properly crafted.
3. Design your organization's workflow with the writing process in mind. Make sure that all public-facing communications are adequately reviewed and vetted—for example, by building in a beta release for larger projects. And if your staffing allows it, consider providing dedicated in-house writing support for those who routinely create communications.
4. Provide training for employees, whether new hires or veterans. Everyone brings different levels of comfort and experience to writing, so it's crucial to periodically create the opportunity to ensure that everyone is aware of organizational standards and able to use best practices.
5. Bring in external support when needed. Sometimes an outside perspective helps, both to identify problems, and to conduct the necessary training to get staff up to speed. Experienced consultants can bring fresh ideas to new communications projects or old communications inefficiencies.
Now, go forth and write (better)!
In our last post about getting the grant, we discussed developing a solid grant-finding strategy. While finding a grant is easy, finding the right grant—the grant that you can win for your nonprofit—is hard(er). Today, we’ll discuss next steps, including best practices for writing the Letter of Inquiry.
Once you’ve identified the right grant, you may want to establish contact with the grantmaking group. Many grantmakers (though not all—be sure to read that RFP!) tacitly assume applicants will reach out. So send an email or make a phone call to gauge their interest in your organization and its work. The effort ensures that both you and the grantmaker views the a grant as a good fit. It also helps open the door to a relationship: As most nonprofits already know, relationships are key to sustainability.
If you’ve established contact and learned more about your target grant, you will also learn about their preferred entry document. Often, this is a two-page Letter of Inquiry. The LOI provides an excellent warmup for writing the grant. It asks you to show off your organization and to succinctly articulate grant-relevant goals. The LOI may feel like a chore (and it is), but by enabling grantmakers to efficiently make a first cut, the letter helps save you from writing a grant you are not positioned to win.
If the grantmaking group offers an LOI template, use it. But if not, create your own LOI according to the following specifications, aiming for two pages in length.
Now, as novice grant writers (also all writers) quickly learn, you need to start earlier, do more research, and write more drafts than you think you do. In the next post, we'll turn to the writing process itself.
English PhD, former arts administrator, obsessive cook, native East Coaster, mom to two rabblerousers.
English PhD, former high school teacher, obsessive organizer, native Midwesterner, mom to three troublemakers.