Journey to opportunity: successful government and nonprofit capacity building requires strategic communication

5 years, 7 months ago


Marrying an organization’s strategic goals with its communications efforts requires communicators to think critically. By Dionne Clemons.

Strategically aligning government and nonprofit organization’s communications efforts with its mission is a relatively new paradigm. Historically, these industries implement a one-way approach to communicating with their stakeholders – producing and distributing tons of collateral material in the hope that the messages are received.
Within government in the US, public relations efforts are legislatively prohibited through the 1913 Gillett Amendment. This act of Congress prevents appropriated funds from being used to, "pay a publicity expert," and was enacted to limit government spending for public relations. Still, since World War I, government practices what is known as the public information model of public relations and employs more than 5,000 "information specialists" to distribute factual information on its behalf. 
Similarly, nonprofit organizations widely depend upon development professionals’ expertise to build relationships with stakeholders to raise money. What is known as fundraising also requires development professionals to write grants, make annual appeals, organize events, and produce collateral to persuade donors to give. 
Why communicate strategically now?
The expansive use of social media has made it painfully evident to government and nonprofit organizations that: a) it is impossible to communicate through the myriad of traditional and digital media available with the small budgets and staff given to do so; b) the messages being communicated are not yielding results; c) engaging the number of varied audiences is difficult without knowing what to say and why; and d) an organization must position itself strategically throughout all of its operational functions, which include communications, to reach organizational goals. 
Although nonprofit and government organizations have different goals – government wants successful public policy implementation and nonprofits want successful service delivery – they share the similar challenge of communicating to vast and varied audiences who hold them accountable for being transparent. Oftentimes, these organizations’ strategic goals suggest their desire to be transparent, but how they communicate leads to a misrepresentation of the organization’s mission and vision and a misinterpretation by the public of what’s being communicated. 
How to marry strategic vision with communications efforts
To strategically communicate means to align an organization’s communications tasks with its goals. Nonprofit and government organizations ideally seek to build capacity, which means they want to improve and expand their ability to sustain organizational effectiveness. Marrying an organization’s strategic goals with its communications efforts requires communicators to critically think about what outcomes they want to achieve after a communication plan has been executed; what success looks like from a communications perspective; and how that success will be measured. As Steven Covey says, you want to, "begin with the end in mind."
Strategically communicating an entire organization’s goals is a massive feat. Thankfully, most nonprofit and government organizations work through the process of mapping out three-to-five-year strategic plans that serve as an organizational road map. 
Sifting through that document is like reading through tea leaves – you’re searching for clues of how your organization wants to position itself. The communicator’s mission is to decipher the plan and determine what’s most important to communicate and how communicating that one, large concept will weave all of the other programs, services and initiatives into that overarching message. 
Once that concept has been revealed, through conducting research, gathering information, and communicating with an organization’s stakeholders, determining what success looks like will aid in gaining clarity for how to best execute the plan. Traditionally, success comes in the form of national media coverage or in amounts of money raised for nonprofits. 
When thinking long-term, communicators ideally should focus on the health, growth and sustainability of that organization, and success from this perspective comes in the form of thought leadership, brand positioning and audience engagement. Once a concept like thought leadership can be operationalized – or an intangible idea defined – then it can be measured in a way that is reasonable and realistic for the resources that a communicator has to execute the plan. 
Case in point – The United Planning Organization’s Journey to Opportunity campaign 
As communications director for this 50-plus-year-old nonprofit, I have been tasked with communicating this organization’s 33-plus services and programs to its waning audience. The United Planning Organization (UPO) is the designated community action agency for Washington, D.C. where it has provided numerous human services to the District’s poor since President Lyndon B. Johnson established it as part of his War on Poverty effort in 1962. Its mission is to unite people with opportunities. 
UPO is at a crossroads. It’s well known amongst its clientele, but the District’s demographic is changing. It provides phenomenal services but no one knows this and other, newer, shinier nonprofits are telling their story better and are getting more, diverse funding.
First, I studied UPO’s five-year strategic plan. In it, they outline six strategic goals to reach by 2018. I chose to focus on two of those – increase non-government resources and restructure its service delivering system to focus on family economic security. These two goals indicate UPO’s desire to shift its presence in its industry. Next, I conducted months of internal and external research to create communications goals that would align with the two strategic goals outlined above to focus on over the next year. 
One of the biggest goals is to establish UPO as a thought leader within the nonprofit, poverty policy and community action space. Again, thought leadership is an intangible idea that can be defined differently within different contexts. 
For UPO, I operationalize thought leadership as being the lead authority on poverty in Washington, D.C., serving as a source for information on poverty, and serving as a model organization for other community action agencies to replicate. One example for how thought leadership will be measured is by the number of speaking engagements my team and I secure for my executive staff leaders and board members that will establish them and UPO as experts within their respective industries as well as within nonprofit, poverty policy and community action spaces. 
The overarching concept, "journey to opportunity," was developed as a result of months of research trying to determine what one, big message would resonate with its myriad of audiences and would explain and engage those audiences in its mission. "The United Planning Organization helps its clients along their journey toward achieving economic independence by providing opportunities in educational, career and community development." This is a message that will now be woven throughout any and all of the communications vehicles we create for UPO over the next year. This message will additionally help UPO succinctly communicate to the non-government resources it seeks as well as focus UPO’s program managers toward developing programs that increase family economic security.
Looking at the long-term strategic goal of your organization is always the first step to marrying its communications efforts to that plan. Government and nonprofit leaders have invested a great deal of time, money, and thought into developing these strategic plans. 
By aligning the organization’s communications goals with that strategic plan, getting buy-in for the how, when, why and where to execute that plan becomes an easy conversation because the communication plan speaks to the vision they have already set in place. Your job is to now help them realize that vision through effective messaging, brand creation, and audience engagement.    
Author’s Details
Dr. Dionne C. Clemons is a strategic communications thought leader and educator. She currently serves as Director of Communications and Community Engagement for the United Planning Organization in Washington, D.C.

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The Author

Dionne Clemons

Dr. Dionne C. Clemons is a strategic communications thought leader and educator. She currently serves as Director of Communications and Community Engagement for the United Planning Organization in Washington, D.C.

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