“Communications” is a broad term. It can be used to encompass all of the sharing of information that an organization does, both internally and externally. Communications form the basis of organizational operations, and as such, become one of the key strategic building blocks for the development sector. Catalystas has worked with organizations large and small on designing, improving, and implementing clear communications strategies. From supporting small organizations looking to grow to the next level by formalizing their communications policies, to providing trainings on how to communicate ideas and concepts clearly among internal teams before pitching to external audiences, to developing and implementing strategic communications plans for UN agencies – and even in developing our own communications strategies – we have seen and experienced firsthand the importance of investing in communications as a priority, and the difference that having a strong communications strategy can make.
Our work has helped us not only to understand the role that communications can and should play in designing a clear, effective, and results-oriented organizational and programmatic strategy; we have also refined our expertise in guiding our clients through defining and developing their own approaches to strategic communications.
Communication is an essential component of all work, and especially work in the development and humanitarian sectors. However, it is too often left behind as an afterthought or considered a “nice to have” rather than a “need to have”. When it is included, communication is far too often seen as solely a tool for fundraising; a one-way street to demonstrate the value of an organization or a program to a donor. However, communications should be the core of a multi directional strategy that considers each and every stakeholder an organization interacts with. While fundraising may be a critical objective within this strategy, this is only the tip of the iceberg.
Communications can and should be a cornerstone of success, both at the programmatic and organizational levels. After all, how can a program achieve its objectives successfully if nobody knows they can participate in it? From the initial design stage of any new endeavor, communications should be considered, integrated, and adapted all the way through a program’s life cycle. Similarly, organizations should invest in communications from the start of their work. Even the smallest, most local efforts need to get the word out about what they want to do, who they want to help, and how they want to work. Without communicating with the communities they aim to serve, progress is impossible. In the same vein, the term “with” is critical here – communication with communities. Communication must go both ways – it is not enough to tell communities what an organization will do; actions should be shaped by those who will benefit from them, and reflection and adaptation should occur as responses are received. Without communication, how can an organization know what is most needed, or who they should be working with?
Follow through should always be a key piece of a communications strategy. While critical for shaping the early design stages, communication is just as important during implementation and post-program. Consistent communication enables consistent reflection, flexible adaptation, trust building, and forward planning.
As stated earlier, communication should never be a one-way street. While keeping donors informed is important (and in most cases, required), communications should include and consider all stakeholders involved in a program or organization. Consider how you present yourself and your programming to the communities you aim to serve, not just to share what you work on, but to collect insights and perspectives that are crucial to developing effective and impactful initiatives, and to gain and keep the trust of these communities as a partner and potentially even a confidant. Such communication should be ongoing, with transparency and honesty underlining all interactions. In the same vein, communication should not stop once a program objective is achieved or a program cycle comes to a close; keeping those channels open and communicating to all stakeholders and audiences about the results of your work maintains and grows that trust, enabling the success and increasing the impact potential for future initiatives and partnerships. Such communications should always be done with ethical considerations at the forefront, ensuring that consent is obtained from any and all persons featured in public communications, and that diverse experiences and perspectives are included wherever relevant and possible.
Of course, fundraising shouldn’t be forgotten as a focus of strategic communications. On the contrary, good communication is essential to effective fundraising efforts – and it should be treated as such. Rather than what we often see, a last minute scramble to create communications materials on a short timeline and a shoestring budget, communications teams should be integrated throughout programming, regularly collecting material and information to highlight and showcase. Communications should be treated as an investment requiring time, materials, and personnel to enable a profitable return.
In order to effectively invest in communications that will yield a positive return, a strategic approach with a clear roadmap for actionable, complementary, and forward thinking communications activities at the programmatic and organizational level is vital.
An effective communications strategy starts with identifying who you are as an organization, and determining how to share that information with key actors. From determining a brand identity – the fun creative decisions, like logos, color palettes, and web design – to crafting a recognizable style or tone, a good communications strategy should make clear for your team and anyone listening: who you are, what you are doing, and how and why you are doing it.
Once you’ve found your voice, a communications strategy should provide you with an action plan of how to make that voice heard. This will look different for every organization and program, depending on size, personnel, resources, goals, access, networks, and more. However, there are a number of key questions to consider as you strategize your communications approach throughout your programs and as an organization overall, applicable to everyone:
There may be more than one answer to this question, and it is important to keep in mind that different audiences require different communication plans and approaches. Just as you speak differently to children and adults, or high level native English speakers compared to people just learning English as a foreign language, your communications strategy should be tailored to each distinct audience that you identify. Some examples of audiences can be:
Do you want to raise awareness at a general level among the public, so that people are more informed about a specific topic and can therefore engage meaningfully in discussions or apply information to activities like voting for public officials? Or perhaps you aim to change legislation by communicating specific information to those already in positions of power who can enact direct change? Do you want to sway public opinion on a particular issue? Or maybe you’d like to help certain groups work together or coexist more peacefully? Whatever your ultimate objective is should inform both what you communicate, and how you communicate it, as the basis of your communications strategy – whether at a program or organizational level.
No two audiences are exactly the same, and neither should your approach to communications be. Good communication requires listening and conversation – that is, your communications should be reflective of how you understand your audience. Listen to what they want to know; what moves them to volunteer, support or donate; and what they prioritize. Do they connect with highly personalized human interest stories? Do they react more quickly to statistics and fast facts? Are they focused on a particular aspect or outcome, such as environmental impacts or the economic bottom line? You may need multiple types of communications to make the same point with different audiences. This is not disingenuous – it is simply understanding what matters most to the people you are speaking to.
While this is just the beginning to design an effective communications strategy, keeping these three questions at the forefront of your communications strategy and roadmap will help to make sure you are pointed in the right direction.
Aviva is a development and political stability specialist with over eight years of experience working in and on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Sub-Saharan Africa, and South & Southeast Asia. She focuses on the intersection of peacebuilding, empowerment, and gender equity, with an emphasis on interweaving growth and sustainability throughout social, political, and economic development. Aviva has experience in program development, implementation, situational analysis, and strategic planning in various contexts, including highly volatile areas.
Holding a Master’s in Conflict Studies and Human Rights from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, she has worked with organizations large and small, including Search for Common Ground, SPARK, the Netherlands Entrepreneurship Development Agency (RVO), the Dutch Entrepreneurial Development Bank (FMO), and the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
A lover of the written word, Aviva is an expert in writing and communications and embraces the challenge of creating content for a variety of audiences – from grant proposals to awareness raising campaigns.