Non-profit communications covers a wide range of activities, from reporting to donors and crafting publicity and campaign materials, to engagement with the press, maintaining social media and online platforms, and producing information tailored to the refugee community.
Strategic planning for communications
Planning for communications requires organization-wide collaboration, given that a large part of your work will be to communicate developments in your projects and programs, and support policy advocacy campaigns and outreach. There will also be day-to-day reactive communications work, responding to social media interactions, or commenting on recent news relevant to the refugee rights movement. Therefore, you will have to think strategically but leave room to be responsive to latest developments, whether in response to fundraising achievements, program developments or national and international events.
How to set goals: general tips
If you are new to this aspect of NGO work, it is important not to underestimate the time communications tasks take.
Communications is interlinked with fundraising and program work
- You must be communicating regularly with your donors as well as with the general public and other interest-group audiences. This may entail individualized letters and human interest stories, summaries of activities and achievements, or more general progress reports. Your communications work-plan and objectives should be closely linked with your donor cultivation and fundraising goals. You can plan production of communications tools based on these aims.
- Annual reports serve a dual communications and donor relations purpose. Production of an annual report will need to be coordinated across all departments of your organization, requiring advanced planning, leaving enough time for the final formatting stages.
- You may have diverse program goals that can be supported by communications products. Liaise with advocacy staff in particular on campaign dates and factor these into your plans.
- Communications is also related to recruitment activities, and should be planned in conjunction with human resources staff. Your website will likely host job offers, and recruitment processes of staff and volunteers will be more successful if these are shared via social media and other platforms such as www.idealist.org, or www.reliefweb.int.
Keep your audience in mind at all times, and tailor your SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely) objectives to your audience: be clear about whether you plan to target donors, the refugee community, lawyer networks, alumni or other supporters.
- If you are promoting services to or seeking assistance from a diverse refugee population, your focus will be on clarity and effective dissemination, which may necessitate translation or time-consuming manual distribution of flyers to be factored into your work plan.
- Donor reporting documents may call for technical or legal jargon, and sound analytical reasoning: this may necessitate a collaborative approach, coordination of different departments’ work plans and lengthier editing timeframes.
- You may plan to set up different platforms for different audiences (e.g. donor newsletters, refugee work rights blog), though it is important to consider the sustainability of a variety of initiatives in the long run. A Facebook page is often a general interest page: planning for this could include deciding your number of weekly updates, researching (through online surveys) into what page users find most interesting, or when prime posting times are in your time zone – keeping a global audience in mind.
In your plan, include measurable indicators to achieve which are capable of demonstrating the impact of your work. This may include growth in the number of unique visitors to your website, a statistic which can be monitored and managed via the free Google Analytics tracker. This simple tool produces reports which acquaint you with online trends and enable you to better understand how to market and drive traffic to your website. It may include number of posts shared or interacted with on social media, or number of human interest stories drafted and kept on file per month.
Be attentive to the way in which your communications may change over time, and consider your short term and long term image. In the start-up stages you are likely to want to spread information regarding your services and purpose. How you plan to do this will vary greatly depending on the context and whether internet access is widespread or not. Planning for flyers and posters is a common first step. The costs to be factored in here include printing, ad-space and website hosting fees. Later on, you may wish to shift your focus to communicating achievements and needs to donors, once the refugee population is aware of your services.
With these timeframes, collaborations and tips in mind, you should draw up an Annual Plan for communications activities, detailing responsibilities. Asylum Access aligns all communications and development (fundraising) activities: their Annual Plan and simplified ‘Master Calendar’ for this area of work are as follows. NB. Communication work may peak around World Refugee Day (20th June) and on other symbolic dates.
- Communications and Development Annual Plan Template
- Communications and Development Master Calendar Template
You will likely want to set up policies which guide other staff members in how they talk about your organization, and what language they use in external communications, in order to send out a unified message. In elaborating such policies, part of the aim should be to mitigate against the following risks:
- Will progressive or radical positions invite harsh public criticism, jeopardizing other aspects of your work such as RSD decisions, your access to populations or your influence with decision-makers?
- Can you ensure that quotes and figures one hundred percent accurate? Inaccuracy can affect credibility and integrity both of your organization and of partners – especially if quotes are used without permission.
- Accurate information can be misinterpreted or misrepresented. Personal views can be misrepresented as organizational positions.
- The need for cultural sensitivity cannot be underestimated. When op-eds and other communications are produced, they may be received differently by different partners, governments, UN Agencies and allies than by your primary readership, and this may affect working relations, particularly with field-level implementing staff.
- Will monolingual communications alienate a sector of your readership?
Social media policy
A social media policy, covered in greater depth on the social media page, may also prove useful, in order to guide staff on how to effectively engage a virtual audience: on the importance of brevity and responsiveness. It could also include guidelines for personal use of electronic communications and social networking on topics related to the organization’s interests.
Official statements policy
A document setting out your organization’s official policies on various political and legal issues, and the instances in which a stance would have to be approved by senior staff or board members before publishing is highly advisable. It may set guidelines on what topics merit an official position, and proceed to elaborate on the principles or reasoning of these official positions. Stances on refugee rights, international responsibilities and duties, or the legal aid movement may be appropriate here. Include limitations on what staff can say outside of their field of expertise.
Highlight the most important points and issue common talking points for the organization to ensure knowledgeable responses when staff members participate in public speaking events or connect with donors and other supporters face to face.
Attention to language is vital for sending out a coherent and unified message. There may be phrases or terms that are controversial in some contexts – depending on culture or donor audience – and these should be flagged to all staff, and taken into account particularly in external communications. A Style guide might also address how to write the way you talk, or how to use empowered and gender-sensitive language e.g. ‘survivor of torture’ rather than ‘victim of torture.’
This is of utmost importance as careless communications can defeat protection aims.