Internal communications: elements to include in your nonprofit’s plan
Imagine this: you go into work one day and your Executive Director tells you the board has decided on a change of strategic direction. Or you need to announce a new CEO. Or unveil the new brand you’ve been working on for the last year. Or talk about restructuring, a compensation review or overhaul, or a re-organization. Well, put on your big-kid pants because you’ve got a juicy new comms project to tackle: creating an internal communications plan!
While your first instinct might be to run out and proclaim this news to the world, especially if it’s good, that might not be the best thing to do. Depending on how large or complex the news is, you might want to take a step back and make sure you do this thing right.
Think of it this way – when someone gets engaged they don’t post it on Facebook right away. They tell their close friends and family, they share their engagement story, they make sure the people who need to know first, do. And then they tell the world.
Sometimes the best place to start is at home, with your own people. Enter the internal communications plan.
A Note Before We Start
Now, before we take a look at what goes into a communications plan (internal or otherwise) let’s refresh ourselves on the difference between goals, strategies and tactics.
Lots of people like to jumble these up but if you can keep them straight it will be the key to a coherent (and successful!) plan.
Your GOAL is the end-point you want to have reached once the work has been completed. For example, your goal could be to have all staff and volunteers understand and use the new brand. The goal doesn’t have to be measurable, and should be as big picture as possible.
Your STRATEGIES are the things you plan to do to achieve your goal. The trick here is not to get too granular – that’s what tactics are for! An example of a strategy for the goal above could be to reach out to board members, close partners and internal subject matter experts and work with them to create blog posts, white papers, or other publications that position your organization at the top of your industry.
Your TACTICS are the specific, granular things you’ll do to achieve your strategies. This is where we start to lay out specific, measurable tasks that we can evaluate later. For example:
- Make a list of thought leaders in your industry, including their niches if relevant
- Contact those people and ask them to participate in your plan
- Send them information about your organization/strategic plan/new research/you get the picture (in this example you would send them your organization’s new brand guidelines)
- Keep track of the pieces written and how they did in order to evaluate for next time
Got it? Good. Now, on to the next step – the plan itself.
An Internal What-Now?
When it comes down to it there isn’t much difference between an external comms plan and an internal one. The key to a successful campaign remains the same: to know your audience and their needs. You still focus on communicating your message in a way that will get people on your side and, ideally, to advocate for you. Only instead of looking out, you look in.
Key Components of an Internal Communications Plan
The components of any communications plan are fairly simple. Who are you talking to (and what do you know about them), what are you trying to say, and how will you say it.
Who – Audience(s)
- Who are the key people that need to know this information? Board, staff, donors, sponsors, funders, volunteers and customer service people are all valid audiences for an internal communications plan.
- Think about their needs and perspectives and how they might receive the information you’re about to share. Support them in receiving the information and equip them with the tools necessary to share the information outside the organization.
- Even if you don’t intend someone to be a spokesperson for the organization, the popularity of social media means that anyone can be the spokesperson for anything – plan for this eventuality and you won’t be caught off guard.
What – Your Goal and Main Announcement
- What news are you sharing, and why?
- What end point do you want to reach by sending out this information?
- Is this the first phase of a larger, more public announcement?
- Think about how an internal communications goal might differ from an external one, and how your internal audience might inform the external plan.
How – Strategies and Tactics
- How will you get your message out? This will vary depending on the size or your organization and its internal culture.
- Maybe you only have six staff and so an all-staff meeting where you can share the news and have an informal chat about it will get the job done.
- Or maybe your organization is 200 people strong and so a combination of formal email announcements, town hall meetings and more informal departmental check-ins would suit better.
- Take stock of any existing communications programs, tools or platforms and use those first before creating something new. It can be helpful to use methods your internal audiences are already familiar with, especially if the news is sensitive or brings about a lot of change.
When – Timing is Everything
Like so much communications planning, the timeline for an internal comms plan varies depending on a number of factors like how much time and capacity your team has to devote to it and whether there is a larger event like an annual conference or member meeting coming up.
I suggest finding a timeline that you and your team can support without being overloaded, but is swift enough that you don’t lose momentum with each phase. You should also consider prioritizing your audiences to plan who should know and in what order. Finally, creating a timeline or chart will help keep you on track in terms of delivering your tactics and will help you measure and evaluate your plan.
Measure Twice, Cut Once
Don’t forget to measure and evaluate your internal communications plan – how many people read or share the pieces you commission, what comments you receive, how each audience received the information, you get the idea. A mixture of qualitative and quantitative data will give you a full picture to evaluate and build on for next time. The more care you take in observing the successes and challenges of a plan (even an internal one, which can seem lower-stakes), the greater the chance of everything working out the way you planned.
There you have it. Laid out like that it really doesn’t look much different from any other communications plan, does it? The main things to keep in mind are ‘who needs to know first’ and ‘who needs to know in a timely fashion’ – once you identify that it’ll be easier to work out the other components.
Now go share your news!