A communications plan is the starting point for all digital strategy, marketing and design activities in your charity. A good communications plan will set out your overall communication objectives and serve as a good reference point for everything else you do.
If you are further down the line and want help defining your sitemap and user journeys then check out our guide on website content strategy. And if you want help with copywriting try our guide on charity content writing.
In this guide we will walk through 6 steps in creating a communications plan for your charity.
- Clarify your mission
- Prioritise your audience
- Determine your proposition
- Identify your brand character
- Agree tone of voice rules
- Define key messages
1. Clarify your mission
Your mission is the reason that your charity exists. You should be able to articulate your mission in a single sentence in a distinctive way.
You should have one overarching mission. You may have other subsidiary goals but aim to find the one thing that your whole charity is working towards.
Tap into the reasons that you are different from other organisations in your sector and find language to explain what makes you special.
You should be able to articulate your mission in one short sentence. Keeping it brief makes it memorable and useful.
Your mission statement is for your employees as much as your audience. It should be big, exciting, long-term and hard to achieve.
|White Fuse||To transform charity communications through digital innovation||
To create websites for charities
Too easy to achieve and not inspiring or long-term
|Forum for the Future||To create a more sustainable and prosperous future for everyone||
We are an independent non-profit working with business, government and other organisations to solve complex sustainability challenges
Too long, less inspirational and not future-focussed
|Phoenix Futures||To foster recovery from substance misuse right across the UK||
For more than 40 years we’ve worked to support people suffering from substance misuse
Focussed on the past, lacks hope and an offer of change.
2. Prioritise your audiences
You can’t write for everyone so you need to prioritise your audience groups.
List your core audience groups
Think of every group that come into contact with your charity brand and be specific by adding detail. This will make it easier to tailor your messages later on. Here we’re using our client Phoenix Futures, a drug and alcohol recovery charity, as an example case study.
|Example groups||Specific details|
|Service users||Men aged 25-40 with experience of drug/alcohol misuse|
|Individual donors||Family members of service users|
|Corporate donors||Pharmaceutical companies|
|Job seekers||Counselling and social work professionals|
|Volunteers||Young people and part time workers|
|Policy makers||Local MP’s and activist networks|
|Commissioners||Local councils and CVS organisations|
Small charities have to focus and you can’t do everything. Reduce the size of your list to no more than four audience groups and place them in priority order.
|Example groups||Specific details|
|1. Service users||Men aged 25-40 with experience of drug/alcohol misuse|
|2. Individual donors||Family members of service users|
|3. Volunteers||Young people and part time workers|
|4. Commissioners||Local councils and CVS organisations|
Identifying Your Users and Designing For Them (White Fuse blog)
Know your target audience: 10 questions to ask (Top Nonprofits)
3. Determine your proposition
Describe what you have to offer each audience group. In our case, our clients might not care that we want to ‘transform charity communications through digital innovation’ but they do want an affordable website that works really well and is easy to look after.
List your features, services or activities
Let’s use our client Phoenix Futures as our example again. The services offered are separated into community, employment, family and housing. These are expanded below.
Translate features or services into benefits
It’s a well-known sales rule that people don’t buy features they buy benefits. For Phoenix Futures, a service user won’t be interested in counselling unless you’ve assured them that by doing so, their life will be better as a result.
Example services and benefits
The ultimate benefit is recovery from the addiction to drug and alcohol misuse but we’ll break it down a bit.
|Community||Recovery through nature where service users are integrated into environmental and conservation voluntary activities with others.||The chance to create and gain a sense of purpose, achievement|
|Employment||Working with service users towards education, qualifications, employment and self-sufficiency.||Gain skills and abilities, income, self-sufficiency and value in society|
|Family||Residential away days for families and loved ones together with service users with guest speakers, facilitated discussions and one-to-one counselling.||The mending of important relationships, love, respect and peace|
|Housing||Advice, guidance and access to supported housing with specialist substance misuse criteria.||Stability, security and the chance to offer hospitality and help others|
We will walk with you on a life-changing journey of recovery
4. Identify your brand character
Now you know what you’re about, who you are talking to and what you have to offer, you can focus on the factors that determine how you act.
How do you approach your mission?
Do you have a code of conduct or a set of guiding principles?
Are there behaviours that fit with your mission?
Is there an ethos that goes hand in hand with your core offering?
Find what makes you different
You need to articulate the ways in which you are genuinely different and then adopt behaviours and characteristics that back this up. There could be all manner of things that make you distinct, here are a few examples of well-known charities.
|Save the Children||Macmillan||Mind|
|We are personal
We demand better
We are practical experts
We are open
We inspire others
Being distinctive is difficult.
Even in these three well-known charities, there is repetition (not very unique), a certain amount of ‘stating the obvious’ (who doesn’t want to be effective?) and oversimplification (what does it even mean to be ‘open’).
There are a few that work well though:
‘Outspoken’ communicates a certain behaviour and temperament
‘Courageous’ is inspiring and a reminder to take risks
Often when values or characteristics are written down they can seem to lose their impact. The important thing is to hold these values internally, adopt them and live them out.
Build a personality from individual components
If there isn’t a single concept or word that really stands out to as a key distinctive then consider placing your organisation at either end of a spectrum between two opposing characteristics.
This forces you to choose one thing over another and it can help build a unique personality from a combination or more ordinary things.
Where do you sit on these spectrums?
Playful - - - Serious
Risky - - - Careful
High brow - - - Accessible
Hard hitting - - - Light hearted
Flexible - - - Obstinate
Merciless - - - Tolerant
Warm-hearted - - - Business-minded
Examples of clear brand character definitions
We are outspoken, courageous and take risks
We are caring, warm and weigh decisions thoughtfully
We are rigorous and careful with our resources
5. Agree tone of voice rules
You want your organisation to be consistent and recognisable. As well as behaving in accordance with your brand characteristics you can adopt a consistent tone of voice. This is about providing simple guidance to help authors quickly understand how to embody your brand character in their writing.
"People don’t always remember what you say or even what you do, but they always remember how you made them feel.”
Maya Angelou (American author, poet, dancer, actress, and singer)
Answer these questions
- Do you use contractions like “don’t” or do you write “do not” in full?
- Do you talk about your organisation in the first person? Talking about what “we” do generally sounds friendlier than using your charity’s name in the third person.
- If you deal with emotive issues, do you try to pull on the heartstrings? Or do you leave out the adjectives and just state the facts?
- Do you get angry about injustices? Or do you focus on the positive?
- Is there a place for humour, quirkiness, fun or irreverence?
- Are there particular words to use or avoid in describing the work you do? Cancer Research UK, for example, avoids talk about “fighting” cancer, cancer “victims” or finding a “cure”.
Prioritise your guidelines
As with any process you want people to follow, make it as easy and intuitive as possible. Pick your battles and only try to enforce a few key points that can (hopefully) be committed to memory.
Have a think about how tone might change in different situations, such as if you are writing a press release versus a newsletter to a loyal supporter base. See Mailchimp’s tone and voice guidelines for a great example of this. Try to capture any exceptions in a very short paragraph.
|We are friendly, genuine and conversational, not stuffy and business-like.||We’ve got plenty of links to keep you busy this month|
|We avoid cliches and excessive use of adverbs, but we are not afraid of occasional word play, unusual adjectives or alliteration.||We champion charities and help them succeed|
|Being funny is not our goal but we can be cheeky, entertaining or mildly provocative.||Turns out, 1 in 10 Americans think HTML is an STD. Wowzers.|
Further reading: Expressing Mind's values through tone of voice (Charity Comms)
6. Define key messages
We’re reaching the point now where you can actually start putting pen to paper and paper in front of people. Your key messages are a helpful bridge between the strategic work you’ve done to define mission, audience, etc and the day to day necessity of writing content quickly.
Your key messages should be a handy reference from which your staff can quickly grab quotes and snippets of text. For larger projects, like a website refresh, the key messages provide coherence across multiple sections of content.
A key message should grab attention, evoke an emotion, and instil a desire for further reading.
"Organisations using key messages are quoted more, misquoted less and develop better relationships with the media."
Public Relations Society of America
You can piece together key messages in a formulaic manner by including the following three elements.
You can now look again at your high priority audiences and establish the different messages that each needs to hear. Remember for Phoenix futures these are:
- Service users
- Individual donors
- Commissioning bodies
What are the various benefits of your proposition that will appeal to your different audiences. This could include the following.
- Recovery through a variety of practical and engaging ways
- A personal and individual approach, walking alongside people
- The transformation of communities through our service programmes
- A practical chance to help in people’s recovery journey yourself
Your brand character, tone of voice, proof and data can all be used to add weight. This could include the following.
- We’ve been doing this for more than 40 years
- We’ve got stories from people who have been through the process
- We’re working successfully all over the UK
- 90% of our volunteers come back for more
Example final messages
|For service users||Right now 230 people like you are on a voyage of recovery. Come and join them.|
|For individual donors||We offer free and affordable family counselling for families affected by drug and alcohol misuse. Help us make them all free, donate now.|
|For commissioners||For over 40 years, we have been transforming towns and cities all over the UK. Commission us to help your citizens.|
|For volunteers||90% of our volunteers are regulars creating an amazing community. There’s definitely a space for you though, come and join us.|
Don't forget the template
We've created a free template to accompany this guide.