Top 10 Communications Lessons Across a Decade of Changemaking
Ten years ago in April of 2007, I opened the doors to Prichard Communications. I’m grateful to the many clients we’ve served in the last decade. And I especially appreciate the many gifted people I’ve had the good fortune to work with at Prichard today and in the past.
It’s been terrific to spend the past 10 years using our communications superpowers to make the world a better place. We love helping social changemakers—nonprofits,foundations and purpose-driven brands do what they do best — change the way the world works for the better. In 2015, we affirmed our commitment to change by becoming a Certified B Corp, joining a global movement of people using business as a force for good.
To celebrate this year’s milestone, I’m sharing my top 10 social change communications lessons from a past decade of changemaking.
You Can’t Get Where You Want to Go Without a Map
Too many changemakers go straight to solutions when they think about communications. When my team and I sit down to talk to clients about how we can help, people often start by telling us about the tactics that interest them most: making a pitch to a reporter at The New York Times, snagging a celebrity endorsement or launching a new blog or other publishing platform.
But before you create a communications program you need to know the result you want. And the best way to do this is creating a communications plan.
We saw the value of good communications planning in our work with grantees of Reclaiming Futures, a national movement that reinvents how juvenile courts help teens with drug and alcohol problems. We’ve helped dozens of Reclaiming Futures communities create and update communications plans that helped them get clear about what they want and how communications can support it. Because of this work, Reclaiming Futures projects have gotten new revenues, facilities and partners.
Teach People How to Fish
The most successful social change organizations make learning new skills part of how they do business. We’ve seen this firsthand in the training we’ve done with clients.
Through webinars, on-site workshops and educational materials we’ve helped dozens of grantees of The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation become better communicators. This training not only increased the communications capacity of these organizations, it also helped them grow and spread the models for change they created.
Partner with Others to Increase Your Impact
Don’t limit your search for support for your social change work to just financial contributions. Partners who give you time or make introductions can be just as valuable.
Take the example of the Reclaiming Futures project in Santa Cruz, California. One of the biggest challenges this juvenile justice project faced was helping the teens it served find jobs.
We helped the Santa Cruz project build a relationship with its local congressman, Sam Farr, with a goal of asking him to host a community forum for local employers. Congressman Farr’s presence and endorsement for Reclaiming Futures Santa Cruz attracted local employers by the dozen. Since then, many have become partners to create more employment opportunities for local youth in trouble with the law.
Sometimes You Need to Do Business Differently
Here’s a familiar model used by many to create social change. A organization gets a grant to create and test a new approach to solving a social problem. Research by evaluators finds that the approach works and makes a difference.
What happens next? The successful program gets funded by new communities or adopted by government, right?
Wrong. Often effective pilot projects shut down because the original grant has come to end. And no new funders — public or private — step forward to fill the gap.
Successful social change leaders, however, follow a different playbook. They don’t limit themselves to competing for a shrinking pool of grant or public dollars. They look for new ways to generate revenue.
Playworks, a national movement that promotes physical activity and play, offers one of the best examples we’ve seen of how to avoid dependence on grants alone. We got the chance to see this approach in action when we helped the organization with its social media program and outreach to policymakers.
Playworks began with pilots in about two dozen communities across the country. Each participating school had a full-time coach and other support paid for with foundation dollars. While effective, the model was expensive to replicate.
To transform itself into a national movement, Playworks pivoted and adopted a new business model. It created and sold curriculums and other training services at affordable prices. As a result, Playworks now serves more than 1,200 schools across the country.
Change Can Begin with a Meal and a Story
There’s nothing like sharing an experience to make meaningful and lasting connection with another person. At Prichard, we’ve seen how this works and the difference it can make in our hometown of Portland, Oregon.
Four times a year, we ask local changemakers to come together for dinner we call The Portland Ten. Over the course of the evening, 10 people share their own stories as a changemaker and forge new and powerful ties.
Past attendees tell us that because of these dinners, they’ve launched new partnerships and made connections that helped an organization’s bottom line. All report that the experience has helped them make Portland a better place.
Give Others What They Need To Get What You Want
What’s the best way to attract people to your website, blog or social accounts? Many organizations fill these publishing channels only with information about themselves, the services they offer or the people they serve.
Now, stories about your organization and your work have value. But it’s likely only to appeal to your current supporters and clients. How do you attract new readers, donors and partners?
When our client Reclaiming Futures relaunched its website in 2008 it took a different approach to its online content. In the past, people typically found its old fashioned and static website only when Reclaiming Futures accepted applications for grants. Otherwise few visitors came to a place that largely functioned as an online filing cabinet.
With the addition of a blog, however, Reclaiming Futures had the chance to publish content easily and connect with new audiences. We helped the staff create an online content marketing strategy that offered a valuable service for its target audiences at no cost. Every week, the Reclaiming Futures blog offered timely news about national juvenile justice reform that judges, probation officers and others could use at work. The blog also included occasional posts about Reclaiming Futures and its accomplishments.
WIthin a short time, Reclaiming Futures became a recognized and trusted national source of information about juvenile justice reform. Its monthly online audience grew from a few hundred people to almost 20,000. And readers included leaders at public agencies and foundations across the country who became familiar with Reclaiming Futures accomplishments and later became partners of the initiative.
Know Who You Serve and the Barriers They Face
Too many social change organizations make assumptions about the needs and motivations of the people they serve. Research can help you get clear about what’s stopping your audience from taking the actions you want.
We’re always excited to help our clients answer these questions. Recently, we teamed up with with our research partners at Big Small Brands to help nonprofit Worksystems understand how it could motivate job seekers to pursue employment and training in four sectors: Advanced manufacturing, infrastructure, health care and technology.
Drawing surveys and focus groups, we created customer personas for targeted demographic groups. The data collected gave Worksystems practical, actionable ideas for how to overcome industry perceptions and increase engagement.
Technology Never Sleeps, So Keep Learning
Online tools and platforms come and go. When Prichard opened for business in 2007, Myspace had more members worldwide and in the U.S. than Facebook. Twitter had launched only a year before. And Pinterest, Instagram and Slack didn’t exist.
In 10 years, some of today’s most important online platforms will be replaced by new ones that haven’t been invented yet. To make the most of any tool, you need to keep learning.
Our training services at Prichard offer our clients one way stay up to date. One way we have done this is through regular bulletins like Plugged In, a bi-weekly newsletter for grantees of The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Each week, readers received practical tips about new online social media news, tools and resources that help people work easier and smarter.
Make Your Content Last for a Long Time
Time is our most valuable and scarcest resource. And the demands for our attention never end. Estimates put the number of ad messages we see daily between 3,000 and 20,000
To cut through this clutter, you need to connect in easy ways with the people you want to reach using strategies that will pay dividends for years to come. Podcasting offers a terrific tool for doing this.
Twenty-one percent of Americans now listen to podcasts and the number goes up every year. The people who follow podcasts report high levels of engagement with programs and hosts.
One of the biggest advantages podcasting offers: ease of use. With almost 80 percent of Americans owning smartphones, listeners can play shows when and where they want. Many people catch up with favorite podcasts during daily commutes, while running errands or at the gym.
And the medium allows you to create evergreen content that lasts for a long time. Back in 2015, we produced SmartCast, a six-part podcast series with timeless content on social change for The Communications Network. Three years later, it attracts new listeners every month as podcasting audiences keep growing.
Newsjack National Trends to Get Media Attention
National media stories appear every day about trends that affect even the smallest of social change organizations. You and your organization can become one of those stories if you invest the time in building relationships with the reporters who write them.
We do this for our clients by identifying national trends or issues in which our clients have a role. The national media often want to find sources from different parts of the country or who offer examples of how a national policy will affect a local organization.
We recently helped our nonprofit client Consano become part of the national discussion about declining funding for cancer research by the National Institute of Health. Consano’s crowdsourced support for cancer research has been cited by Boston Magazine as a viable alternative to traditional funding methods.
Want to learn more about how communications sparks big change? Download our Ultimate Guide to Using Your Communications Superpowers to Build a Movement.