The Challenge: When Sandra Jordan, Director of Communications & Outreach for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), arrived at her job after years in the for-profit PR world, she knew just what to do first - craft a comprehensive five-year marketing plan. After all, this is the path most of us would take. And five years out makes sense as it takes time to get messages out through a bureaucracy as complex as the federal government.
Jordan's plan incorporated all the right components - situation analysis, from a communications audit to listening tours, goals, target audience and key message definition, and rollout plans. But she ran into a glitch.
"I quickly discovered that my marketing masterpiece was far more than anyone wanted to read - so it didn't get much attention. More importantly, as things began to change at USAID - new leadership, and an agency reorganization - I realized that my marketing approach had to change, although core communications goals and messages remained the same. It was crystal clear that depending on a five-year strategy wasn't viable," says Jordan.
Jordan is a planner - and all communicators should be. There's no other way to ensure that you are making the best choices to advance your goals, and have the resources to bring them to life. But she clearly needed to devise another approach, one that suited the ever-changing environment at USAID.
NOTE: Most nonprofit communicators face a similarly evolutional world, having to adapt to ongoing changes in their issue areas and related legislation. If you're tied to a three- or five-year marketing plan (three years is the standard), and you work mainly from the to-do list generated by that plan, you're going to be out of date, and focusing marketing resources in the wrong place.
Here's how Jordan met her challenge:
"I began by breaking down the first year of my five-year plan into bite-sized quarterly chunks - basically a two-page action plan that allows me to keep my eye on the main prize outlined in my grand plan, but perhaps employ different means of getting there," recalls Jordan.
Jordan's quarterly plans are streamlined in content and format, for easy digestion. The sample I reviewed highlighted the following "to dos" for each month:
- Materials and message development in progress.
- Outreach targets
- Communications production , from expanding Intranet content to overseeing Web site redesign and writing new Country Profiles
- Key conferences and meetings which USAID is attending, sponsoring or exhibiting at
- Sensitive issues
- Ideas for consideration.
Each quarterly plan is circulated with the annual list of outreach targets and the annual plan (about five pages, presenting an annual action plan in two six-month periods), to provide context for immediate activities.
Jordan has lived this approach for five years now, periodically breaking the plan into an annual then quarterly chunks. Jordan also reviews her five-year master plan regularly, to keep on track in the bigger picture. She and her team members are now crafting the next five-year master marketing plan, which will generate, in time, 20 quarterly plans.
To ensure that quarterly planning is on target, Jordan works closely with USAID stakeholders, including:
- Colleagues at USAID:
To hear what they think is needed. Jordan values the commitment of her colleagues, which leads to strong notions of what should be done marketing-wise, and reports out regularly on results.
- Congressional staffers:
To get information on their needs, which recently- produced USAID communications products they've put to use, and deliver talking points.
- Advocacy group staff members:
To review polling information on public attitudes, seek input on USAID messaging and provide monthly updates on USAID communications.
- USAID communications team members:
To solicit input and build understanding. "They have to carry out the 90-day plan, so we meet weekly to discuss what's getting done, and how. We also assess where we are on a monthly basis, discussing whether the plan goals are achievable, alter the plan if necessary, and carry on," says Jordan.
- Her boss:
To review progress and achievements and fine tune the quarterly plan. "My boss is much more of an action person, than a process person. When I handed her my grand marketing plan, I didn't get this kind of engagement. She has really begun to enjoy the process, and frequently suggests terrific ideas to enhance what I'm doing. She's now a vital part of our communications team," reports Jordan.
In addition, Jordan shares each quarterly plan, an annual assessment at year's end - including an analysis of how that year's work has moved USAID towards the goals outlined in the master plan - with her colleagues.
90-Day Planning Comes to Life - A USAID Example
Here's how Jordan put this bite-sized approach to work following a radical change in the family planning field - the 2001 reinstatement of the Mexico City Policy. The policy requires NGOs to agree as a condition of their receipt of Federal funds (including USAID funding) that they will not perform nor promote abortion as a method of family planning in other nations.
"I knew I had to spend a full month responding to media calls and public queries, working with advocacy roups and getting information to USAID Missions in the field. Because I was planning just 90 days at a time, but in the context of a long-term framework, I was able to look at my plan and re-jigger it, without losing too much ground. To say the least, public attitudes towards USAID programs shifted dramatically, so all communications efforts were redirected to meet this new need, all without straying from our master plan focus on raising USAID's visibility," says Jordan.
For best results, Jordan advises that 90-day practitioners do a lot of assessment on results, to get the next quarter back on track if necessary.
Here are some of the benefits USAID gets from 90-day planning:
- Clear tracking of short-term progress "I've stayed on track better with this approach than with any other I've ever used," says Jordan.
- Provides a baseline from which to track progress in her grand plan.
- Enables quick re-direction of communications to follow changing politics and organization direction (vital in Jordan's politically-charged field of family planning, and in many other issue areas)
- Delivers a pithy read of the work Jordan's planning to her boss. "She really loves it, and never would have absorbed my five-year plan in the same way," comments Jordan.
- Highlights what USAID is doing communications wise, by breaking down the big ideas that comprise a master marketing plan into nitty-gritty execution.
"My grand plan itself never becomes irrelevant, since goals are so general. My goal for the last five-year plan was to improve public awareness of the importance of USAID family planning program," says Jordan.
"Political tides changed but my goal didn't. What did change was the way I could talk about family planning issues, the outlets I used and how straightforward I could be. Approaching the plan in 90-day increments enabled me to stay in tune with the vicissitudes of change and meet those demands, without straying from the original master goal," she comments.
Extract a 90-Day Plan from Your Marketing Strategy Today
I see Jordan's approach as a no-brainer for adoption by nonprofit communicators. How crazy to try to plan three to five years forward, when our working environments are changing at the speed of light. Rather than looking years ahead, then frantically attempting to re-focus when circumstances are not as you expected, try 90-day planning.
90-day planning is a no-risk experiment. You have nothing to lose but the time it takes you. And frankly, this mode of planning is far less labor-intensive than traditional marketing planning, since you're working with the real, rather than the abstract.
When you take the 90-day approach, you'll be able to easily distinguish the vital from the "wishful thinking" initiatives. And we're all guilty of wishful thinking. But it's far easier to include those in a multi-year plan, than when you're looking at the next three months.
When you list out what has to happen in the next 90 days, you'll have a much clearer picture of priorities, a realistic work plan, and the results you'll generate. Bonus? You'll be able to set clearer expectations, and run into fewer surprises.
© 2002-2008 Nancy E. Schwartz. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Nancy E. Schwartz helps nonprofits succeed through effective marketing and communications. As President of Nancy Schwartz & Company (http://www.nancyschwartz.com/), Nancy and her team provide marketing planning and implementation services to organizations as varied as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Center for Asian American Media, and Wake County (NC) Health Services.
Subscribe to her free e-newsletter "Getting Attention", (http://www.nancyschwartz.com/getting_attention.html) and read her blog at http://www.gettingattention.org/ for more insights, ideas and great tips on attracting the attention your organization deserves.