The Organizer #33 | Communications

How do I reach people when it really matters? If you want to quickly and easily deliver an important message to the right group of people, set up your communications infrastructure in advance.

Communications infrastructure lets you reach people fast

The secret to being able to quickly and easily deliver an important message to the right group of people is to have your communications infrastructure in place in advance. If you are a growing organization or an organization that plans to scale, you need to be thinking about your communications infrastructure.

Some day in the next few weeks, someone at your organization is going to get excited. They are going to call you or message you or show up in a meeting to raise an issue that everyone needs to know about right away. Maybe this person will be you.

Urgent calls-to-action come from program staff organizing a public meeting or trying to rally the community (“The government votes on this legislation next week!”).

They come from fundraisers caught up in Giving Tuesday (“It’s tomorrow!”) or your organization’s annual appeal (“20% of all our revenue is raised this month!”).

Calls-to-action can also come from management (“It’s our AGM next month and we need more board candidates!”).

The desire to issue an urgent call-to-action isn’t a problem: it’s an inevitability.

What is communications infrastructure?

First and foremost, it’s having a list of contacts you can reach. 

Second, communications infrastructure is the technical ability to send a message to those contacts. The better your infrastructure, the more quickly and painlessly you can reach the exact group of people you need to reach on a moment’s notice.

You don’t need great infrastructure in an organization’s earliest days. When you start out, you build strong relationships with every stakeholder personally. You know the people on your list and can anticipate their needs. When urgent issues pop up, you can quickly reach out to your people directly.

The irony is this: the better you get at impact work, the harder it is to keep doing it well.

The noble communications traps

A lot of organizations that do great work and are led by smart, talented communicators haven’t set up their communications infrastructure yet. If your lists are in rough shape (or don’t exist at all), chances are you’ve failed into one of the common noble traps: 

1. You set priorities based on what you care about

You know you need to reach out to your community when something threatens them. When there is an opportunity for progress or a crucial need for money, you feel it. Because you care, you are motivated to act.

2. You pay attention when it counts

Most organizations can focus when it really counts. When it’s time to act, you don’t hesitate. You painstakingly write and edit messages and talking points with your community in mind. You send those messages out to the world. Then you quickly shift your attention to the next priority. 

3. You know the people on your list

Many small organizations earn their successes by building strong relationships. Leaders and long-time staff members know the stakeholders, donors, and community members. They understand people’s needs and maintain connections. They are able to thoughtfully customize and deliver personalized messages to their community.

4. You reach out to your list and it’s fine

At times, your communications efforts will be working really well. You’ll have a good list and be able to reach people effectively. Maybe you’re even pleased with your outreach results. You have success sending out important, timely, effective calls-to-action. You talk to your community all the time, and feel great about it.

Caring, being able to pivot, knowing your audience, and talking to your community are all excellent habits in the beginning. That’s why they are “noble” traps.

These routines probably were strengths. They worked in the past and got you where you are today. The trouble is, they don’t work well when organizations grow.

Like physics and economics, the rules for small scale and the rules for large scale are not the same. If you want to mature, you’ll need communications infrastructure.

What works in the beginning won’t work forever

Every growing or maturing organization will cross a threshold when there are “strangers” in their network (or at the very least, weaker ties). You can’t know 10,000 people the way you know 10. You can’t maintain personal ties across the country the same way you can in your neighbourhood. If you need thousands of people to protest a new bill, you can’t talk to each one personally to motivate and guide them.

Here are a few common signs that your organization is ready for better communications infrastructure:

  • You can only muster up a call-to-action when you’re worked up. This also means some folks dread calls-to-action because you’re relying on emotional intensity and willpower. This is a recipe for burnout.
  • You are only thinking about your list when it’s time to get a message out the door. As a result, you’ll find it’s too late add more people or target your audience effectively. 
  • You rely on a senior leader or long-serving staff to personally oversee every call-to-action so you know who to contact or what to say. When this happens, your organization’s performance never exceeds what one person can do.
  • You think your list is “good enough”, so you don’t have a plan to build it. Your community is actually shrinking as people in your network change emails, switch jobs, or stop engaging with certain social networks.

Communications infrastructure takes time to build 

List-building is something you need to work on in the lulls, when you aren’t worked up or emotionally invested or needing to get an urgent message out the door. 

It can days to pull together a list of names manually. It can take weeks to track down missing contact information. It can take years to build a list of names big enough to achieve the kind of impact most organizations are hoping to achieve.

If you want to get a message out quickly, you need to set up your contact list in advance.

Start now so you can reach people later

Luckily, you can start strengthening your communications infrastructure any time, and you don’t need to pause your other work to do it. Here’s what to do first:

  • If your organization doesn’t keep its contacts in one place, create one. It could be a spreadsheet, a mailing system (like Mailchimp) or a database (like Little Green Light). Most basic services have free entry-level options. Just make sure whatever system you use is secure (no “password123” please) and complies with applicable privacy rules. If you’re the only one using the system, pick whatever is cheap, secure, and easy for you.
  • If your organization’s contacts are in one place, set aside a few minutes every month to check for bounced emails, missing addresses, outdated job titles, spelling mistakes, or other data errors. Every time you get a notification that someone’s information has changed, update your database. It’s easy to do this when the information is fresh; it’s a pain to do it when you are trying to reach people urgently.
  • If you have a list, make sure it’s growing. If you don’t know when to add someone to your list, find out or figure it out. Is it the first time they contact you? When they follow you on social media? When they make their first donation? When they attend a meeting? Set some triggers that make sense for your organization and then get building. 

You don’t need to be the Executive Director to get started. Anyone in an organization has the power to improve your communications practices (especially communications or operations staff). You can do it without permission. You can even do it without anyone noticing.

Remember the old ways, but add the new

You never want to stop knowing your community, being passionate about your work, and being personal. Those qualities make your organization what it is. But they aren’t substitutes for communications infrastructure. 

If you want to be able to reach all the people you need to reach when you need to reach them — especially on short notice — you need to get your communications infrastructure in place.

Transitioning to the next phase of growth is hard. Your old ways are losing their power, and new ways are unfamiliar, unproven. But it’s worth it. This is how you reach people when it matters most.

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