Over the years, we’ve worked with a variety of social impact organizations that are in various stages of their strategic planning process. Some have just finished an in-depth process with a consultancy. Others are in the midst of development, either on their own or with an outside vendor. Still others are operating from a strategic plan that was completed years prior. And while many are helpful, even the most thorough often don’t answer key questions we need answers to in order to recommend and create an effective brand & digital strategy.
For us to provide the most value, we need to understand how our work supports and unlocks an organization’s broader strategic goals. Exactly how the strategic plan answers these questions isn’t important to our work. Neither is the form factor it takes or whether it’s produced in-house or externally. We do have a preference for strategic plans that are short and distilled. It’s tough to excavate insights out of a 500-page tome.
Through our experience helping social impact organizations translate their strategic plan into effective brands and digital strategies, we’ve determined a set of questions we think all strategic plans should answer in order for us to have a solid foundation when we kick off a project.
1. What is Your Theory of Change?
Your Theory of Change should be your primary differentiator and value proposition in your focus area. It describes how your organization approaches your core work and how that creates meaningful impact for the communities you serve. A creative agency needs to understand it in detail in order to use compelling design and messaging to articulate it. If it isn’t clear, it’s difficult to design and build the digital tools and create the messaging needed to communicate your value to advocates and funders.
In our experience, social impact organizations that lack an easily understood Theory of Change have a difficult time developing a brand and digital strategy. Leadership and staff struggle to communicate your value to potential funders and supporters.
A powerful Theory of Change describes your purpose. Paired with distinct Mission and Vision statements, it provides a creative agency like us with the pillars we need to build a strong brand and digital strategy upon.
2. Where are You Today?
With your Theory of Change in place, you need to articulate your starting point. Your strategic plan should provide context about why you are inspired to do your work and what you have already accomplished. This is an indicator about whether or not the premise laid out in your Theory of Change is valid.
Most strategic plans we see include either recent accomplishments, and/or financial information as an indication of the organization’s health. These are necessary, but they don’t paint a picture of how they got where they are today. They don’t validate the organization’s Theory of Change.
Knowing where you are today opens up informed discussions about what’s working and what’s not in your current brand and digital strategy. It gives us an idea of capacity, your appetite for change, and your organizational culture around brand and digital strategy. In many cases, a cultural shift is required to implement a modern digital-first strategic plan. Establishing this baseline tells us what needs to change to make our work together produce the best results.
3. What is Your Desired Future State?
Your Theory of Change tells us how you believe you can accomplish your goals. But your strategic plan needs to paint an inspiring picture of the better future you envision. Creating a roadmap from where you are today to where you want to go informs what tools, platforms, and strategies we should create to move you from one to the other.
When a strategic plan includes an easily understood desired future state, it provides a north star for making decisions. We can always ask, “Does this approach, design decision, or messaging element point toward this outcome?” It helps us think about the most effective way to utilize the power of the digital age to help you win in the attention economy.
4. What 3-5 Strategic Efforts are You Betting on?
Having outlined how you arrived at where you are today, your strategic plan should highlight the bets that have paid off. Your organization’s experiences should have taught you what strategies haven’t worked or were effective at one point, but no longer produce wins. A mature organization has an idea about what’s working while also being open to new approaches to attracting funders and supporters and how to create greater change.
Knowing the top 3-5 strategic efforts you intend to employ over the next few years maximizes our ability to create the digital elements best suited to support these efforts. You should already be communicating these efforts to your stakeholders, funders, customers, and beneficiaries.
Know that these strategic efforts have an additional purpose and level of importance when working with a creative agency. It informs what platforms need to be designed and built to most effectively support your work.
5. What Resources (Financial & Otherwise) are Required to Create Change?
We are strong proponents of social impact organizations operating with sustainable revenues. Healthy funding takes into account everything from program costs to overhead along with marketing, communications, and community building. You need to escape the starvation cycle in order to create greater change. Doing so helps you build capacity and hire the talented staff you need to propel exponential increases in your impact.
The resources you call out in your strategic plan should go beyond proposed budgets, funds raised, and what’s in your organization’s bank account. That information is important. It provides funders and supporters with a picture of your ability to implement your plan. But your resources go beyond the basics. They include staffing expertise & capacity, your model for generating revenue year round, board capabilities, and partnerships.
Understanding all of your resources helps us devise informed strategies for leveraging everything your organization can bring to bear. This information is crucial to turning an aspirational strategy into an actionable one.
6. What are Your Known Challenges & Obstacles?
Your strategic plan should be transparent when it comes to any difficulties you face on the path to your desired future state. Of course you can’t anticipate every challenge, but acknowledging the ones you have identified is the first step in creating a strategy for overcoming these obstacles.
When a strategic plan lays out these difficulties, we’re able to explore how design, digital tools, marketing, and communications can be utilized to push past them. Perennial challenges such as reaching fundraising goals and setting budgets should be surfaced. And you should also spend some time thinking about more subtle challenges such as community building, increasing brand awareness, partnership formation, and capacity building. If you are facing ingrained organizational, cultural, or political headwinds, those should be highlighted as well.
Having these challenges in mind informs how we can create brand and digital strategies and design and build digital infrastructure to address these obstacles.
7. What are Your Known Opportunities?
What are you already working on? What do you have in motion that could use a boost or is about to cross the finish line? What new partnerships or funding opportunities are in development?
When we know what opportunities are on the horizon, within reach, or somewhere in between, we can work with you to develop brand and digital strategies to take advantage of them. In addition, having them in your strategic plan informs us of your appetite and willingness to create the internal cultural shifts required to transform your organization into a digital-first powerhouse.
Know what actions you need to take to capitalize on your opportunities. If you’re clearly looking forward, rather than being mired in the day-to-day, you’re in a good position to use the tools and platforms of the digital age to grab these opportunities and use them to further your mission.
8. How Will You Measure and Evaluate the Success of Your Strategic Plan?
A strategic plan without measurable milestones is just an aspirational wishlist. If you lack clear metrics for success it can feel like you’re spinning your wheels and doing your work each day without a sense of accomplishment. Give your team goals to reach and put the milestones in your strategic plan so that everyone knows what you want to achieve and how close you are to hitting your marks.
Measuring success gives you tangible information to report. Always remember to celebrate successes both internally and externally. Each success is the ROI for the funders and individual supporters that keep your lights on. Sharing wins — small and large — spurs advocates, supporters, and staff forward toward the next goal.
It’s possible to measure some of the results of a brand and digital strategy through your site’s analytics. It’s why you should track newsletter open rates and engagement and other engagement metrics. We always include analytics into the platforms we build, focusing our strategic work on these metrics so that social impact leaders can evaluate what’s working and course correct as needed.
Go From Aspirational to Actionable
A strategic plan that answers the questions we posed above positions us to be a strong collaborative partner in creating your brand and digital strategy, messaging, content and media strategy, and fundraising and awareness campaigns.
With this information our partnership can set you up to become a modern impact organization ready to wield the power of the digital age to create significant change and realize the desired future state you’re working toward.