Photo by jenni40947 on FlickrDo you feel like you are just throwing out a bunch of words and pictures into the universe without much rhyme or reason, and calling it your communications plan?

One way to bring some order and focus to your communications plan is to sketch out what I call your Big Picture Communications Timeline.

This is often the first step I’ll do with new clients, because it helps me see all the big parts, both moving and immobile.

This is best done on a big whiteboard, but you can also do it with a big sheet of paper. I think this is one of those times where sketching it out offline works best. Once you are done editing, you can clean it up as you move it online.

Since this is a timeline, pick your starting and ending points. A year, with tick marks for each month, is a good place to start, but if another time range makes more sense for your organization, use that.

Here’s what you plot out on that timeline.

Big Events, Outside Your Organization’s Control

Look at the calendar that your organization, your participants, your supporters, and the rest of the world are living with. What holidays, seasonal events, or other regular occurrences have a big effect on your communications?

For organizations that do political advocacy, the election cycle is often important, so you’d put down filing deadlines and primary and general election dates.  For animal shelters, the start of kitten season, when stray cats start to have their litters, is mid-Spring (most kittens are born between April and October).

Food banks benefit from lots of food drives in November and December, but the shelves are often bare during the summer when the people who typically organize food drives (including schools) are busy with vacation plans. Nonprofits that offer after-school sports would chart the season openers and championships for the different sports leagues they play in.

Big Events, Within Your Organization’s Control

Next, add the big events that are within your control. Start with events that you host, including everything from annual fundraisers, workshops or conferences, member meetings, major performances, and lobby days. Then add on similar types of events that others host but that you co-sponsor or otherwise participate in in a major way. I’m not talking about events that one of your staff members might attend as professional development, but those events that your whole organization is involved with as a core part of what you do.

Your Major Story Arcs

On top of these events, layer on the major story arcs within your organization, roughly approximating when they happen. These are the major stories that play out as you deliver your programs and services.  These are often tied to events you already have on the calendar now, so start there. Try to map out the beginning, middle, and end of those story arcs.

For example, let’s say a Friends of the Library group holds an annual used book sale in the May. While they will have already marked the sale weekend on the calendar above, now it’s time to build out the story around the book sale. If we treat the book sale as the end of the story, asking the community for donations of used books in February and March could be the beginning of the story and sorting and organizing the books in April could be the middle.

Or, you could treat the book sale (or any other fundraiser) as the beginning of the story, since the money raised there is probably being used for upcoming programming. In this case, the end of story might be a new Story Hour Series in the fall. The middle of the story, in the summer, could be the selection of books, authors, and activities for the series.

With these big milestones and stories in place, it’s now much easier to start breaking down this big picture into smaller chunks of time, like a quarter or a month, and to develop a more specific editorial calendar from there.


This article first appeared in my free weekly e-newsletter, Nonprofit Marketing Tips, on July 18, 2012. Subscribe Now.