"Times are urgent. Let us slow down." - Bayo Akomolafe
Here we are, in the middle of a pandemic -- the first of my lifetime, but not an unprecedented event. But global capitalism and technology has accelerated the spread of COVID-19 to a speed that is unprecedented. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost and millions are at risk. Communities of color are being disproportionately impacted due to structural racism. The economy will be devastated for a long time, and the people who were already living on the margins will be hardest hit.
No matter where you sit, this is a lot to take. We feel compelled to match the speed by which the virus has spread and upended our lives with our own urgency. If you are the leader or team member at a nonprofit fighting for the survival of those you serve, not to mention your own organizational existence, of course you’re worried, frightened and grief-stricken. Of course you are feeling a sense of urgency to say something, do something, as quickly as possible.
Acting fast is critical, particularly when it comes to getting money to the most impacted people and making commonsense demands like protecting the health and safety of justice- and systems-involved youth. But, it is at times like this when we need to pause, take a breath, and put strategy first. As my colleague Bilen wrote recently, “In moments like this, it can be easy to just dive into doing and throw strategy out the window. Let’s face it -- we were already doing too much with too little before the pandemic hit. But taking a step back -- even for just a minute -- and thinking about the greater ‘why’ and ‘to what end’ of our activities is the best antidote we have for maximizing our finite and precious capacity and resources.”
COVID-19 might be “novel,” but the harmful ways we’re seeing some people with power and privilege respond to it is not. This pandemic has exacerbated the intractable social problems we’ve been struggling with for generations. If we’re strategic, we can use this time as an opportunity for repair, reinvention, and doubling down on our work to transform social systems to be more equitable, just and compassionate.
Plus, front-loading our communications efforts with more strategic thinking is the best way for us to maximize our finite and precious capacity and resources. If you don’t think you have time to be strategic right now, we’d argue that you don’t have time not to be. Here are five things you can do right now to add more strategic clarity to your communications processes.
1. Use the intelligence of this moment to get clear on priorities
Crises quickly make clear what is most important. In this moment, many of us have focused on the things vital to our survival -- staying healthy, shelter, and feeding ourselves and our immediate family -- while everything else has fallen away. Think about the way your organization is communicating in the same way. Not only should you pare down what you’re saying across your channels to what is relevant and essential now, but use this moment to define your non-negotiables and let anything that doesn’t advance your top priorities fall away.
2. Always start with “why”
As busy community leaders and organizers focused on getting things done, many of our clients are focused on the how, which is important. But it’s not usually what inspires people to change their behavior or get involved with your cause. If we want to hook people into our vision for change, and motivate them to do something about it, we must start with why. Your organization’s why -- the problems the organization was created to solve, your vision for things to be different than they currently are, and the purpose and passion that keeps you going -- as well as your audience’s why -- where your values, purpose and vision overlap.
3. Center your “who”
Communications is a two-way street. To be effective, we must think about the people we want to be on the receiving end of our emails, Instagram posts, tweets, etc. As much as we may want everyone to hear what we have to say, that just isn’t feasible and, even if it were, it probably wouldn’t advance our goals. This is why we need to center the audiences who matter to us most -- those who have the power to make something different or true. How does what you have to say align with what they care about? How will you overcome their obstacles to engagement? What messages and engagement strategies will best reach them where they are and move them to adopt your vision for change? And, most importantly, what do you want them to do as a result of hearing what you have to say?
4. Ask “What If?”
Real social change also requires us to dream. In such a moment, dreaming may feel frivolous, but it is the only way we can imagine a reality that has yet to exist. To think bigger, add “what if” to your list of strategy questions to ask yourself before embarking on a new project or infusing a current project with more inspiration.
Jessica Norwood, a new economy visionary, former client, and dear friend recently said during a Center for Economic Democracy webinar, “Every decision I’ve made has been to defend myself against white supremacy and patriarchy. But what would it look like if we lived outside the frame of patriarchy and white supremacy? Would we even know ourselves outside of that context? What would be different outside the frames that so harshly shaped us? What would it look like if Black and brown people were deeply loved by an economic system? Can we design from that place?”
5. Set clear, concrete goals
Effective communication flows from a solid sense of knowing what you want to achieve and how you plan to achieve it. This can feel impossible at a time when the ground is shifting beneath our feet every day, but as much as you can, strive to have concrete, incremental goals that ladder up to your bigger vision for social change. Make it a practice to establish and regularly communicate what you want to achieve using SMART goals, which are: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timebound. (More about this coming in a future blog.)
Strategy is not about having a rigid plan or taking up a lot of time naval gazing. Now, when so much is uncertain, sitting down and plotting a strategic plan for more than the next three months probably isn’t the best use of our time. But this is the exact right time to make sure your precious effort and resources actually advance the change you seek to make in the world. We’re not going to scramble our way out of this. By putting strategy first, especially now, we can tap into what is most essential, and act with purpose and vision for the reality we all deserve.
We want to hear from you! What communications struggles are you facing at this moment? Take our 2-minute survey, here