804.424.1933 brad@bbbox.io

I sat on the other end of what seemed like the millionth conference call of the day. But with a pot of coffee surging through my veins, I was hyped up and ready to flesh out a communications and marketing plan with a new client. After the usual pleasantries, I asked what I start every onboarding conversation with: “What are your communications goals?” 

My client responded, “We really just need to raise awareness about our cause. More people need to know!” Before I could catch myself — and I largely blame all the caffeine jolting my system — I realized my expression looked like she’d just described a gruesome murder, and her eyes widened in response. 

“Well,” I started, regaining composure, “Raising awareness should just happen when we communicate. Our goals should be focused on getting people to take action.” 

Most of my clients lead philanthropic or nonprofit organizations, and I spend a lot of my time at the beginning of projects helping passionate, visionary people clearly define SMART goals. Invariably, we’ll start with “raise awareness,” move to an organizational vision, and get stuck on a mission statement. Now, “SMART” stands for “specificic, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timebound.” While mission statements often meet most if not all of these criteria, it’s important to make sure communications goals support progress toward achieving missions. The two shouldn’t be mixed up or thought of as the same.

As the communications chair for Arkansas Counts last year, our mission was “to ensure a complete and accurate count for Arkansas in the 2020 U.S.. Census,” especially of historically hard-to-count groups like rural communities, people of color, immigrants, and children under five. We had several teams consisting of diverse leaders from all over the state, and each team had SMART goals that, together and across teams, would help us achieve our shared goal of a complete count in Arkansas (spoiler alert: we ended up with a 99.9 percent count in Arkansas, which I have to say is pretty incredible). 

Every team’s goals were obviously time-bound (although the U.S Census Bureau’s data-collection deadline kept shifting), but we had to be strategic in filling in the other blanks to identify our strategic communications SMART goals. So here’s what our Arkansas Counts communications team came up with:

  • Describe how a complete census count would shape the lives of every Arkansan over the next decade to all nonprofit professionals, employers, and elected officials willing to listen to us to build a statewide coalition of partners to help us start Getting Out the Count by January 2020
  • Implement a multi-channel campaign that included social media postings, storytelling from the perspective of folks leading the work, community and online events, and press coverage to ensure every Arkansas household would complete the census 
  • Actively combat mistrust and misinformation about the census, especially in rural and immigrant communities

With our SMART communications goals, we were able to focus on strategies that worked, measure progress, and adjust what we did (and what we encouraged others to do) based on what we learned and how our reality shifted along the way. We originally planned to amplify direct, community-based resident engagement at festivals and various local events. Then, the pandemic forced us to scrap all that. Days after the bureau started accepting responses to the census, the world shutdown and we had to creatively re-think our strategies. Suddenly, we had to churn out digital and print resources for our partners to replace the one-on-one conversations, canvassing, and tabling we’d all been counting on. We also had to creatively figure out how to connect with disconnected people — Arkansas ranks 48th in broadband Internet access after all — so we recruited new partners, especially faith leaders, local press in smaller communities, and essential businesses. However, while our approach shifted out of necessity, our SMART communications goals remained the same.

I animatedly shared all of this during my onboarding call, emphasizing that we were able to achieve a complete count to avoid getting fired for the less than professional look I’d just served. I went on to explain that setting SMART communications goals works because the process helps us identify strategies and gives us opportunities to celebrate tangible outcomes. I wholly believe passionate, visionary people can and do lead communities to become more equitable, prosperous, vibrant places where all families get the chance to thrive, and I do everything possible to help organizations and companies make blue-sky thinking a reality every day. My role, though, is to make sure my partners and I see specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) results. 

And I’m proud to say providing this example prevented me from getting sacked. I’m eager to help my new colleague celebrate tremendous milestones while her organization continues to pursue its extraordinary mission.