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Get Your Organization’s Communications Motor Running


  • If nonprofits are going to succeed, they have to be strategic about how they use communication. They need to have a clear sense of who they are and why their mission matters and how to successfully convey that to their audiences. They need to embed effective communication throughout the organization and have the systems and discipline to measure the results.
  • SmartScan™ is a free online tool to help nonprofits and foundations assess where they are poised to be communication powerhouses and where they have room to improve. Users answer a series of questions about their organization’s current practices and receive a tailored report detailing where they can focus attention to improve their communication.
  • Participants will need to take a hard look at organizational materials and systems and engage their colleagues in the process. The payoff is a clearer understanding of what the organization is doing well and should keep doing and where more communication capacity or resources will enable it to create a bigger impact.

When your car needs a tune-up, it lets you know by flashing the “check engine” light. Helpful, right? Unfortunately, ineffective communication doesn’t come with a warning signal and tune-ups aren’t scheduled every 3,000 miles. And when organizations are constantly moving at full speed to keep up with important programmatic work, taking the time to reflect on and evaluate communication often slides to the bottom of a long priority list. But, without a regular inspection, your organization’s communications engine could fail when you need it most.

The Communications Network’s research model, Communication Matters, emphasizes that for organizations to advance their change agendas, they need to use communication effectively. Spitfire couldn’t agree more. But how can organizations know if they have what it takes to communicate well? To help, we developed the SmartScan™.

The SmartScan is a free online tool that gives an organization a comprehensive, straightforward way to assess its capacity to communicate well, and the necessary resources to help do it better. The tool features four modules: Identity, Planning, Best Practices, and Results. As a SmartScan user, you’ll answer a series of questions – taking one module at a time or going through all four at once – about your organization’s current communication practices. At the end, you’ll receive a tailored report detailing what’s working, where you can improve communications, and how to get rolling. Spitfire created the SmartScan with generous support from the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

To get the most out the SmartScan, keep these tips in mind:

  1. Don’t go it alone. Everyone from your receptionist to the chair of your board communicates about your organization. To get an accurate look at how effective your communications are, you’ll need to get input from more than just your communications team. The SmartScan will help you think about how to include all the right people across your organization from the start. Talk as a team to decide the highest priorities for assessment. If possible, work together on a few of the modules and push each other to be honest – Are you really confident your tactics are strategic? Can your executive director truly ace a media interview or big presentation with no spokesperson training?
  1. Be realistic. Each module of the SmartScan begins with a list of things you will need to have on hand to complete each set of questions. For example, the tool will ask you to review a recent communications plan (if you have one) and some collateral materials, such as an infographic or YouTube video. The tool is also set up to ensure you get an outsider’s perspective by using a chosen external lifeline – like a “phone a friend” option. This person can serve as your dose of reality by providing honest feedback. The only way to get an accurate, truthful assessment of your communications is to base answers on reality and your lifeline will help you do that.
  1. Get ready to show and tell. At the completion of each of the four modules, you’ll receive a tailored assessment report based on your responses. This isn’t a report card. It is a list of opportunities to improve your communication and have greater impact. Share your results with colleagues and talk through how to prioritize needs. You may even connect with funders about incorporating this type of assessment into your grant proposals. Foundations want to know that organizations are striving to use communication effectively.

Start 2015 off right. Visit the SmartScan at



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