RPCV/W's Communications Strategy Part 2: Taking Action

Part 2 of our ongoing initiative to describe how we get the word out and how similar groups can do the same.

2. Strategy and Tactics

In my first installment, I wanted to demonstrate that the “Peace Corps Community” is not a monolithic entity. In order to keep a group fresh and active, its leaders must identify and engage critical segments of their audience. For RPCV/W, three distinct groups emerge: Established members, community stakeholders, and new arrivals. These groups have different interests and expectations. To keep the organization fresh, we embrace a flexible, member-driven approach that uses the pursuit of shared goals to create a marketable brand, which is absolutely critical to long-term growth and sustainability. 
This is not a statement of official policy, rather it is an attempt to shine some light on our communications processes and invite public comment. Please email me at publicrelations@rpcvw.org and I would be delighted to hear your thoughts as we craft a long-term plan. 

Section Outline

RPCV/W mainly focuses on three common goals that come from our audience:
  •  Social: Helping people build relationships and have fun.
  •  Community Service: Mobilizing volunteers for worthy projects.
  •  Professional Development: Helping people start and advance careers.
Since these goals may change, we embrace a flexible mission statement that allows us to readily adapt to the needs of our members.
To pursue these goals with limited resources, we rely on our brand, which can be defined as the sum of all perceptions, values, and experiences that members and stakeholders associate with our group. Having a strong, positive brand adds long-term value to the group in countless ways.
We pursue this strategy of growing a positive brand through two primary tactics, which also include official and unofficial aspects:
  •  Organizing Events
    •  Official: Planning and promoting events organized by us.
    •  Unofficial: Promoting activities we think our audience would enjoy.
  •  Empowering Members
    •  Official: Creating open forums and useful networking tools for our audience.
    •  Unofficial: Coaching our audience to use these tools and build on them.
Taken together, these activities encourage participation, promote cohesion, strengthen identity, and simplify the transfer of control to future leaders. Ultimately, we want to build a community institution that maximizes return for its members and stakeholders.

Common Goals

The official activities of RPCV/W are planned and led by its Board of Directors, who serve 1-year terms and are responsible for running the organization. Only active, dues-paying members may vote or run for office. Ideally, the democratic process ensures that the group’s leaders are responsive to the interests of its members.
 
When we looked at data collected from member surveys, event attendance, website metrics, and years of feedback, the 2012-2013 Board of Directors identified three common objectives:
 

1. Social Interaction
2. Community Service and Volunteering
3. Professional Development

Broadly speaking, most of our events are social, because established members make up the majority of our group and social events enjoy the highest demand. Community service appeals to our members who are active with similar interest-based organizations, and to outside stakeholders who wish to match our volunteering spirit to their own goals. Professional development is of special interest to new arrivals eager to network and launch their careers. Keeping these three goals in mind is enormously helpful when planning events and conducting outreach. Our members provide our goals, and its up to us to figure out how to leverage the power of the group to meet them.

Evolving Mission Statement

A clear mission statement is the soul of an organization put into words. It serves as the theme for all outreach and communications. If you can’t explain why a group exists, chances are that it won’t exist for long. Volumes are written on strategic planning for organizations, and anyone looking to start a group should spend some serious time pondering what they do, why they do it, and where they want it to go.
In RPCV/W’s case, a given Board may rewrite the mission statement at the beginning of each year. It is no coincidence that our current mission statement reflects the three common objectives described above: “To serve as a resource to RPCVs and friends in the Washington DC area through social events, community service projects, and professional development programs that embody the 3rd Goal and spirit of the Peace Corps.”
By allowing the mission statement to change with an elected Board, RPCV/W ensures that its stated purpose accurately reflects the interests of its members during a given year. Since we structure our governance to be in tune with the values of our audience, running the group and communicating our goals are easier and more effective.

Building The Brand

From a messaging standpoint, a healthy group needs a distinctive identity, or brand, that rallies its member base and spurs action.
The stronger the brand becomes, the easier it is to share, and the more members and outside stakeholders it attracts. With more participation, the group receives more input, which includes new ideas for activities from members and partnership inquiries from outside stakeholders. As its identity becomes sharper, it enhances the capacity of the group to  take on new opportunities.
A brand is also critical to the long-term sustainability of the group. A healthy brand continues to grow and evolve, long after its creators move on and are replaced by new leaders. In RPCV/W’s case, a good brand morphs into a sort of esprit de corps, an unspoken pride that helps fill the gaps which inevitably arise from the challenges of maintaining a volunteer-based, largely transient organization. A good example of this phenomenon is the Third Goal, which unites all RPCVs with a simple, perpetual mission: keep volunteering and sharing the Peace Corps experience.

Channeling the Third Goal

Like every other RPCV group, to mobilize our member base we channel the Third Goal and use it to organize post-service activities. Everything that we plan or promote is built on the concept of ongoing engagement. We use the established brand of Peace Corps to develop our own identity: one that reflects the unique concerns of the community that spawned it.

Organizing Events

Events are our bread and butter. They demonstrate to members and stakeholders that our group is active and engaged. We average between 3 and 5 per month. They range from monthly happy hours to contentious Board meetings to special events with hundreds of attendees. Events can be either official activities of RPCV/W or unofficial activities that RPCV/W agrees to promote.
An official event is any activity planned and led by an RPCV/W Board Member, usually the Social, Community Service, Professional Development, or Special Events Director. From time to time, regular members may use our resources to organize official events, provided they clear the idea with the appropriate Director(s).
Often, an outside stakeholder or an RPCV/W Member affiliated with an outside organization will ask us to promote or participate in an event. If RPCV/W is invited to play an active role, such as co-hosting or organizing a delegation or team, we will promote it as a partnership, since we will be able to maintain our group identity as part of a larger function. If a local business offers our members a special discount, we also consider it a partnership and promote it accordingly.
Unofficial events may still be shared and promoted, provided they are championed by an RPCV/W Member and meet the interests of our community, but they are assigned a lower priority than official events. Unofficial events are usually free, public happenings that outside groups ask us to share in our newsletter. We typically refrain from requests to fundraise for overseas projects or organize for political purposes.
This chart displays the levels of exposure we give to different types of events:

 

Official Events

Partnerships

Unofficial Events

Website

Registration Page

Sometimes Featured on Home Page

Registration Page

Sometimes Featured on Home Page

Never

Website Email Blast

Special Events

Rarely

Never

Newsletter

Top Section

Top Section

Community News Section

Facebook Group

Event Created and Promoted by Admin

Pictures posted

Event Created and Promoted by Admin

Pictures posted

Events and pictures may be posted by anyone on wall, Only Active Members may post fundraisers/ events requiring payment

Facebook Page

Event Created and Promoted by Admin

Pictures posted

Event Created and Promoted by Admin

Pictures posted

Admin may post to wall upon request

Twitter

Admin may schedule tweets or livetweet

Admin may schedule tweets or livetweet  

Admin may retweet outside orgs’ activities or livetweet

Linkedin

Profdev events posted by Admin

Anyone may share free networking opportunities

Anyone may share free networking opportunities. Admin may share paid events upon request

NPCA Community

Special Events

Special Events

Never

Secondary Social

Rarely

Rarely

Never

Google Calendar

Always

Always

Never

Clear communication is essential to proposing good events, promoting them to the widest audience, recruiting organizers and participants, and recording what occurred for posterity.

Empowering Members

“Empowering members” is a more ambiguous activity. Like any identity-based group, we cannot limit ourselves to planning the occasional event. RPCV/W is a living, breathing organism, requiring hundreds of hours of maintenance and care each year. Our members expect to buy into an established network to meet their personal goals, and they expect that network to be active.
Navigating an active network, however, is a challenge. At the time of this writing, RPCV/W has 918 members. 460 joined before March 26, 2012, and 458 joined since. Around 2,000 others receive our communications from at least one source and thus fall into our network. It is impossible, even for a veteran organizer, to keep track of so much information.
From a communications standpoint, we need to put in place policies that anticipate common interests and provide channels for our audience to navigate the network on their own. We do this by engaging them and demonstrating that their input drives the evolution of the organization. It’s not enough to build a network, you have to make it welcoming and usable.

Why It Matters

Your average communications plan is a component of a larger marketing strategy, where the goal is to increase sales or grow a donor base. Our goals are different. They come from our members. We enjoy a strong degree of trust because we are active, transparent, and local. Thanks to our shared identity, we are primed to organize. We just need valid goals and clear communication that feeds back to them. In the next section, I will describe the tools we use to make this happen.

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