Five New Year’s Resolutions for Your Brand

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Here are some resolutions to consider for the New Year.

1. Consistency. Everything you say should, well, say “you” and not someone or something else.  Old logos, old tag lines, old ways of doing business need to hit the recycle bin.

2. Connectivity. Social media is here to stay. Join the conversation. Connect to constituents, customers, policymakers, thought leaders. That said, human-to-human connections are still the gold standard when it comes to cultivating policymaking relationships, customers and donors.

3. Relevancy. Convey what makes you relevant in the last year of the first decade of a new century. (I know, I’m old-school. Despite all the news stories, I believe the last year of the decade was not 2009!)

4. Creativity. Interconnectivity means choice for customers, donors, viewers, readers, users, etc.   If you’re not creative about reaching them, they’ve already moved on. Examples: iPhone apps by nonprofits, video trailers promoting books, Twitter contests to raise issue awareness.

5. Simplicity. With all the clutter in our lives, and the meshing of work and home lives thanks to the Blackberry and iPhone, simplicity wins the day. That goes for strategies, design,  messages, and most importantly, mission.  If it’s too hard to explain in an “elevator pitch,” rethink it.

Wring out the old. Ring in the new. Here’s to your success in 2010!

Happy Holidays!

I’ll return on January 5th. Until then, I leave you with this funny take on the holidays…wait for it in verse two: women’s octet Venus d Minor sings their version of the holiday classic, Silver Bells.

Should Nonprofits Lobby?

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The following is not intended as legal or tax advice. If your organization is embarking upon lobbying activity, you should consult a tax attorney, accounting firm, and other legal resources.

The question of whether to lobby—and whether it’s even possible for a nonprofit—comes up again and again.  It’s true that the IRS has been more aggressive in questioning exempt status for organizations who are active politically–for example, the IRS’s NAACP case, which was eventually dropped.  But the question really is…

Can your nonprofit succeed in its mission without engaging in the policies that affect the very people or places you were created to help?

Today’s Washington Post story about the Chesapeake Bay evokes that question as it assesses whether the Chesapeake Bay Foundation can clean up the bay while still refraining from being politically active. It’s a good question and one which nonprofits of all sizes should ask themselves.

Many nonprofits don’t even engage in the most basic policy activism because they fear for their tax exempt status. But legally, all nonprofits can engage in some non-partisan policy activities.

So which 501-c’s can lobby?

There are actually 28 different “501-c” designations by the IRS. Wow. We won’t be covering the bulk of these today. But most organizations fall under 501(c)3, (c)4 or (c ) 6.

Organizations with 501 (c) 3 status—public charities and foundations—can participate in lobbying as long as it is not a “substantial” part of their activities. More on this in a second.

A 501(c) 6 designation is usually reserved for trade associations and professional associations (known in IRS lingo as “business leagues.”) These entities are allowed to have lobbying as a primary activity, as long as they notify members how much of their dues go to such activities.

The 501(c)(4) exemption goes to civic leagues and other organizations operated exclusively for the promotion of “social welfare,” which the IRS defines as “civic betterment and social improvements.” This includes local associations of employees of a particular organization or neighborhood. These organizations have an unlimited ability to lobby for legislation and the ability to participate in political campaigns and elections.  But the catch is that the organization must benefit society as a whole, not just its members.

So, if we’re a 501-c-3, why should we lobby?

The question really is, why not? Aren’t you part of a neighborhood? A broader community? A region? A state? A nation? Don’t the rules and regulations and actions of the key policy players affect you and the people you serve? I won’t deny it, 501-c-3’s have it the hardest time with lobbying because the definition of “substantial” is so squishy. But if you are focusing most of your staffing, budget and attention on your primary mission, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about (see disclaimer above, please!).

On the other hand, if you’re not politically engaged, you might have a lot to worry about–including the very substance of your work.

If you are a school, for example, then local and national education policies, land use policies, and rulings related to local traffic and roadways may all affect your institution and others like it.  Staying engaged and being a voice as these policies are made or revised is vital not just to your institution, but to the broader community (in which other, more practiced voices might be louder). This is playing itself out on a very local level in my neighborhood, where a new land development project could reconfigure a major roadway and an independent school could lose its left-turn lane, and therefore access for most of its families. The school has become actively engaged as local leaders try to finalize the roadway plan. The key is that the lobbying activities do not promote a particular candidate or party, but rather a broader issue.  Even universities, which often hire government relations staff, do not lose their exempt status for their engagement in public policy.

As a nonprofit, you may feel you have enough challenges already and want to play it safe on lobbying. But if your issue is saving your school, or saving the entire Chesapeake watershed, then not raising your voice might kill you. Literally.

For more resources on nonprofit status and lobbying, see Boardsource, Independent Sector’s excellent guidelines and the IRS’s own “Stay Exempt” resource, among others.

Does your nonprofit lobby? On what issues? Or do you strongly feel it shouldn’t? Please share your views!

Competing in the Nonprofit Marketplace

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Nonprofits have competitors in the marketplace, just like anyone else.
Environmental groups compete in a highly cluttered landscape of urgent causes.   Independent schools compete against other independent schools, but also against public magnet schools and charter schools.  American social justice organizations working internationally “compete” with local NGOs and other equally committed nonprofits. These are just a few examples.

Nonprofits usually recognize they have competitors, but they also think of them as peers.  So they are sometimes late to take action when a peer is taking market share.

What can nonprofits—including  government agencies and programs—do to compete better? Here are some steps you can take right away.

Step 1: Recognize Your Competition. Really drill down into who/what is competing with your organization, your cause or your message. This includes things as mundane as local soccer tournaments on the same night as your auction to more high-level issues like competing with an older organization with a stronger brand presence in the market. Or, a common problem for older organizations: competing with an out-dated version of yourself!

Step 2: Analyze Them. Most companies in the for-profit world know exactly what their competition is doing at any given time. I understand that the reason the Hershey chocolate tour is totally produced for the visitor these days is that the folks from the M&M Mars factory not far away used to take the old tour through the real factory to check on any new techniques or products.  Get copies of your competitors’ outreach materials and see how they stack up against yours. What do you like or not like? What makes them stand out?

Step 3: Analyze Yourself. What’s Your UCV?  “Unique Selling Proposition” is the term used in the for-profit world, so I like to use “Unique Community Value” for the nonprofit world.  What value do you bring to the community like no-one else? What does your work accomplish? What would happen if you weren’t there to help?

Step 4: Differentiate Your Brand. What messages convey your brand value and UCV? What stories can you tell that set you apart? What visuals can help support the emotional sell of your brand?

Step 5: Use Metrics. How will you measure your success in your market space? How will you know if you are decreasing or increasing in market share? Email surveys, behind-the-scenes research, and focus groups can all help in this area, in addition to your usual web hits, Google Alerts and email open response metrics.

Step 6: Rinse and Repeat. You need to keep up this cycle to be sure no competitor takes a bite out of your space (or to assess how you are doing in taking a bite out of theirs!).

Brand Tools for Local Volunteers and Staff

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Foliage as Shapes - IMG_0052 s.cHere’s a great question that came to me from one of my readers: “How does the headquarters of a national nonprofit support and/or monitor brand consistency among dozens of social media sites run by local chapter volunteers?”

It’s definitely a balancing act to develop a consistent brand strategy—including use of social media—without burdening local staff and volunteers. I believe there are several key elements to a successful plan.

  1. Define Your Mission. Make sure everyone understands your “elevator pitch” about your mission and who you serve, and why you do it every day. Make sure every person, from CEO to local volunteers is able to deliver this pitch and connect it to their own personal story.
  2. Define Your Communications Philosophy. Why and in what tone do you need to communicate to stakeholders? Explain in very clear, non-jargony terms (i.e., without using the word stakeholders!), what about your brand should be communicated, whether it’s through a local walk website, a volunteer’s blog or a Facebook page.
  3. Monitor Based on Philosophy.  Your philosophy should guide your monitoring. The “why” of your communications will dictate how you measure success, and what will flag concerns at the national level. Don’t get too caught up in uniformity. It’s all about achieving mission results in the end, so what matters is anything that can propel or derail that goal.
  4. Provide Tools.  Give every local staffer and volunteer a simple, online-accessible toolkit of what they need to communicate your brand. If they have these tools, chances are high they won’t spend time developing their own look or content that could be inconsistent with your main national brand, because their focus is and should be on on-the-ground activities.

Let’s take a closer look at the local Toolkit.  So what should go into it?

Stories. Ultimately nonprofits are able to communicate best through stories of the people and communities they help. Provide a regular stream of well-written content, with quotations and photos to go along with it, and your local teams can either copy the format with their own or use yours.

Videos. Video is a highly effective tool for engaging donors, volunteers and local staff. A short video can efficiently communicate your brand and message to a large number of people in a variety of local settings. Consider providing a DVD each year to every local chapter that can include: 1) an overview/general marketing video about your organization, 2) a short, peppy meeting opener, 3) case studies/interview-based vignettes that can communicate why your mission matters to real people and their lives (this can be used to cultivate donors, or bring in new volunteers or members), 4) an annual conference and/or local events highlights video.  Once you have the basics, you can just provide updates or periodic new material (such as a brief training video on a new program you are rolling out.)

Graphics. Include a logo as it should appear in several mediums (i.e. it will be different for the web than for TV or for print pieces).  Also, it’s handy to offer a template for newsletters or local brochures. And of course, you will want to identify fonts—either approved or recommended for headers, tag lines, body copy, etc.

Photos. A true gem for busy local staff and volunteers is a well-organized online photo library.  Include downloadable, rights-cleared photos your local volunteers and staff can use in blogs, on websites, in newsletters, e-marketing pieces, etc.  You want images that include major organizational leaders and celebrity champions, volunteers in action, key locations, special events, and most importantly, the people or communities you serve.  Getting rights cleared can be a hassle, but if you set up a regular process for every shoot (and have a downloadable form for getting permissions cleared), you will go a long way towards providing brand and image consistency for your organization.

Communications at the local level is vital for any national organization. But it can also create serious pitfalls for your organization’s brand among key constituencies, including the media, donors, and future volunteers. Providing tools, rather than dictating rules, can help pave the way to a more unified brand.

Good Leaders Should Read Novels

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Sea Rocks at Dawn-s.cI recently trailed one of my children on school visiting day and was struck by the relevance of the English lesson. The students were discussing difficult choices, using as their texts the novel “Tuck Everlasting” and Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Less Traveled.”  The lesson reminded me of why I love novels (aside from the fact that I was an English major), and why I think leaders should read them.

In an article earlier this year about CEO character traits, the New York Times’ Peter Brooks postulates that reading novels could offer these leaders “greater psychological insight, a feel for human relationships, a greater sensitivity toward their own emotional chords.”  He’s on to something. I would add to his list the following:

  1. Perspective on Difficult Choices. As in life, the characters in novels rarely get black and white choices.  Tom Sawyer has to confront racial injustice as he considers his friendship with Huck. Edith Wharton’s Lily Barth in House of  Mirth tries to find a way to avoid the socially and financially correct marriage that society in her time demands. James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom struggles with the existential crises of the individual living in modern collective society in Ulysses. The list goes on.  By reading these novels we gain insight into our own dilemmas.
  2. A View of Character.  “The Gravedigger’s Daughter” by Joyce Carol Oates was one of my favorite–yet difficult–reads this year. The way this brilliant novelist draws us into the protagonist’s shocking childhood helps a reader understand what can lie behind broken familial relationships and what it takes to be a survivor.
  3. A View Into Other Cultures. Another favorite novel of mine is “The Piano Tuner,” a stunning first novel which provides a view into the unequal relationships within the British Colonial empire, and specifically in Myanmar, at the end of the 19th century.  While set in a distant time and culture, some of the scenes are achingly heartbreaking, and can give us some context for the continuing struggles of the Burmese people.
  4. An Ability to Change One’s Mind. I recently read “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” by literary power-house John Fowles, and had the pleasure to discuss it in a book club led by my wonderful former high school English teacher.  Over the course of reading the novel, I completely changed my mind about the “woman” of the title, Sarah.  Through Sarah, Fowles slowly brought me to a new perspective on all the characters in the book, as well as a view of modern relationships.  Being able to change one’s mind is something we are less and less able to do in our society, as we seem to be forced into clearly defined groups whose minds have been made up for us (by religious affiliation, by gender, by political party, neighborhood, school choices for our children, etc.).  Being able to think about perspective is the great gift of the novel.

So for all these reasons, I highly recommend that leaders read fiction, and specifically the novel. Try handing out a novel to your board and staff at your next meeting and then schedule a discussion of one or two of the topics above at a subsequent gathering.  It might just give you a new way to think about problems, people, and choices.

Do you have a great novel to recommend?

5 Free Ways to Boost Your Brand

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Balt. Bldg.1 - IMG_0407 sIn the “jobless recovery,” it’s important to be strategic about spending on your brand. Here are five ways you can support your product, service or nonprofit mission without spending a dime.  (Alright, in total fairness, time is involved and we all know that’s valuable.)

1. Deploy Your Leaders. Boards of directors, partners, the executive team–they should know all the in’s and out’s of your brand and be the spokes on the wheel of your brand promotion. But sometimes they are not deployed in an intentional way with marketing your brand in mind. Make a conscious effort to (re)educate your board and leadership team on your “elevator pitch” and “brand promise”–what unique value you provide–at their next meeting. Ask folks to give their elevator pitch to the group, to help them hone their own description of your brand essence.

2. Engage Every Employee. Your leadership team, marketing or development staff may all be cognizant of your key brand messages. But what about your interns, the people at the loading dock and your new receptionist? Everyone communicates your brand–to customers, to donors, to other employees. Make sure you take the time to engage everyone. One great experience can make all the difference. So can a bad one.

3. Let Others Speak for You. Referrals are the best sales. Ask your best customers, donors, community volunteers, etc. to help you promote your brand. Ask them to Tweet about your latest accomplishments, mention it on their company blog, or be willing to wear a nametag that says “So and So, [Your Charity Name] Volunteer” at their next business event. In the advertising world, everything is measured in the volume of “impressions” your ads get. But also every human impression counts.

4. Cross-Promote. Whether you are a for-profit or a charity, find organizations that don’t compete directly with you but who offer complimentary products/services.  Then create a monthly program for cross-promotions. For example, if you’re a florist, have your link featured on the page of an event organizer and vice versa.  If you’re a charity with a national walk or run coming up, cross-promote with an athletic shoe or apparel company.  And don’t forget to cross-promote yourself: be sure that every communications tool you use–email, e-newsletters, blogs, websites, business cards–promotes every other venue through which you communicate, so customers can reach you in whatever way they like best.

5. Increase Brand Clarity. Brand audits can be very expensive and time-consuming projects, but here’s a mini-audit you can assign to a couple of folks for a considerable impact. Have them review your letterhead, website, print pieces, blogs, Facebook pages, etc. and tell you whether your logo, name, tag line and mission statement appear consistently. Look at color, size, fonts and wording. You’d be surprised how many times these communications tools are inconsistently branded, thus diluting your impact.  You don’t have to reprint everything all at once, but be aware so that the next time cards go to the printers, for example, they can be in sync with your website.

Of course, there’s no free lunch.

If your brand is struggling because your mission is fuzzy, your leadership isn’t strategic, or your staffing is weak, then no amount of free branding solutions will help.  But in tough times, these simple tools can also go a long way while we all wait for recovery.

What’s my online identity?

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Abstract in Green s.c.2By now you’ve probably read that after 44 staffers were laid off at CQ-Roll Call at the end of September,   veteran editor Brian Nutting e-mailed the entire editorial staff (and cc’d the newsroom) a letter demanding answers from management.  His email was immediately “leaked” online and a day later, he was fired for insubordination.

A few days later, The Washington Post released new social media guidelines for its writers which take a pretty dim view of journalists having social media lives. The rules have resulted in journalists closing twitter accounts. Post journalists must refrain from “writing, tweeting or posting anything – including photographs or video – that could be perceived as reflecting political racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility.”

The Red Cross takes a different tack. It created—with input from employees—a Social Media Handbook that makes some common-sense recommendations. These include “Use disclaimers” “Respect work commitments” “Be a good blogger” “Be transparent” “Be accurate” “Be considerate” and one of my favorites “Be generous.”  (This particular recommendation is about being generous with links –that is, information–for your readers.)

These two approaches beg the question: who are we online? And can we be more than one person (the private and the public) at the same time?

Particularly if we work in a field where people pay us for our opinions and expertise (journalists, lawyers, doctors, consultants of various stripes), can we still express our personal views online and keep our jobs/clients?

What’s your SM policy? Can your employees make personal comments on their Facebook pages and still keep their jobs with you? What are the parameters? What is working and what isn’t?

I’d really like to hear from you on this one, so comment away!

Does Management Care About Our Brand?

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Red Wheel s.c.Sure they do. Management’s focus on the 50,000 foot view of an organization includes issues around brand. But what I’ve found is that they are not always aware of mission-critical elements that contribute to how your brand is perceived–by customers, donors, investors, or other influencers.  Here are two areas where the executive team often falls short, and what you can do about it.

The Virtual. Let’s face it, many in executive leadership are from a generation that’s not entirely comfortable with the virtual world of the internet and social media–even email. A good friend of mine in his 60’s ran a highly successful international foundation without so much as a computer on his desk. His secretary read and responded to all his emails!  Other execs can be suspicious of social media being merely social and not having any business function, so they won’t allow employees to use it.  Or they limit online time to younger subordinates–interns and such–without realizing these have become the face of the organization and their first responders in a crisis. (And they might be perfectly well qualified for this, but that might not really be the communications strategy when the assignment is made.)

So how do you get management to care about the virtual iterations of your brand?

1. Provide real feedback on what others are saying about you and your issue or product or competitors on a regular basis–a quick overview report at least weekly. You likely already know the tools (Google Alerts, Twittalyzer). But also write the report in “real English” so that those of us who aren’t as facile with technology can “get it” and understand strategic implications.

2. Offer a virtual brand game-plan with a specific group of staff and targeted number of hours they will spend listening and responding on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc.

3.  Be willing to revise the game plan. Test a variety of strategies and personnel. Some people love to write, for example, and could be great bloggers for your brand. Others might be better suited to the 140-characters-or-less world of Twitter.

The Physical. I recently attended an after work networking event at a company that reminded me how much the physical still matters when it comes to your brand. The party included a number of people I wanted to meet. However, the bar was located right in the entrance area, so everyone was crammed together there and no one could circulate. The food was elsewhere–sitting on small, lonely plastic platters in several conference rooms too far from the main action to attract much attention. But for those who ventured in search of nourishment, the message of the meager fare was either that the company was suffering greatly in the economic downturn, or they didn’t like their customers enough to invest in more than a bowl of peanuts. Probably not the message management intended to send.  My guess is management didn’t even involve itself in the layout or the menu decisions.

By contrast I attended another business event for top-level CEOs where clearly the economic downturn played a role in the decision to change the evening from black-tie to business dress. The food was well laid out and appetizing, but not overly luxurious. The content and networking spaces were well-planned. Result: a good boost for the host company’s brand.

How can you get management to care about the “physical” expressions of your brand?

1. Include them in your decision-making. Even if it’s the tablecloths for an event or the new office chairs, make sure management knows What you’re suggesting/deciding and Why you’re making those recommendations.  What is the impression you are trying to make? What do you want customers or donors or investors to think about you when they leave? (note: “they’re suffering” doesn’t always translate into increased donations on the nonprofit side.)

2. Show them examples (photos) of what your event/office would look like if these decisions get made. I’m sure that if one of the top executives of the firm I mentioned above had seen what a little plastic platter of vegetables looked like sitting alone on a vast polished wood conference table, he might have endorsed a different food budget.

3. Poll your guests and share outcomes with management. Survey Monkey and other online tools make it so easy to find out whether or not your guests liked your event/their meeting at your office/etc. Social media also allows you to hear from important players and share back their comments.

All I can end with is the line from the wonderful Maurice Sendak book for children, about Pierre “who didn’t care” (Spoiler alert: he gets eaten by a lion): Care!

©2009 Amy DeLouise. All Rights Reserved. For reprint permission, please contact amy(at)amydelouise(d0t)com.

Handling Disgruntled Customers

Oakes Red - IMGP1335 s.cThere are three kinds of unhappy customers. The ones who let you know about the problem right away. The ones who tell other people they are unhappy, but avoid telling you directly.  And the ones who are mostly happy customers and have only one issue they are unhappy about, but this is the only thing they communicate about with you, so it seems like a much larger problem.  It’s really important to discern which kind of customer you are dealing with before you can help them.  And especially in these days of social media, when a problem that is small can become exponentially larger due to word of mouth.

Learn About the Problem

If you are hearing about the problem from someone other than the customer, or through a group venue such as social media, seek out the customer to discuss the issue directly and privately. You can still make some kind of public response when all is resolved, but don’t duke things out on your Facebook page.

Really listening is key. This means a willingness to see the issue from their perspective and problem-solve in a way that ensures they will still be your customer. Okay, in fairness there will be rare instances in which you need to “fire” your own customer because, as it turns out, their goals and your mission/brand promise actually just don’t fit. But this is a rare instance. More often than not, a disgruntled customer will become less frustrated just through knowing you understand their pain.  By listening you can also discern if this is a generally happy customer (and not over-react) or if there is a big issue you need to address with a full-court press. And when you listen, be sure to share with colleagues (as appropriate, depending on sensitivity) within your organization so they understand your brand values when it comes to problem-solving.

Find a Solution

The worst thing you can do to a customer is make them find their own solution. This happened to me recently with the Smithsonian Institution, an organization of which I’m highly supportive. My family joined about a year ago because we live in Washington, DC and visit the museums regularly.  We received the magazine immediately but never got the membership card, so we had to sign in at the information desk every time we went to a museum—several times a month–for a “temporary card” in order to enjoy our membership benefits. This got tedious, and yet no one suggested how we could solve our problem and get a permanent card.  Finally, one day I walked to the Smithsonian’s main offices to ask for help. I was sent to another building. Then from that building, back to the first one. And so on. It was starting to look like a Marx brothers movie, but not as funny since I had kids in tow. Finally, a woman at the main office handed me a sticky note and said “call this 800 number and maybe they can help you.”  I recently spoke to a helpful customer service rep there and we’ll wait to see what happens.

Communicating About Problem-Solving

A lot of organizations do a tremendous job of communicating about their mission, their brand values and their goals, but do a terrible job of telling customers about how they solve problems. In the more customer-driven environment of today’s economy, customers and prospective customers want to know that you can solve their problems, even if they don’t have any right now.

You can communicate about your problem-solving in a number of ways. It’s a great blog topic. It’s worthy of a line or two in your monthly e-mail or memo to customers. It’s even worthy of mention to your own staff, so they understand a model of successful problem-solving. Do you have a good example of communicating around problem-solving in your organization? Or a problem-solving disaster? Please share…