Does Your Board Support Your Brand?

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This past week I spoke on a teleconference workshop about tools to engage boards to supporBarn in the Palouse- s.ct fundraising auctions. Many of the 50+ organizations who signed up indicated that their board members are not fully engaged in outreach events and fundraising. Does this mean they have the wrong board members? Do they need to define roles and expectations?  Or do board members actually need some training? I find it’s a bit of each. Whether you are a for-profit or nonprofit, your Board of Directors is a critical component of how you connect to the communities and constituencies you serve. They need to be supporting your brand in multiple ways. How can you help them do this?

Board members need to know their financial role.

As we all know from the recent financial meltdown, governing boards were blamed for taking their eye off the ball. What are you doing to be sure your board knows its role and its responsibilities when it comes to fundraising and financial oversight?  Prospective board members should be clear on the requirements of their role. They need to know the hours of the commitment, the dollars they will be expected to give or raise, and how they can help you propel the mission.  They also need to feel comfortable with nonprofit financial statements, which can look very different than corporate ones.  New board members should have an orientation to remind them of their roles and help them with tools in the areas where they are the least comfortable (i.e. making an “ask” for your organization). Even experienced board members need refreshers, especially if you have an important event coming up or a major campaign.

Board members need to see the goalposts.

Board members need more than the annual report. They need specifics.  If you’re holding an auction, what is your fundraising goal? What happens if you don’t meet it?  What are your most important programs? What outcomes will determine your success?

Board members need to learn about your brand.

Board members are obviously committed volunteers, but sometimes they are connected to your organization through only one pathway (i.e. a child with a disease that you are trying to cure, a son at your school, as a professional member of your association, etc.)   They need to be briefed on the big picture about your brand promise to all of your “customers,” including the experience you promote for your donors, your staff and your other volunteers.  They need to be able to easily talk about your “elevator pitch” and connect it to their own experience with your organization.   Give them talking points. Let them practice on one another.  This way, your board members can be better—and more comfortable—cheerleaders.

Board members need recognition.

Board members need more than their names on the masthead. They need to be publicly thanked when they do a good job of supporting your mission. When involved board members receive thanks and recognition—whether it’s for a report well-researched or getting out more volunteers for your walkathon—then other volunteers are more inclined to give you their time, talents and money.

Engaging boards can be a challenge, but it’s one worth the effort. When they are part of a team with staff, the winner is your mission.  Do you have a good story to share about supporting boards? Please share it!

Brand Mergers: What Nonprofits Can Learn from the Amazon-Zappos Deal

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Red Gerbera Daisy IMG_0149 s.cAmazon is known for efficiency. Zappos has built a customer-centered company. The marriage announced last week merges a $1 billion-a-year shoe-selling enterprise with a $20 billion behemoth online seller. Many industry watchers have been boo-hooing the deal, assuming that Amazon’s culture will subsume Zappos and, frankly, ruin it.

But I have another take. When one enterprise knows how to deliver What the Customer Wants, When She Wants it while the other one Builds Community and Brand Loyalty with customers, then it can be a match made in heaven.  That’s because we are in a world moving away from “hard brands”—i.e. what the PR and marketing people traditionally pushed towards the customer/media and towards “brands-in-conversation”—entities that evolve in a dialogue with their customers. The same goes for nonprofits struggling in this downturn.  Many of them are facing going out of business because they are just not making ends meet, even though they do great work.

Where do nonprofits stand?

At last count, we had more than 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States (that’s according to The Urban Institute, National Center for Charitable Statistics, based on organizations that filed form 990’s with the IRS within the last 24 months). Thats a lot of brands competing for dollars and volunteers.  And unfortunately, many of these organizations have mission overlap.  In addition, some are better at delivering results, some are better at outreach and organizing, and some are better at promoting a great donor or volunteer or member experience. But few are good at all of these tasks.

So what can a nonprofit do? Consider a partnership or merger.

Considering a merger with another entity can be scary, as nonprofits are fiercely independent. But a merger/partnership can really strengthen your brand. That’s because your brand is all about delivering on mission.  When you share responsibilities with another entity, you can increase your “ROI” with the people you serve, while decreasing costs, overhead and inefficiencies.

A joint effort doesn’t have to happen overnight.  Here are some baby steps to creating a productive brand merger.

  • Introduce your boards to each other at a social, not business-oriented, “mixer.”
  • Engage staff of each organization in a brainstorming session—the goal is better meeting the mission.
  • Try a joint venture—a project with a measurable outcome consistent with both organizations’ goals.
  • Host an event together so you can share ideas, showcase strengths, and get feedback from attendees on how your two organizations worked together.
  • Share each other’s content—through your web and social media venues; Tweet about each other’s successes and events, for example.
  • Consider the donor’s point of view. What additional services or geographic reach would enable each organization to give a lead donor more bang for their buck?

These are just some of the ways you can increase brand impact and build trust between two enterprises. Remember that the goal is always delivering on the mission. If you can keep your staff and board mission-focused, then the ROI of a partnership or merger can bring great benefits to the people who need them most: those you serve.

Join Amy this Wednesday on a free teleconference about Engaging Boards for a More Successful Fundraising Auction. To register, click here.

The Good the Bad and the Ugly: Social Media Successes and Nightmares

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By now you have probably heard some of the more infamous stories of the brave new woRed Wheel s.c.rld of social media. From Jeff Jarvis’s famous “Dell Sucks” blog post in 2005 to the Motrin-Mommy-Blogger fiasco of late 2008.  But what results—good and bad—can inform your own personal or corporate social media strategy? Here are some I thought worth a look.

The Good

Have you checked out Bill Marriott’s Blog “Marriott on the Move”?  http://www.blogs.marriott.com/ Of course his most recent postings have been about the Jakarta suicide bombings that took place at a Marriott hotel there. Communicating with customers in times of crisis is a crucial part of communicating your brand identity—in this case, that Marriott management is caring and on top of the situation as much as can be expected. Bill  also reads the blog aloud in an audio file beneath each post, which makes for a much more personal experience of the story. According to Kathleen Matthews, former news anchor-turned-Marriott marketing executive, $3 million in reservations have come in through his blog. How’s that for an ROI?

Charity: Water is a non-profit organization bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations. 100% of public donations directly fund water projects.  On 12 February 2009, 200+ international cities hosted a Twestival (Twitter + festival) to bring Twitter communities together to raise money for charity: water. The Twestival raised $250,000+ and brought worldwide public awareness to the global water crisis. They also provided a live feed of a well drilling project in Ethiopia paid for by the funds, so donors felt instantly connected to an outcome of their donations. Charity: Water also cleverly provides “Tweet the Facts” resource so folks on Twitter can easily publish content relevant to the charity (“Women in Africa spend 15-17 hrs/week collecting water”).  Charities have been among the first to realize the power of social media, so why not retrace their steps and raise awareness for charities and causes you support?

Zappos, the internet shoe emporium just purchased by Amazon, has 436 employees on Twitter.  (Full disclosure: I love shoes.) In a recent interview for the Progressive Women’s Leadership Blog in a post called “All atwitter,” CEO Tony Hsieh said “For Twitter, we don’t really view it as a marketing channel so much as a way to connect on a more personal level — whether it’s with our employees or our existing customers.” Zappos has always stood out for its unique company culture, with a high level of customer service and a personalized, informal style. The company offers Twitter classes for employees to learn how to Tweet, but it does not have any restrictive requirements. Again, CEO Hsieh told interviewer Stephen Spencer “We’re not really looking at short-term ROI in terms of sales,” Hsieh says. “We’re looking to form lifelong relationships with our customers, and we think Twitter helps us do this.”  The company has also used Twitter as a recruiting tool, because it helps prospective employees see what it’s like to work there.

The Bad

The Washington Post today carried a story (“Online — and in the Loop — With D.C. Police “ washingtonpost.com http://bit.ly/y8rlP ) about how police are using email listserves to connect to community, inform the public about crimes, and help solve them.  The U.S. Park Police are blogging at http://uspppressroom.blogspot.com/ . Meanwhile, on the west coast, Los Angeles police Lt. Rick Banks is quoted saying his unit is looking at Twitter as a new opportunity.  What does it all mean? Federal and state agencies are embracing social media as a tool for connecting with the communities they serve.  Some of these postings function more as press release outlets than places for real conversations to emerge (see http://www.usda.gov/blog/usda/ ).  At least it’s a start for more transparency and faster communication in government.

The Ugly

As great as social media is, there is a dark side. Consider this story from the Better Business Bureau about major job scams on Twitter.  The BBB wants job hunters to be aware of the following red flags when searching for a work-at-home job online:

  • The “job” is actually a money-making scheme and doesn’t provide actual employment.
  • The work-at-home scheme claims that you can make lots of money with little effort and no experience.
  • You have to pay money up front in order to be considered for the job or receive more information.
  • The exact same tweet touting the program is posted by many different Twitterers. The links in such tweets could lead you to scam sites or install malware onto your computer.

These are just a few tales to help you consider the good, the bad and the ugly ways that social media is changing our communications landscape.  Do you have a social media success story or nightmare? Please share!

I Hate Website Contact Forms: A Dent in Your Brand

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I know, I’ve really avoided launching any blog posts with the words “I hate.”  But GF3, s.c.2this one really gets me, for some reason. In our brave new age of social media, increased transparency, and communications efficiency, those little forms that you get when you click “Contact Us” really bug me.

I recently went on a nonprofit website to find someone in the communications department I’d met at a party. I thought I’d do a simple click and send her a quick note. Instead, I got The Form of Doom.  This is a great nonprofit, doing great work, helping needy children all over the world. And I was stopped in my tracks. Suddenly their brand didn’t seem as good. I know, it’s not fair, but it didn’t.  Suddenly they seemed possibly elitist, or at least not friendly and not reachable.  If I were a donor, would I be thinking “hey, maybe there’s another nonprofit I can contact more easily”?  I don’t know, but I might.

Contact Us forms are the last vestige of Web .5 in a Web 2.0 world.  Originally, they were designed to “capture user information” and help protect executives new to email.  But now, they just seem like speed bumps—annoying and messing up my car.  It’s not like people can’t find you these days. I located the nonprofit communications executive I’d met through Linked In, where we happily connected, conversed and exchanged email addresses. But that was, like, six steps from how I should have found her with a simple link on her organization’s website.

Brands are affected by many customer experiences.  We build up our expectations of a brand, and then we expect all interactions with the brand to deliver on the “brand promise.”  When a communications transaction between entity and user does not meet the brand promise expectations, we are at a fork in the road and we may choose another brand instead.  Websites are no longer sign posts.  They are interactive communications tools with your current or prospective donors, customers or volunteers.  Check around and see if yours is welcoming them to your brand on every page, or if you still have a few of the old barriers around.

Know any other Brand Barriers or have a different view of Contact forms? Please share them!

Choosing the Wrong Communications Tool Can Really Screw Up Your Brand

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Yellow Hibiscus, Red Center 7_IGP0786 s.cI was recently reminded of how important it is to choose the right communications medium when I opened my office email after the July 4th holiday weekend. To my surprise, my in-box was chock full of emails—more than 200 of them. This seemed odd. Could there have been some massive event I wasn’t aware of?  Then the culprit emerged. The university orchestra of my alma mater had sent out an email encouraging people to “chat” about their experiences in the group.  Hmmm. A group chat through email? Not an invitation to join a list-serve or a fan group on Facebook?

I trolled through the first handful of emails and realized that not only had the organization chosen a poor format for this lovely outreach idea, but that almost everyone contacted had responded “reply all” when asking to be removed from the list. Voila! 200 increasingly nasty emails were created, and were still replicating as I watched.  And one of the last ones I read reminded me of how badly your brand can be damaged by such a seemingly innocent mistake. An alumn said they couldn’t believe the university had sent such a missive and they wanted to be removed from all future lists and never hear from the place again.  Ouch!

I quickly sent off an email to the VP of Public Affairs saying, essentially, “your brand is on fire.”

Brand wound self-infliction isn’t as uncommon as you would think. The Washington Post recently produced marketing fliers promoting a series of private, sponsored off-the-record dinners between policymakers and journalists that set off a firestorm of controversy about whether or not the Post could maintain its brand of journalistic impartiality.

So, how to choose the correct medium for your message?

1. Know Your Audience. It’s important to know how your audience prefers to be communicated with.  I recently sat on a marketing panel at an independent schools conference and one audience member asked whether they should be sending out emails or Facebook invitations to their alumns. I responded with another question “have you ever asked them?”  It’s really important to periodically query your target audience(s) about how they like to be reached.  A quick email survey using a tool such as Survey Monkey can suffice.

2. Know Your Options. Trying to jump-start a conversation that goes on beyond your initial contact? A Facebook page or Linked In group might work best.  Trying to get customers to respond to something new? Offer a clickable coupon link that also takes them to other content you want viewed. Want to reach potential donors? Send them a link to a You-Tube video that tells a short but compelling story about real people benefiting from your organization’s work.  And be wary of e-newsletters. If you must send them, make sure they have easy navigation and clickable links to full articles (one group I support still sends a PDF–yuck!).

3. Know Your Limitations. Donors and customers don’t want to hear from you every day. Prospective donors and customers want to hear from you even less. So be thoughtful about your communications tool, and then the content you deliver with it.  Offer information and connectivity that is truly useful to them.

4. Know Your Internal Content Generators. Yes you have standards and best practices. Surely my alma mater does. But clearly not everyone knows them. That’s because users/content generators are everywhere, not just in the PR office. Educate early and often. Rinse and repeat.

5. Know Your Power. Electronic and social media, when used correctly, can greatly magnify and support your brand.  Use them well…or else.

COMING THIS MONTH (Wed, July 29th, 1PM EDT): Free Teleconference on Helping Your Board Support Your Auction Success. For more information/to register, click here.

Can Twitter Help Offset the Negative Brand Impact of Downsized Marketing?

In the last two weeks I’ve spoken with one VP of marketing whose job was completely eliminated at a major national nonprofit, and one marketing director at a mid-sized for-profit who confessed she had no time to do long-term strategic work since she was really functioning as communications director, and without any support staff.

Who hasn’t felt the pinch on long-term strategic thinking when short-term tactical communications work needs to get done? And why should we care?

I think we should care because organizations are likely to find that while they net some short-term savings with cuts to personnel and marketing budgets, their brand may take a bigger hit than they think in the long-term.  If all you’re doing is getting out your weekly customer e-newsletters and press releases, you may actually be suffering from internal bleeding without knowing it.  With tactics focused on short-term “get the word out” communications, organizations can be missing out on three key marketing strategies: attracting new customers/donors, retaining existing ones, and constantly establishing your brand as the best in class.

So, how to maintain a brand focus without all the people and budget to help?

Consider what some of the biggest firms are now doing: using Twitter as a tool to provide customer service.  USA Today reported this week that companies like Comcast, Pepsico and Whole Foods are using Twitter to provide customer service more quickly and successfully than 800 numbers and websites once did.  Pepsico went so far as to change its top customer service employee’s title to “Global Director of Digital and Social Media.”

Title changes aside, how can mid-sized for-profits and nonprofits use this technology to do more than put out 140-character press releases?

  1. If you are a school or university, consider tweeting to keep in touch with alumni on issues they care about.  But also tweet parents about important news–changes to the soccer game schedule, deadlines for scholarship apps, etc.  Letting them opt-in will make them feel they aren’t going to miss important news.
  2. If you are in the business of social change, keep donors up to date on the impact of their funding.
  3. If you are a government agency, keep stakeholders apprised of policy issues and where they stand, and any new information you have posted elsewhere about it to save them time fishing for it.
  4. If you are a for-profit, keep customers apprised of issues and information that could negatively or positively affect their business outcomes, so you can demonstrate your depth of knowledge in your field and your value.
  5. If you are a thought leader in your area of expertise, consider sharing what you know, what you are reading, and people worth watching. (For some reason, nonprofit leaders are particularly late adopters of this technology, and yet they have the most to benefit from one another and the least staff resources to pull in the information in other ways.)

Nothing replaces people and budget, but it looks like Twitter can offer some interesting opportunities to maintain a good brand presence in this downturn.

Help Volunteers Support Your Brand

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Volunteers are the hard currency of nonprofit work. They are the grassroots organizers, the field operatives, the advocates in the community, the donors and board leaders.  And yet they often get the least amount of training and support when it comes to communicating what you do and who you are. At the DC Cares Philanthropy Summit I attended this week, Nicky Goren, Acting CEO for the Corporation for National and Community Service commented (and I paraphrase) that a large donor will be paired with an executive, but a volunteer will be managed by an intern.   We both have nothing against interns, I’m sure, but I agree that we do often under-support volunteers.

Volunteers Need to Know Your “Elevator Pitch”

One of the most important tools you can give a volunteer is a firm understanding of your mission priorities.  This can often be called talking points or an “elevator pitch.” (For details, see my post on brand consistency). You also want to convey the key aspects of your brand values. Hopefully someone who volunteers for you already has some sense of these or they wouldn’t have given of their time, but it’s worth conveying the kind of tone and face you want for the organization.

Miscommunication Undermines Mission

The way information is communicated about your organization, as well as the content of that information, contributes to how your nonprofit brand is perceived.  Years of good work in the community can be eclipsed very quickly by a few misspoken words, or a freelance opinion from a volunteer who doesn’t know the full picture.  Not speaking on an issue can also damage the organization’s reputation.   A situation at The Horace Mann School, and independent school in New York, is a case in point.  The school dismissed an English teacher after he wrote a satirical novel set in a school much like that of his (former) employer.  Some faculty and parents objected strongly to the dismissal.  The teacher sued the school.  The New York Times published a story on the situation, and called the board, the alumni association and the head of school’s office for quotes. All refused.  The story included the following stinging notation: “Horace Mann officials, including Head of School Thomas M. Kelly, declined to comment for this article. Many parents of current students, members of the alumni council and current teachers did not return phone calls requesting interviews about the dispute stirred by Mr. Trees. The school’s motto is ‘Great is the truth and it prevails.’ ”

I use this story to illustrate the fact that “no comment” can have just as negative an impact on your brand as misinformation.  Volunteers and board members should be briefed periodically by the executive or Board Chair on key initiatives, goals and successes, but also failures or challenges.  When volunteers and board members are familiar with your story and how you communicate it, they do a better job of supporting your organization. And by being in regular contact with communications staff, they know who to go to if they have questions when something more critical arises.

Brief Volunteers on Key Messages

Regular communication with board members, donors and volunteers, in good times and difficult ones, is essential to helping them support your brand in the community.  Be sure to give new volunteers a short orientation to be sure they understand your core values, your core mission areas, and your strategic goals for the year.  When board members, volunteers and donors are on the same page, they can help move the mission forward by communicating with stakeholders and engaging new donors and volunteers.  When these same individuals are in the dark, or not well prepared to describe your work, your impact will suffer. (I once overheard a parent involved with an organization pitch it by saying they were having trouble filling spots for their program–probably not the message they wanted in the community!)

In these economic times, volunteers are more essential than ever in helping nonprofits deliver on their mission.  Make sure you have a branding and communications plan that supports them in their work.

If you have a great way of briefing new volunteers, please share it!

Is Social Media Worth My Professional Time?

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AmysLinkedInThis week I’ve had four people ask me this question. Two are lawyers in large, successful practices. One is an executive looking for work. One is a nonprofit professional. All are mid-40’s to early 50’s. My answer is a resounding “yes!” to all of them, with varying reasons why.   If you are already well-versed in social media, feel free to duck out of this post.  But if you or your boss is trying to decide whether it’s worth it, read on.

Some Facts to Consider…

Nielsen recently released these intriguing study results:

1. In February social network usage exceeded Web-based e-mail usage for the first time. Ever.

2. There are 87 percent more online social media users now than in 2003, with 883 percent more time devoted to those sites.

3. In April, Nielson also reported that the number of American users frequenting online video destinations has climbed 339 percent since 2003. Time spent on video sites has shot up almost 2,000 percent over the same period.

4. Unique visitors to Twitter increased 1,382 percent year-over-year, from 475,000 unique visitors in February 2008 to 7 million in February 2009, making it the fastest growing site in the Member Communities category for the month.

5.  And here’s one that might surprise you. The largest age group on Twitter right now is 35-49 year olds. Yep. 41% of Twitter-ers are in this group, representing almost 3 million users.

So …?

This data shows that many of the people you need to connect with aren’t just using social media, they are migrating to it in droves.  And just like you, they only have a limited amount of time, so that means they are using other networking tools less/differently.  For example, we have all heard the reports that many conferences have cancelled this year due to the economy.  But perhaps there’s also less interest in networking in this way when you can have an ongoing conversations with colleagues, fellow activists or customers through Facebook and Twitter? We’re also doing less in print. According to the US Department of Labor wage and salary outlook in the printing and related support activities industry is projected to “decline 22 percent over the 2006-16 period, compared with 11 percent growth projected for the economy as a whole.” This decrease reflects our increased use of computerized documents and sharing information via the internet and social media sources.

I’m Still Unconvinced. My Time is Too Valuable.

In fairness, you’re right. Social media can be a big Time Sucker. So you need a plan to manage that, both personally and organizationally, in much the same way you adjusted your work patterns when email and FedEx came along. And just as those inventions saved time in new ways, you will need to maximize the time you save in these new mediums.  Here are a few tips on incorporating social media into your professional communications strategy.

Five Tools for Getting What You Need From Social Media

1.   First, decide what you’re trying to accomplish. Are you reconnecting with classmates? Trying to reach new customers? Engaging other social activists in your cause? Increasing your visibility as an expert in your field? Promoting your new book or agency report? Trying to find a new job?  Each goal requires a slightly different strategy and time commitment. Having only the goal of finding out what everyone else is talking about is an acceptable starting point, but if you want to prove to yourself/your boss that you’ve gotten ROI, you need a more structured goal.

2.    Decide who you want to converse with. I use the term “converse” because social media is a conversation, not you blasting information to an “audience.” But you need to know who you’re looking for and where they are. For example, women over 55 are the fastest growing demographic on Facebook.  So if that’s who you need to reach, consider spending time there. Facebook is also a good way to cross-promote a book, podcast or blog, so consider it a part of your strategy, not your entire game plan.

3.    Decide what value you can bring to the conversation. Some of the best Twitterers are healthcare organizations, because they have a lot of already well-researched content and their goals are to make us all healthier.  See @childrenshealth and @redcross for good examples. My least favorite Twitterers are those who are too prolific, so that even their good content gets lost in their own clutter. Luckily the trend is moving away from people twittering about every move they make. With the exception of politicians and broadcast anchors.

4.    Figure out how much time you can commit each day/week/month. Start by looking at the time you already spend achieving the same goal through more traditional means. Perhaps you attend several professional networking events a month and four major conferences each year.  Take part of the time you would a lot to those and target the same goal through social media.

5.    Identify useful as well as negative content –that is, for content you value, but also content that might be de-valueing or diluting your brand. Use blog search tools like Technorati to conduct real-time searches for user-generated media (including blogs) by topics of interest to you or use Stumbleupon to both see and offer your own ratings of content you find useful. Remember that some good content tends to pop up in unexpected places, such as federal government blogs.  Here’s a useful one from the Dept. of Energy with tips for energy efficiency .

6.    Consider a Group Blog. If your firm or organization wants to put a toe in the water on blogging, consider identifying 5-20 people who could be regular contributors and rotate the job. Posts can be brief—even as little as a paragraph.  Be sure to post on the same day or days of the week, so that blog search and aggregating tools can find you.

7.    What Can You Bring to You-Tube? If you already have video content (and assuming you can acquire the right permissions), this is a no-brainer. But you may also be giving a workshop that you can have videotaped. Or consider asking your own stakeholders for user-generated content of their own. This works particularly well for nonprofit causes, where real people and real stories are so compelling.

8.    Use social networks to find people who can help you do your job better. Consider incorporating LinkedIn to your organization’s job posting strategy, as well as using it for your own professional networking. Linked In was founded before Facebook, but has taken off more recently due to improvements in its interface, the increased use of its professional forums, and the widgets that can bring additional content to your page (i.e. pull your blog into it, as it does on my page—shameless self-promotion moment here—at http://www.linkedin.com/in/amydelouise . If you are a job-seeker, as so many are in our economy, this is a great tool. Prospective employers can check out your page (which is essentially a resume), download your resume, and see recommendations you’ve received from bosses/clients.  As someone who employes others, I’ve found LinkedIn extremely useful when trying to find a good vendor or consultant for a project. I posted a query to my contacts and within seconds had 6 recommendations with national experience, all of whom I could then look up and contact via LinkedIn.

Okay, Okay, But How Do I Get Started?

Here’s your summer assignment:
Month 1. In the next 30 days, set up a Facebook page and a LinkedIn page.  Do at least a basic Google search for your company’s/organization’s/issue’s/expertise’s name. Index some blogs or websites that seem useful, or are saying hateful or incorrect things about your organization/issue. Use Technorati or Stumbleupon accounts to send you blogs on topics of professional interest to you so you don’t have to go search for them.
Month 2. Sign up for Twitter and follow 10 people you admire.  Could you say it better? Can you add value to this conversation? Could this be valuable to you/your organization/your customers, donors, or volunteers? You make the call.
Month 3. Get at least 5 recommendations for yourself on LinkedIn, and more if you are a job-seeker.  Join one Linked In discussion group. Join some Facebook causes that mean something to you.  Comment on one or two blogs related to your area of expertise.
Month 4. Summer’s over! Spend no more than 30 minutes a day checking your most useful blog and Twitter feeds.  Spend 30 minutes per weekend for the next four weekends cranking out a list of potential blog topics you could generate with help from colleagues (so you can decide if this is a go or no-go for a January launch).

If you have some more ideas to contribute, please do!

Raising Money, Talking About Money

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The Chronicle of Philanthropy just reported in its June 4th issue that the value of endowments held by all 229 organizations in its survey declined by a combined $29.1 billion from 2007 to 2008. This will come as no surprise to development directors.  Many organizations don’t want to talk much about the big drops they’ve seen in their endowments, other than to say they are “similar to what the rest of the market has seen.”

My view is that putting our heads in the sand about our financials is a failed approach, and one that will hinder future fundraising.

Why? Because donors understand that market failures are not the failure of the organization. But if they learn that the organization is not flexible to respond to challenges, if they feel it doesn’t communicate the bottom line, and if they don’t see transparency in fiscal governance, then donors may rethink where they are putting their next dollar.

So how do you communicate your finances to donors?

Really all stakeholders should have an understanding of your finances.  You should make at least annual presentations—albeit less detailed than what you show your board—of your inflows and outflows plus your major financial challenges.  This is not just a rehash of the annual report, which is more of a “look-back” document, but rather a clear indication of your strategies for the future.  Incorporated into this presentation should be an explanation of how past financial decisions have affected future mission-driven outcomes.   You should also include the ways in which you change the lives of the people you serve.   In other words, it’s not just a PowerPoint with numbers.

Some institutions find this a shocking idea. But your Form 990 is already out there for the world to see. The question is:  are you backing it up with good fiscal management policies?  Are you communicating the coming challenges as you see them? Are you outlining the staffing, programmatic and expense item changes you are making in response to an increase in need or a decrease in funds, or both? How are you still meeting your mission goals?

When donors, staff, trustees and other stakeholders are included in the budget conversation, they are much less likely to pick on a particular item they hear about through the grapevSigning a Checkine.

In his new book What Would Google Do?, Jeff Jarvis talks about how the internet has become not just a collection of information, but a conversation. In much the same way, the post Sarbanes-Oxley, new Form 990, GAAP accounting rules world of nonprofit fiscal management is also becoming more of a conversation. You can either put your head in the sand and pretend it’s not going on, or you can engage your stakeholders and understand their perspectives as together you create your future financial plan.

Measuring Impact

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As the snursechool year draws to a close, it’s common for many organizations that run on this calendar to assess how they’ve done.   Specifically, board and staff may do self-evaluations, and boards evaluate the executive, the one staff member for whom they are responsible.  But these assessments are just part of the picture of how an organization measures its effectiveness or shortfalls.

How are You Assessing Your Impact?

One of the tools now being used by the nonprofit and public sector worlds, and which has been around in the for-profit sector since its inception, is the concept of ROI, or Return on Investment.

What’s the definition of “Investment”? For nonprofits, foundations and public sector organizations, the investment is a simple equation:  Investment = Volunteer Time + Donor Dollars + Staff Time + Goods or Services Provided.  All of these combined reflect your investment in the communities you serve.

What about “Return”?  Some organizations measure impact by number of people served.  Some calculate the value of the volunteer hours they expend in a community if they had been paid in real dollars.  Some groups measure impact against a set of goals or outcomes determined at the start of a project or year.  But for the independent sector, this is always a tricky equation, because ultimately you are trying to change human lives.  And sometimes that impact can’t be easily measured.  And so you also need to find stories about the communities you have served, the families helped, the habitats rescued.  You need to find a way to merge hard data and benchmarks with a more nuanced picture of your impact and responsiveness to need.

Why Measuring Impact Matters

It’s a daunting task, yet public and nonprofit sector organizations must try.  One reason is that the accounting scandals of the recent past, the Congress’s response with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the country’s current economic crisis and the IRS’s new Form 990 have brought with them an enhanced focus on transparency and accountability.  Donors, volunteers and staff are all looking at these measures, too, to make important decisions about their own investments of time and money.  Now all nonprofits and federal sector agencies must find a way to demonstrate more tangibly how their work affects their outcomes.

Back in 2005, The Panel on the Nonprofit Sector (established by Independent Sector) made recommendations that as a best practice, charitable organizations should design procedures for measuring and evaluating their program accomplishments based on specific goals and objectives. Today the need for measuring outcomes becomes even more urgent.

Looking Towards the Future

Just last month, President Obama signed the landmark Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which will enable millions of Americans to serve one to two years in a wide range of nonprofits. With this kind of influx of human capital “investment,” nonprofits will need to think boldly about how to measure the impact they have not only on the communities they serve, but also on the very individuals who are being added to their volunteer ranks.   In other words, they will need a way to track the “multiplier effect” of what these individuals learn inside their organizations but also bring back to other groups and communities when they leave.

How does your organization measure its mission impact or ROI?  Please share your benchmarking and evaluation ideas and stories.

© 2009 Amy DeLouise